Wednesday 30 January 2019
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Early Parenthood: Supporting Fathers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered supporting fathers in early parenthood.
As always, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I hope you will forgive me if I make any minor procedural errors; it has been a while since I have been on the Back Benches of the Westminster Hall Chamber, rather than closer to the wise counsel of the Chair.
I begin with two quick disclaimers. First, although my debate is about supporting fathers in early parenthood, I am extremely conscious that there is still much to do to combat inequality during maternity. I am an avid follower of Maternity Action and support many of its campaigns, some of which I know are making good progress. Secondly, this debate is not meant as a dismissal of the wonderful mums out there who are single or in same-sex couples. It is not about mums versus dads, nor am I pontificating only about married parents—not least because that would make me a hypocrite. I simply want to speak up for the many brilliant dads out there who, in an evolving society, are doing an incredible job of bringing up children. I want to highlight some of the real challenges that they too face.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech. She is making a fantastic return to Westminster Hall from the dizzying heights; she is a principled person and we on the Opposition Benches all love her.
The hon. Lady mentions challenges. Is she aware of Dads House, which does all sorts of things to represent single dads? There are 400,000 single-parent families headed up by dads, which is 13.7% of all single-parent families. Dads House has its own food bank and does buddying, breakfast clubs and football—a sport that is close to the hon. Lady’s heart. Would she be interested in meeting members of the group? In fact, everyone in this House has a good opportunity to meet them, because after Prime Minister’s questions on 20 March they are coming to Speaker’s House for a reception with the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families—and all hon. Members are invited. The group does great work.
I would love to come. Single parents play an incredibly important role, but for various reasons they are often maligned. Meeting single dads who are doing their very best, in whatever circumstances they find themselves bringing up their children, is an incredibly important part of that conversation. I would be delighted to come to the event on 20 March.
I want to address three points: perinatal support, loneliness in new dads, and shared parental leave. The first comes wholly under the Department of Health and Social Care; the second does partially; the third might not, but is important to the debate because it relates to the overall wellbeing of our children.
In December, the Centre for Social Justice published a really interesting report, “Testing Times: Supporting fathers during the perinatal period and early parenthood”. It looked in detail at written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on Health and Social Care inquiry into the first 1,000 days of life by the Fatherhood Institute, which described support for fathers as “toothless” and noted criticisms that within health services,
“well-meaning…father-inclusive policy-making…has been more ‘rhetoric than reality’”.
On the back of those comments, the CSJ did some additional polling. It found that seven in 10 new fathers
“were made to feel like a ‘spare part’”,
six in 10 said that they had
“had no conversations at all with a midwife about their role”,
and nearly half said that they had
“received little or no advice at all…on their role as a dad.”
However, it also found that
“more than 9 in 10 are present ‘at the scans and the birth’”
and that there is
“strong correlation between active father engagement and improved childhood outcomes.”
That is a recurring theme in a really interesting book on equal parenting co-authored by one of our own lobby journalists, James Millar. It includes several quotations from the 2015 UN-backed report “State of the World’s Fathers” about how engagement in the first year of a baby’s life is good for the dad as well as the baby. Substantial and high-quality father involvement can encourage a child’s positive social interaction and lead to higher cognitive development scores.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this important issue. It is hardly surprising that so many dads feel left out when the NHS guidance refers to them not as fathers or dads but as “birthing partners”. Perinatal depression in mums is linked to depression in teenagers: there is a 99% likelihood that a 16-year-old suffering from depression had a mother with perinatal mental health problems, including depression. What is overlooked is that 20% of fathers also experience perinatal mental health problems, which has a big influence on their parenting skills and on their engagement with and attachment to their own children. We need to do more about that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I saw those statistics while researching my speech; perhaps the Minister’s reply will describe her Department’s work on postnatal depression for mums and dads. I do not have time to cover everything, but I agree that language is incredibly important. I appreciate that the term “birthing partners” is used in order not to cause offence, because our society and how we bring up children are very different now, but it is important that we think about the language and make our communication with fathers as inclusive as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Was she struck, as I was, by the statistic cited in the CSJ report that
“95 per cent of births in the UK are to couples…with 85 per cent of these parents living together”?
Far more needs to be done to encourage and support the family and the community at that stage, to help improve life chances.
I did see that interesting statistic. I do not want to get into the details of family make-up in a modern society, because I do not want us to inadvertently criticise those who are not in such relationships—it is important that we respect different family make-ups. The point that I wish to raise today is about fathers and the role that they play.
The excellent book on equal parenting co-authored by James Millar notes the “State of the World’s Fathers” report’s finding that
“fathers who report close, non-violent connections with their children live longer, have fewer mental or physical health problems…and report being happier than fathers who do not report this connection”.
Given the well-understood positive outcomes of fathers’ engagement in their children’s development, it is only right that we should have the infrastructure and systems in place to support them. As the CSJ report states, we need to collect more data at the point of birth to get a better understanding of participation by fathers, but also identify “cold spots” for investment in supporting father engagement.
We definitely need to be a bit more dad-friendly in our language and correspondence about children’s healthcare. I agree with the NSPCC that a “dad check” would be a valuable way for our health services to ensure that resources are open and accessible to new fathers. I also agree with the recommendation that NHS England should roll out schemes that increase support to fathers. That support should include either creating a new fatherhood fund or making the maternity challenge fund a general parental support fund and putting in additional investment.
The CSJ makes commendable recommendations for the Department of Health and Social Care to improve inspection frameworks, develop a dad test for the perinatal period and extend the reach of digital communications for new fathers. Those all seem sensible ideas; I accept that resources are always a challenge, but the long-term health and wellbeing outcomes must surely justify their consideration.
I thank the hon. Lady for her well-informed discussion of this important issue. She may be aware of my constituent Mark Williams, who has been a campaigner for the best part of a decade on fathers’ mental health after childbirth. He has been fundamental in pushing the campaign in all nations of the UK, including in the English NHS. He tells me frequently that—as the hon. Lady says—in the services that follow a baby’s birth the father is almost forgotten.
Mark had a breakdown—I know he will not mind my saying that on the Floor of this Chamber. It took him years to understand what was wrong, but now he champions the issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need more fathers like Mark to stand up and say that this is a problem? As she will be aware from her former role as a Minister, loneliness and mental health are an issue, and it is worse in men because we do not like talking about it. We need more people like Mark to speak up about what they face after having children.
I could not agree more. It is almost as if the hon. Gentleman has seen my speech, because I am about to start talking about loneliness in new fathers. We need to talk more about men’s mental health and to look at the triggers for poor mental health. It is a well-established consideration for mothers—health visitors and other members of the health services regularly ask about the mother’s mental health after a birth. It is not necessarily the same for men’s mental health. Quite often—although as I far as I can remember, it was not the case when my son was born, nearly three years ago—mothers are asked questions by health visitors that relate to the father of the child, rather than the father being asked directly, even when they might be in the same room.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there needs to be far more training in midwifery or mental health services on focusing on the father’s mental health as well—not just asking the mother about her partner, but creating a structure from very basic training that recognises that fathers are a person, too, in this context? They need the questions put directly. Often husbands and partners will simply not tell their partner how they are feeling or how they are responding to the birth of their child, so the partner might think that everything is fine, and it is all missed. That is the important point.
One reason why I wanted to hold this debate is that I feel it is hard for male colleagues to raise the subject. As a mother, I know that if my other half had come to me and said, “I am feeling a bit down,” I would have said, “But you didn’t give birth to the child!” For many years, we have forgotten that it is very much about a partnership. There are many issues that mothers still face—there are still huge issues around discrimination in maternity and everything else—but that must not mean that we forget the issues that fathers face, and that is why this is an important debate.
I completely understand why male colleagues might not have felt comfortable in raising this issue, because they may well feel that they would be accused of forgetting all the other issues around maternity discrimination. I feel very honoured to be raising it on behalf of all the dads out there. Perhaps I can talk about it with more ease.
The constituent of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) is doing a brilliant job in raising the issue of men’s mental health, post-baby. It is important that we do that. If that equates to having more training, that is what must happen, although I am always loth to say that our hard-working health professionals need any more training than they already get. They have a very important job to do, and by and large they are all doing it brilliantly.
One aspect of parenthood that can impact on wellbeing is loneliness. When Jo Cox stood in the Chamber and spoke of her own challenges with loneliness, including the example of becoming a mother, she widened discussion on the subject. I, too, had my own brushes with maternity-leave loneliness. While the rest of the world here was discussing the referendum campaigns, I was on maternity leave. I dealt with that by going to the supermarket every day, just for a chat.
For new fathers, it can be harder. When my other half took his three months shared parenting leave, he felt isolated from baby groups, as many were either branded “mother and baby” or were predominantly made up of mums, making him feel less inclined to go in. There are excellent apps connecting mums, such as Mush, which we profiled in the loneliness strategy, as did the CSJ in its report, but there are hardly any dad apps set up to connect full-time fathers. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with his digital background, may be interested in upscaling that from a health perspective.
The loneliness strategy, which I was privileged to publish on behalf of the Government in October 2018, specifically, on my request, used an infographic of a dad pushing a baby to highlight becoming a parent as a trigger for loneliness while at the same time reflecting that it is not a gender issue. The more we all acknowledge loneliness as an issue, the quicker we will reduce the stigma and instead create connections that help to combat it. I was pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care was a core partner in the delivery of the strategy.
The CSJ noted that children's centres are a key part of delivering opportunities for dads to connect, and that many were not doing so, despite its being a legal requirement. I know that children’s centres are a politically contentious issue because of funding and I would hate the debate to be bogged down by that, but the centres in my constituency, some of which have restructured, could play an enormously important role in creating support networks for dads. It is a shame that because of funding pressures, gaps in services are occurring.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The problem with the children’s centres—a fantastic asset—at the moment is that they are closed most of the time when dads can access them, particularly at weekends. Some of the best children’s centres are those that open at weekends, have football teams that dads and their children can come along to, and have computer-reading facilities latched on to that. It is a way of getting dads into the children’s centres. The centres need to be used much more at weekends and outside of working times when many fathers cannot access them.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but it is very important that we do not fall into the trap of talking about dads as weekend parents. The point of the debate is to discuss how society has evolved; there is a lot more equal parenting. I completely understand his point. I shall come on to talk about shared parenting. The take-up of shared parenting is so low that many fathers can play that meaningful role in parenting only at weekends, so we would want those services to be open. Children’s centres have an incredibly important role, which is not just about creating a connection, but also about, for example, trying to break the cycle in domestic abuse. They play a fundamental role. I know that the Stefanov Foundation is doing some excellent work in supporting such initiatives.
I accept that my own experience is based on good fortune, and that it could easily be criticised as coming from a comfortably-off middle-class professional, but we need to do so much more on shared parenting than we do at the moment. We lag very far behind other countries on shared parenting, particularly Scandinavian countries.
What I see from my other half taking shared parenting is a very special bond between him and our son. Sadly, there are still a significant number of men who are ineligible for parental leave, and for those that are eligible there is a financial disincentive to take it. The Fawcett Society found that nearly seven in 10 people believed that men who took time off work to look after a baby should be entitled to the same pay and amount of leave as women. In Germany, fathers on leave are paid two thirds of their salary and in Sweden it is 80% of their income. Here it is £145 per week. We managed because I am paid well, but an average or low-income family would inevitably struggle, so while many might want to, it is unsurprising that take-up of parental leave is so low.
I know that much work is being undertaken to improve the situation. I thought the speeches in our debate on proxy voting on Monday evening encouraging male colleagues to take shared parenting leave were really helpful, and we could set an example in this place. I commented earlier on the wider societal and health benefits of a father’s meaningful engagement in the upbringing of a child. To me, doing more to improve our shared parenting policies is a no-brainer.
There is so much more I could have spoken about this morning, including the emerging organisations that help support fathers, such as workingdads.co.uk, which seeks employment with flexible, child-friendly hours, and the really funny social media accounts, such as Man vs. Baby, which might make light of some of the challenges that fathers face but also highlights that they exist in the first place. Ultimately, if we accept that meaningful fatherly engagement with their children is good for the health and wellbeing not just of the child but also the dad, making sure that we provide the infrastructure to support them, from neonatal to perinatal and beyond, is simply common sense, fair and equal—good economics but also really good politics.
Order. We have six speakers, which with my maths makes about six minutes each. I would like to introduce an advisory limit of six minutes. As with the EU referendum, it is not mandatory, but I strongly advise it. I invite Paul Masterton to start.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing this debate, and I thank her for her support for new MPs who are also fairly new dads. I very much valued the advice that she gave to me in conversations in the Tea Room in my early days here, as I tried to struggle with the largely impossible balance of being an MP and having a young family.
I will touch on a few things from my own experience as a dad of two under-fives. Both my kids were born between midnight and 2 am. It is quite difficult, about 90 minutes after a child is born, for a father to have his wife and child go to the maternity ward while his is simply waved off to drive home. I am lucky; I live about 20 minutes from the hospital, the roads are good, and both my kids were born in May. Lots of dads will drive home in very difficult conditions and will be mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Would it not be nice if dads could spend a bit more time on the maternity ward in those early days? It sets the tone for how dads feel a lot in those early months—as if they are one step removed from everything that is going on around them.
After I went back to work, my two overriding emotions were guilt and jealousy, neither of which are very healthy. I felt guilty that my wife had to do all the legwork, and jealous of the fact that she was spending all the time with the kids. I really welcome all the stuff that is being introduced by NHS England—and now also up in Scotland—to try to include dads more in those early parts of the services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, things are quite good on the pre-birth element. Dads go along to the scans and classes, but then they are just chucked to the side in a lot of ways. We need to involve dads much more.
A lot of the support groups are very helpful. I always used to try to get away from work as early as possible and rush home, and I wanted to do loads when I got home. My wife used to say to me, “Well, no, actually, I need you to be the best version of yourself, so don’t feel guilty about getting a good night’s sleep. Don’t feel guilty about going to the pub or seeing your friends, because if you’re in a better frame of mind and feeling better, then you’re a better support for me.” It is important to help new dads to have that confidence in what they are doing.
The last thing I want to mention is although new dads are lots of things, they are not counsellors or trained mental health professionals. It is very difficult for a dad if he is not sure whether his partner is just feeling a bit down or whether there is something that he should be more worried about. I will never forget my wife saying to me one day when she was a bit upset, “I just feel like my world is so small and I don’t know where I stand anymore.” I did not know what to do about that or whether it was something that I should be bothered about. If I am supposed to speak to somebody, who do I speak to? The health visitor comes when I am at work, and I am not going to speak to my colleagues about it. I am not going to sit at my computer at work and type in, “Is my wife depressed?” on Google.
We should not think of support for new dads as just support for them as individuals; we should think about it as supporting new dads to support their partners better. That is the best way to ensure that kids get the best possible grounding in their early years, and to keep a strong, solid functioning family unit that is needed to give children the best start in life.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I begin in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) did, by saying that we are all here for mums as well, including single mums. In fact, the last debate of this nature that I shared with the Minister was on maternal perinatal mental health. A number of men led that debate, so it goes without saying that we are all 100% behind mums and single mums, just as we are behind dads.
Mums need support, so an important issue is involving fathers and helping them to play their role in equal parenting, which is a really important phrase—I am glad it has been introduced several times in this debate. We know from the research that we are not getting this right at the moment, because 69% of fathers feel like a spare part. If fathers are supported and helped to be involved, as the vast majority of them want to be, they have the ability to offer round-the-clock support to new mums.
There are some worrying figures on what is going on at the moment. Looking at income groups, less than 31% of people earning under £20,000 turn up to antenatal classes; among those earning more than £70,000, more than 71% turn up. We are not managing to reach really important groups of fathers who need that support. The inspection framework does not look hard enough at what areas are doing to help fathers—indeed, fathers are absent from a lot of the inspection frameworks.
From Government research in 2012, we know that if fathers are involved in the care of a young child, parents are a third less likely to split up. When the Minister was recently before the Select Committee on Health to discuss suicide prevention, she said that debt and relationship breakdown are the two major causes of suicide. That is a really powerful reason, with a number of important outcomes, as to why we should help fathers to be involved in the care of their new-born children.
In 2016, we set up a £39 million fund at the Department for Work and Pensions to reduce parental conflict in workless families, which was an excellent initiative that I really support. We need a second fund to improve the quality of relationships between couples who are at risk of separation when they have new children. There is evidence to support that, and I think there is an overwhelming need. It would be really helpful for mothers. I ask the Minister to take it back to the Department and to the inter-ministerial working group on the first 1,000 days, with which she is fully engaged. That would be a really good development.
I want to give a plug for a little programme called “Let’s Stick Together”. I am not allowed visual aids, so I better not hold it up, but the course reading material could fit into a purse or wallet very easily. I have personally handed a copy to our last two Prime Ministers and encouraged them to take it up across Government. It contains some really simple tips to help the quality of a couple’s relationship when they have a new child. I commend the work of the charity Dads 2 Be, which is active in a number of hospitals in south London. It focuses on antenatal work for groups of dads and helps them with the changes to their life, and also focuses on improving relationship quality. My question to the Minister is very simple, and it is my overriding plea to her: given that we are doing this in some NHS hospitals, can we please do it everywhere, throughout these islands, across the whole of our United Kingdom? It is sensible and a no-brainer. Dads want it, and we know there would be better outcomes for mums and children.
I commend some quite simple changes. A health visiting team in Lincolnshire managed to increase the participation rate of fathers in the primary birth visit from 20% to 70% by addressing their letter, “Dear new mum and dad” rather than just, “Dear parent”. That is a really simple thing and did not cost any money. It said very clearly to fathers, “We want you. You’re important and welcome. We expect and want you to turn up, and we’re here to help.” We can do some simple things that do not cost a lot of money; they just cost some political will. They are really needed, and I ask the Minister to do them.
Dads are good for lads—I know, because I have two boys—if only because they can share the interest of football. More seriously, it is true that fathers are good for sons in many ways. Anything we can do to support that relationship—and by we I mean the Government—we should do. I echo the respect expressed by others, which I share, for the herculean task that single parents—most frequently, mums—do to bring up their children. Where we can, we need to look at how we can strengthen family relationships in a society where, today, over a quarter of children live with mum but not dad. More than one in seven are born into homes where there is no dad present.
The implications of that are serious; I will share a couple of sad statistics. The lack of a good male role model in young men’s lives is helping to lure them into substitute families: gangs. Apparently, most of the 50,000 or so young people caught up in county lines activities have come from homes where there has been no good male role model. Similarly, 60% of the sons of men in prison are likely to end up in prison, too. That statistic is even worse if both the father and a brother are in prison—it is then a 90% likelihood.
Those are staggering statistics that show why it is so important that we and the Government try to support families more. That support is positive for children and for the wider community.
I hope that later on in her speech my hon. Friend will refer to “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which I believe has been endorsed by more than 60 MPs and has been available to Government for over a year now. It would be good to see some of its policies championed by Government.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I will indeed refer to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who introduced the debate so well, referred to a CSJ report from this year. Another CSJ report, “Every Family Matters”, which was produced as long ago as July 2009, said very similar things, such as the importance of strengthening families and of having a good, strong input into a child’s life. Yet I have here an interesting statistic: 43% of unmarried parents split up before a child’s fifth birthday, but only 8% of married parents do. That is an interesting factor for us to consider: if we are looking at strengthening family life, we should not forget that supporting marriage is part of that.
Sadly, the UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown among the 30 OECD countries. Just two-thirds of children aged nought to 14 live with both parents. In the OECD countries overall, 84% of children of those ages live with both parents. Very interesting work is being done on the link between those factors and British productivity, which is 18% below the OECD average.
I admire my hon. Friend’s determination to promote marriage, but I must give a plug for my private Member’s Bill on civil partnerships, which, if it passes through the Lords, will make civil partnerships available for opposite sex couples by the end of this year. They would be an additional incentive for those couples to stay together, as overseas statistics show, particularly for the good of the children.
It is so important that we do what we can. In the very short time that I have left, I will touch on some of the practical policies in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which over 60 Members of Parliament support, and express a degree of frustration that the Government have not taken them up more practically. I know that individual Cabinet Ministers are very interested, but in order to see some real progress we need a senior Cabinet-level Minister who is responsible for drawing together the manifesto’s several policies.
I will touch on some of the manifesto’s policies on fathers. Policies 8, 9 and 11 talk about promoting the importance of active fatherhood in a child’s life. Policy 8 says:
“Maternity services should maximise opportunities to draw fathers-to-be in early.”
Policy 9 proposes that, where appropriate,
“The Government should…require all fathers to be included on birth certificates.”
Policy 11 proposes that “high quality marriage preparation” should be available at a cost-effective rate for young people thinking of getting married.
Finally, one of our key policies is the promotion of family hubs. As we have heard, children’s centres are not always as effective as they need to be. Families need support bringing up children, not just aged nought to five, but nought to 19. In the teenage years particularly, the input by fathers into their sons’ lives is often critical. We believe that it would be really positive to have family hubs in each local community, to support families at every stage of a child’s development.
I am disappointed that the Government have not taken that up more strongly. We shall continue to persevere and to press them to do so. The good news is that many local authorities have taken up those ideas very strongly and family hubs are springing up across the country. I invite colleagues to a family hubs fair, which will take place on 14 February. It is convened by Westminster City Council, which is setting up its own family hubs. The fair will flagship best practice from local authorities across the country that have set up family hubs, specifically to show how we can best support families with children. I am sure that there will be many examples of how we can best support fathers to engage in their sons’ lives, which is such an important thing on which we need to focus.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing this debate. She showed that the role of champion that she played in ministerial office has continued into what I hope will be the short period that she is on the Back Benches. I also declare an interest: I decided to speak in the debate as a learning exercise, because I will become a father for the first time in just over five weeks.
That brings me to the point on which I want to start. This House has finally moved into the 21st century, following Monday’s decision on proxy voting. It took an awful long time to get to that stage, but it was a welcome step forward. Last night, we had the first proxy vote used in Parliament. I hope to be the first male Member of Parliament to use the proxy voting system in early March.
I commend the CSJ report for a number of points that it highlighted. One of the most shocking was that only 60% of dads had no conversations at all about their role with midwives. I am one of that 60%; I have had none of those conversations at all. My wife has had excellent care with her midwife, normally when I am down in London, that I hear about on the phone or when I get home. I am one of the 60% who have had no involvement whatsoever.
I found some of the report’s other findings shocking as well. Only 25% of fathers felt that there was enough support to help them play a positive role in family life, while 60% felt emotionally unsupported when they first became a father. Similar research in Scotland, by Fathers Network Scotland, concluded that NHS Scotland—this is not a critical point, but highlights feelings across the country—is failing to provide family-centred antenatal, maternity and health visitor services. Unless we accept that there is a problem, nothing will change.
The Fatherhood Institute identifies that poor relationship quality and engagement from fathers is a key driver in post-natal depression, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. That is surely another good reason for more involvement by father, to their own benefit and that of the mother and child, which is acknowledged by the Royal College of Midwives.
There is a local element to the issue. I was not in Parliament on Monday for the debate on proxy voting because I had stayed my constituency to attend an extremely important public meeting on our maternity services. They had been downgraded at Dr Gray’s Hospital, and we no longer have a consultant-led maternity service. A great campaign, Keep Mum, has been running for a number of months to get that service back. Although Dr Gray’s does not have a consultant-led service, a large proportion of our expectant mothers have to travel to Aberdeen to give birth—that is more than 70 miles away.
At the moment, my wife is on a green pathway, so we will not have to do that, but we might have to travel the 70 miles to Aberdeen on one of the worst roads in Scotland—the A96 across the Glens of Foudland. This morning, there is an inch of snow in Moray. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) very ably put it, a father is almost dumped after his wife has given birth, and heads home, not in a correct state of mind. What state of mind will expectant fathers be in, as they drive through snow for 70 miles to go to Aberdeen, with the mother of their child potentially giving birth in the back of their car? That is what Moray constituents have to do at the moment, which is why it is so important for us to return the Dr Gray’s maternity service to a full, consultant-led one.
I will finish with a few of the important recommendations in the CSJ report. I was surprised that one even needed to be made, and it reads
“all official correspondence relating to the care and health of a child should be addressed directly to both parents”.
It is incredible that at the moment both parents are not addressed.
I was, however, reminded of a constituency case that I am dealing with at the moment, which is extremely sad and involves a child who died shortly after birth. The mother contacted me because, when she went to register the birth of their young child, who only lived for a few hours, only one parent had the opportunity to sign the register. That tends to be the mother, who has gone in to do that. She was shocked that the father, who had been so important a part of the process, was not allowed to have an acknowledgement on the death certificate that he had a part to play in the child being born and, sadly, dying. I have written about it to the registrars in Scotland.
Another recommendation was:
“NICE should review the evidence”—
the lack of evidence—
“on…the antenatal and post-natal period and produce a single set of standards for health care professionals…on the role of fathers.”
That, too, is very important.
To follow up on the point made by the previous speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), about a champion in Government, the report recommends that a Government “fatherhood champion” should be appointed. It adds that the champion should be either a “peer or senior MP”, so I am not auditioning for the role at the moment. It is, however, a very good recommendation. We see in our local authorities and the Scottish Parliament, where I used to sit, that where we have a dedicated champion, the issues are highlighted in Parliament and Members have the opportunity to express their views. A champion to drive things forward can be a positive step.
I am about to enter another exciting chapter in my family life, in five weeks’ time. Looking around at all the hon. Members speaking as fathers today, I can see that it is a bright future—they are all bright eyed and bushy tailed. I look forward to it, and I greatly appreciate the time that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford secured today to allow Parliament to discuss this important issue.
I am sure we all wish and your wife very well.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing it.
In my constituency, many fathers are in single-parent families or play a significant role in childcare responsibilities, and it is important to recognise the invaluable role that fathers play in bringing up their children. That is not always an easy job—I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for saying that, but he also has a lot to look forward to. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), I have two children under five myself, two boys. Parenthood can be a huge challenge, but becoming a father is my proudest achievement—even more so than being elected to this place, if anyone can believe that—and something that has changed my life entirely.
In my experience, parenting support groups are aimed largely at mothers and in the early days, weeks and even years, some fathers struggle to find support networks and others in a similar position. My hon. Friends talked about the statistics and fathers feeling like a spare part during pre and post-natal discussions and services. That mirrors my experience. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire talked about being sent home from hospital. My first son was born in the middle of the night, and I was out of the hospital within 45 minutes of that happening. I came back the next morning at 8 o’clock to be told that I would not be allowed in until visiting time at 10.30 am. Fortunately, in the end I managed to find my way in, but that is one example of the challenges.
Another example I remember is to do with breastfeeding. My first son was bottle-fed; I was involved in that, getting to feed him and connecting with him in that way. My second son was breastfed, and I felt thoroughly left out of that bonding process—in a way jealous, as my hon. Friend said, of that connection between my wife and son that I was not able to engage in. There are many examples of difficult and stressful circumstances that bring about emotions that are not necessarily helpful or healthy in that environment.
Young fathers need support. I represent the community of Mansfield, so I will highlight the particular challenges of working-class fathers, those on low incomes especially, who face the additional challenges of accessing housing or affording parental leave, for example. Mental health issues are not based on wealth or background, so we can all be susceptible to such difficulties. While it is widely acknowledged that working-class boys, for example, are likely to have lower educational attainment and fewer life chances, it is not acknowledged that their extra difficulties and challenges might extend to parenthood as well.
The added burden of a low income, trying to afford not only the cost of living but the additional costs of parenthood, is an extra stress that often falls on fathers in particular. We all know the shocking statistics on young men’s mental health, especially suicide, and the early weeks and months of having a first child in particular can be among the most stressful times in the life of a family and of a father, and difficult to cope with for our own mental health and wellbeing.
Since becoming an MP, I have looked at the area of early intervention for families and children, and I took part in the family hubs debate in Westminster Hall not so long ago. It seems obvious that if families do not receive that early assistance when they first need it, instead being left to deal with the issues alone, that will come out in later life, as has been discussed. The early years challenges show themselves later on, through school, when children with mental health and behavioural problems might often come at greater cost to public services than if they had received the early intervention.
The Children’s Society has produced some pretty shocking statistics to show that in Nottinghamshire alone, 1,000 children are known to children’s services because of abuse or neglect. That figure must be brought down, and I think that we can do that by being more proactive and by providing the intervention and support services in early parenthood, with training and help for fathers as well as mothers about their roles and responsibilities and the support available to raise children.
I strongly believe that a preventive approach is the right one. In such services, we tend to deal with crises and, increasingly, those services are built around crisis management rather than proactive and preventive support. Putting an emphasis on parenthood and establishing relationships between fathers and support services has to be a priority. Trust is hugely important.
I remember the experience of a social services visit after the birth of my elder son. They sent me out of the room to get a glass of water and asked my wife if I was abusing her. That is something that they do in all circumstances—it is the right thing to do, to check that the family environment is safe for mother and baby—but I felt pretty put out. Fortunately, my wife joked about it with me afterwards.
For a young man from a difficult background, however, someone who had problems at school or has been involved with social services historically, I imagine that that could add to the feeling of being labelled and held up as a bad person, a bad character, by the services that are meant to support parents. That can add to the challenges and the stress, and is another thing that might need to be discussed more openly in terms of the challenges that might face young, low-income working-class fathers in particular.
Nottinghamshire County Council is striving to achieve more co-ordinated and multi-agency support, which is vital. The more that we can do to reduce barriers between services the better. Across the piece, there is such a challenge of competing budgets and priorities, making services more difficult to deliver. I would welcome anything that the Minister can do to bring down the barriers between local authorities and health services that always exist. For example, co-ordination and support from the health service in particular is not always there for children’s services in Nottinghamshire.
That is a particular ask I have of the Minister. Effective use of funding, catching problems early, and having early preventive services, to prevent people spiralling into crisis—saving money on more intensive intervention later—are also vital if we are to support children, families and in particular fathers in communities such as Mansfield and throughout the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing this excellent debate. As I have tweeted, what a great group of Conservative dads are supporting the debate, although I feel slightly unhappy about speaking after three people who are young enough to be my children. That makes me feel a little bit old. I wanted to contribute because my early career highlights the difficulty that dads can have. I thank my first wife for being kind enough to have our children on a Saturday evening, which meant I was dismissed from the hospital, and about an hour after my children were born I was in the pub with about 30 friends and family celebrating the birth. It all turned out damned convenient for me, although having heard stories from others, I appreciate it can turn out differently.
I started life as a civil engineer, working on a building site in an obviously male dominated environment. I will not make excuses for that, but construction, particularly the very large-scale construction I was involved in, has a particular nature. The idea that I might have gone to work one day and suggested to my boss that flexible working would be a good idea, and asked whether I could come in a bit later, is incredibly difficult. By the time I was 25, I was running a building site with a gang of up to 50 blokes who would have thought I was crazy. We were on site at 7 o’clock in the morning in a process that meant that if someone did not turn up and do their job at a particular time, other people would not be able to do theirs.
Fortunately for me, I decided that working outside was too cold, and joined an American company called Cartus, where I was responsible for maintenance of the properties in its portfolio nationally. I found the world to be a completely different place. It was a much more welcoming environment with regard to flexibility in the workplace, but I may not have appreciated at the time the majority female workforce. I mention that because, in preparation for this debate, I read documents and papers from around the world, and I had not realised how difficult legislation is in America. I read a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, published in 2015, when a form of parental leave was just being introduced in California. The early research from that paper showed that if parental leave was introduced, fathers were more likely to be engaged in parental support, and that, interestingly, fathers are more likely to take up that parental leave for their first child or if the child is a boy.
Clearly, there is some work to be done to ensure that men do not lose interest after the first child and that they take equal interest in daughters and sons. I have one of each, and I appreciate the stress that goes with having a daughter. She seemed considerably more difficult for me to manage and look after than my son did. It is interesting that research suggests that there might be a difference in the way they are treated.
Government have a role to play, and that does not always have to cost money. We need to show intent; we need to show men that they have a role to play and that it is important in the 21st century that they play it to their fullest ability. For that not to be the case seems counterintuitive. I loved my role as a dad; in fact, I told colleagues earlier that I am ready to be a grandparent and I have made sure my children are aware of that. There is no rush, but I will be ready when they come. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who recently gave birth, sent me a photo, which made me immediately feel paternal.
We have a role to play, but what will we do to play it? Documents have been mentioned, and “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, published more than a year ago, has some excellent ideas for Government to follow. As has been mentioned, we have a more significant male population in prison, so it is very important to ensure that men do not lose contact with their families. To reduce reoffending rates, we need to maintain that bond.
My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Ministry of Justice commissioned the Farmer review, which offered 21 recommendations to strengthen the family relationships of prisoners, because there is evidence that that leads to less reoffending and keeps us all safe. The Ministry of Justice has adopted those 21 recommendations, so there has been some progress made in that area.
It is excellent and reassuring to hear of that progress. The point was also made about the amount of paternity pay—£145.18. When I started work on a building site, I earned £50 a day, so £250 a week. Even 30 years ago, it would have been very difficult for me, as a young man starting off with a young family, to cope on a reduced income of £145, for a couple of weeks. It is great that the opportunity is there for men to take two weeks of leave, but it is important to try to make sure that is not financially difficult.
This is a complicated area, so I conclude by referring my constituents in particular to the website of the Share the Joy campaign, where they can find more details of their rights with regard to maternity and paternity leave. They can get more details about sharing parental leave up to 50 weeks, so they can take leave together and share the parenting experience very early on in their children’s lives.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Like other Members, I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on an excellent debate. I find coming to Westminster Hall like seeking refugee status in this place, having come out of the Chamber where there is an incredibly volatile and divided atmosphere. This debate has probably been the highlight of my week so far. We can have a debate with such consensus, and it would be better if we could do that more often. We have had an excellent debate so far. The hon. Lady kicked off by talking about perinatal depression and tackling loneliness; she made some points about shared parental leave, which I will come back to in due course.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) gave a very thoughtful and considered speech. Some of what he said resonated with me. He and I live relatively close to each other, so we share the geography of how far the hospital is. Later in my remarks I will return to the experience of having to leave the hospital very soon after the birth of a child. He spoke about the feelings of guilt and jealousy; I was walking across Westminster bridge this morning while facetiming my wife and my four-month-old daughter. As dads we feel guilt and jealousy, and he was right to place that on the record. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) cited some statistics that hammer home the point that some income groups are not part of the antenatal experience; I certainly saw that in the last round of antenatal classes we went to.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has a very strong record of talking about family values; I know she was trying not to go down the route of single parents, but I was reflecting as she spoke, as someone brought up by a single mum. When I came home from school for the first time, my mum asked me what I had learned. I said, “I went to the toilet and there were walls that went, ‘Whoosh!’” That had made the biggest impact on me because, having been brought up by a single mum, I had never before been in a male toilet before. Perhaps others had a more formative experience on their first day of primary 1, but that was mine. The hon. Lady made a strong case for “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I have not looked at that, but after the debate I certainly will.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is about to join the crazy club of fatherhood. I think I speak on behalf of everyone in the Chamber in wishing him every success in the run-up to March. It is simultaneously the most chaotic and blessed time in life. I know we all send him our good wishes. Rightly, he made criticisms of where we have not done things right in Scotland. I have been through the process of having children twice over the last three and a half years; more NHS support should be given. I would be very happy to work with him on that. He was unashamedly, as a constituency MP, talking about the situation of Dr Gray’s Hospital. I will not seek to defend that, because he made a strong point, although I suspect I will get in trouble for saying that.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) about the importance of family support networks. He also spoke about the importance of early intervention. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), in his inimitable style, spoke about his employment experience. I think we are all the richer for that, and I am sure he will become a grandparent sooner rather than later.
I hate being too personal in Westminster Hall, but I will do it anyway. I spent the weekend in Northern Ireland. I mentioned that I was brought up by a single parent. My dad spend quite a significant amount of time in prison. In November, at the age of 52, he died quite suddenly. I had been estranged from him. I have had lots of feelings as the debate has gone on—I have been thinking about prison and about being a single parent. I went to Northern Ireland to go to my dad’s grave and to meet my younger sister, who is only seven years old. Since I returned on Sunday night, I have been reflecting on the difference between me and my sister. I did not have that relationship with my dad—perhaps he did not get the support he needed when I was born—but I have taken great comfort since he passed away from the fact that my sister had such a good relationship with him. To spend that weekend with her and to see that he had made amends and moved on in life was incredibly comforting.
I want also to talk about my experience of becoming a dad. I think people know from my last question at Prime Minister’s questions that both my children were born prematurely and spent several weeks on the neonatal intensive care unit. One of the things I am trying to push in this place is an extension of paternity leave, particularly when a child is born prematurely. That relates to the point by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire that, whether their partner is in hospital with their child for a day or for two weeks, the fact that we just send dads home as if they were the cleaner or the cook has a massive impact on their mental health.
I experienced the same situation when my son was born three and a half years ago. He was born and whipped away to neonatal intensive care, and I was left like a spare part. The only difference this time around, when my daughter was born and we went through exactly the same thing, was that about 10 days in we had the opportunity to see a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, to have a bit of counselling. That struck me as a very good thing. I certainly got more out of it then my wife did; she is one of those typical Hebridean women who is very strong—much stronger than me. It struck me as a bit unusual that we were offered that experience; it is only now, after a few months have passed, that I think it was really healthy to be able to sit down and talk about my feelings as a dad. Talking about our experiences is not something we do very well.
Finally, I want to touch on shared parental leave and the paternity leave we offer fathers. I have a degree of frustration about shared parental leave. I do not like the idea that we say, “You’ve got a certain amount of time, and the dad takes time at the expense of the mum.” I would like dads to get a bit longer for paternity leave. My experience of those first two weeks was different, since both my periods of paternity leave were spent on a neonatal ward. In any case, those two weeks tend to be full of family, with the mother-in-law visiting and the house going like an absolute fair. I would like the statutory paternity leave allowance to be doubled to four weeks. I know the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats committed to doing that in their 2017 manifestos. I just have a degree of concern that we provide shared parental leave at the expense of the other parent. It is equally important that mothers, particularly those who are breastfeeding, get that time.
This has been an excellent opportunity for us to come together to look at an area of policy where I think there is a degree of consensus. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because I think we can move this agenda forward. For that reason, I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for initiating the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing the debate and on her excellent introduction. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) just said, it has been a very good and well-informed debate, and it has struck the right tone. Perhaps we should take that into other arenas.
The hon. Lady raised three main issues. She referred to the important work of the Centre for Social Justice and mentioned interesting survey statistics—for example, that seven out of 10 fathers said they felt like a spare part, and that six out of 10 had no conversations with their midwife. I think a lot of us would recognise that territory. I remember being on holiday with my wife and her going up to talk to a woman I had never seen before, who turned out to be her midwife. That shows how difficult it is to engage both parents. I know that the Government are pushing for greater consistency, with the same midwife throughout the journey, but the fact that we have 3,500 midwife vacancies makes that a challenge.
The hon. Lady raised the subject of loneliness, too. I thank her for her work to introduce the Government’s loneliness strategy in 2018, building on the Jo Cox Commission, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). That is a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy, and I am sure that Members across the House recognise the excellent contribution that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford has made to drawing attention to that issue. There are, of course, many triggers for loneliness, one of which is being a new parent.
The hon. Lady also raised the important role that children’s centres can play. Several Members raised concerns about whether they are well enough used. Cuts of 60% to local government funding in recent years have led to the closure of 1,000 children’s centres, which provide support to both mothers and fathers in those early years. There is no doubt that that has had an impact.
The hon. Lady is right that we have a long way to go to reach true equality, with shared parenting. Shared parental leave legislation, which has been about since 2015, enables employed couples to split 50 weeks’ time off work after the birth of their child. The Government originally estimated that 8% of parents would take up the option of shared leave. However, disappointingly, take-up at the moment is only about 1% or 2%. A recent freedom of information request showed that take-up is particularly low among new parents, with only eight out of every 1,000 eligible people taking up the option. Some 8,700 new parents took up shared leave in 2016-17, and that increased by only 500 the following year.
The Women and Equalities Committee highlighted a number of problems with shared parental leave, including the complexity of the system, low uptake and low pay, and fathers’ fears about taking leave because of its perceived negative effect on their careers. There is a cultural issue here, so will the Minister say what can be done to address that?
Shared parental leave does not extend to self-employed parents. At present, self-employed mothers are entitled to statutory maternity pay of £140 per week, but they must take all that in one go and they risk losing their payments if they undertake work outside their 10 allotted “keeping in touch” days. Self-employed fathers do not have access to that at all. I hope that hon. Members will support the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Extension) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), which would enable self-employed parents to split parental leave and pay between them. Given that the ranks of the self-employed seem to increase every year, will the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to legislate in this area?
Better pay and the option of part-time take-up of shared parental leave would improve access to leave for fathers, particularly those from lower-income groups. There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of non-transferable paternal leave as a lever for encouraging shared care and reducing the gender pay gap. We know that fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives and families want to spend more time together with a new baby. That is why, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, we made a manifesto commitment to double paid paternity leave to four weeks. Fathers are parents too and they deserve to spend as much time as possible with their family.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) gave a personal and touching account of his own experiences and set out well how fathers are almost removed from the scene shortly after birth, which is an experience that most of us who have been through that will recognise. Unfortunately, I think that sets a tone for the rest of the early years, if not the whole life.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) drew an interesting and important link between income and antenatal group attendance. He is right that fathers are not included as much as they could be in many of the inspection frameworks. His central point—this is something that we see across a lot of the NHS—is that the best practice is only in pockets, and does not always disseminate out into the whole of the system.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the importance of families and said that there can sometimes be a cycle of negative experiences throughout the generations.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) gave us the good news about his impending fatherhood, and he raised an important issue about the proximity of maternity services. That does not just relate to the reorganisation of services, as in his case; it is a sad fact that last year, about half of all maternity units had to close their doors temporarily at some point, which meant that someone who was in the process of labour would have to find somewhere else pretty quickly, which can be distressing and inconvenient.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) gave a thoughtful and personal account of his experiences of fatherhood; we will all recognise many of things he described. He is right that parenthood is expensive, and that can add to the strain that young families experience. He made an important point about the silo-working that we often see across public sector agencies—a situation that we all want improved.
Finally, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) gave some contrasting examples of approaches to flexibility in the workplace and spoke of some of the cultural issues that we have already discussed. There is a need for a more consistent approach across workplaces.
As a father myself, I would like to spend more time with my children—or I certainly did until they became truculent teenagers; things got a little less pleasant then. Seriously, every parent wants to play as much of a role as they can in creating a safe, loving and stable environment for their children, so that they grow up into happy and healthy adults. We know that long working hours and the inflexible working approaches of some organisations make shared parenting duties a challenge. If we are to support men in taking a greater role in the family unit, we need to support men and women having a real and meaningful choice about how they organise their lives; that means family-friendly employment, applied equally to both parents.
It is a well-known fact that the gender pay gap is still here in 2019. The impact of women’s being more likely to be in part-time, low-paid or non-paid caring roles has implications for fathers in the workplace. We committed to tackling the gender pay gap and have pledged that in addition to reporting gender pay gap figures, companies will be required to demonstrate how they plan to close their gender pay gap, by producing action plans and taking steps to address the factors that contribute to the pay gap. That will include tackling unequal pay and discrimination and improving access to flexible working and take-up of shared parental leave, to ensure that all employees have a better work-life balance.
I note with interest the proposal from the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for a dad test, which would be applied to the relevant commissioning and inspection frameworks for the perinatal period. We know that this country offers some of the best neonatal care in the world, along with some exemplary psychological and bereavement services. However, as we have already touched on, there is an unacceptable variability across the country. As many as 41% of neonatal units have no access to a trained mental health worker. As has been highlighted in the past few years in our debates about baby loss, that has been an unfortunate experience for some constituents, while others have had access to the very best services. I am sure that we want greater consistency across the board.
I welcome the commitment in the NHS long-term plan to enhanced support for perinatal mental health services, including assessment and signposting to professional supports for fathers and partners. The question—which is the same for a lot of the long-term plan—is, are the resources and staff there to deliver on those important aims?
In conclusion, we are on a journey—we are not there yet—towards a greater understanding and facilitation of the father’s role. Every day of a child’s early years is hugely important. The more we can do to encourage more and better-quality support during those earlier years, the better.
I have enjoyed listening to everyone’s contributions this morning. It is often said that MPs do not live in the real world, but we have heard some frank accounts this morning that very much prove that we do; we do share those experiences. I am proud of my hon. Friends who have been raw in their accounts of fatherhood. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has not been put off by any of the things he has heard today.
The tone for the honest and frank accounts was set by the opening comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who was characteristically honest in her expositions. I am grateful to her for obtaining this debate. It is time that we gave a big shout-out to dads.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), who is no longer in her place, mentioned the 400,000 single-parent families headed by dads. My partner was one of those 400,000; he raised his son alone for the first 10 years of his son’s life. It is often challenging for single dads, as things are focused around the mums. When he first started taking George to primary school, he was viewed as a bit of a curiosity by the mums and the teachers. A lot of low-level discrimination takes place towards dads in those circumstances, which we ought to be more alive to. That is probably symptomatic of discrimination towards dads. We have heard frankly today that it is all about the mum and the baby, and that the dad is a spare part. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) described driving home, having gone through the trauma of childbirth, and asking, “What happens now?”, then not being able to visit mum the next morning. Collectively, society needs to be a lot more understanding and welcoming of the father’s role in those early days, weeks and months, not least because it gives children the best possible start in life if dad is fully engaged.
We know that now, more than ever. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is my conscience on these issues. He constantly emphasises to me that good-quality relationships are critical for every member of the family. He is absolutely right. Where society can bolster that, obviously we should take those steps. He has highlighted some things for me to look at, and I assure him that I will.
Childbirth and parenthood is life-changing and my hon. Friends have shared their experiences to illuminate that. Having support from a father as well as a mother is extremely important. We know that there are very real barriers to that involvement, including the pressures of work, which a number of colleagues have alluded to, particularly where employers in particular fields of employment are less than understanding about the fact that family is dad’s work as well as mum’s. That is something that we need to tackle. We have mentioned that services are not always tailored to dad’s needs as well as those of mums.
There is a general lack of information. A life-changing thing happens, and people are kind of expected just to suck it up and go along with it. It can be extremely challenging and scary, so we need to be more understanding of that. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that it is the time of most acute stress and strain on relationships. It is probably the riskiest time for relationship breakdown. We need to make sure that wraparound support is available to dads who need it.
I would like to say that I was satisfied with progress. It is true that progress is being made, but the debate, and the research that has been mentioned, show that we need to do more. Among the things that we are putting in place and expect to deliver, our first steps clearly need to be in maternity services. We believe that they should do more to maximise fathers’ involvement, at a time that clearly offers the most important opportunity to engage them in the care of their partner and the upbringing of their children. I can tell my hon. Friends who did not have that experience that we have invested £37 million to support the involvement of fathers in labour and postnatal units, including en suite rooms and double beds adjacent to maternity wards. Clearly, that would be a much better experience for new fathers, and we will make sure that that arrangement is rolled out more and more. NICE guidance states that women, their partners and their families should always be treated with kindness, respect and dignity. We need to make sure that that is done properly. Scrutiny will be through Care Quality Commission inspections, which will be designed to ensure that maternity services deliver what we expect.
Interestingly, according to CQC’s survey of women’s experience of maternity care, 96% of women said that their partner was able to be involved as much as they wanted during labour and birth. Clearly that is not consistent with the figures that we heard today, but the explanation is probably that the question was asked of mums rather than dads. It illustrates what has been said about feeling like a spare part. My hon. Friends have been honest about their emotions at the time in question, and we know that men are not always frank in exposing their emotions. What the survey tells me is that a mum does not always know that the dad feels completely useless and like a spare part. That tells us that we have an issue to tackle. Seventy-one per cent. of women said that their partner or companion was able to stay in hospital with them as much as they wanted, but that is not borne out by the feedback today. My message going out to the health services is that in addition to inspections and standards there needs to be much more sensitivity and leadership, to make sure that dads are properly considered during such an important period.
I constantly challenge the instinctive prejudice within the system to spend the considerable amount of resource that the Government make available to the NHS on clinicians and clinical support, when we know that wraparound services, as often provided by the voluntary sector, are complementary to the services given by health professionals. When we are talking about supporting families and giving children the best start in life, the voluntary sector can obviously play a part. We have heard good examples of that today.
To move the subject on from birth to early parenthood, children clearly do better when both their parents are involved in their life. Where relationships are less strong, there is a risk of poorer outcomes in the long run, as we have heard today. The quality of fathers’ involvement matters more than the quantity of time they spend with their children and partner. We need to champion those who support their partners, which is facilitated by a father’s bonding with their baby or young child. When a father is an active parent, the secure attachment that is built as a consequence makes a big difference to the child as they develop their own relationships and resilience; it leads to better outcomes in life. For fathers it can be a positive experience, often helping them to re-engage with education, employment or training, and altering their outlook on life. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford shared the experience of her partner’s doing exactly that.
How can we best support fathers in doing what I have described and exploring how to have the most satisfactory parenting experience? I see health visitors as our army in doing that. We have clear expectations about their work with new families. They keep an eye on them, with a view to getting the best outcomes for children and making sure that the family environment is secure. I see health visitors in that way because they often build a less formal and deferential, and more trusting, relationship with the new family. Often they are the only person who interacts with the dad. We shall be expecting health visitors to do much more to support fathers in the early months and years of a child’s life. We expect them to work to ensure that fathers are part of the holistic assessment of family fitness.
Where possible, both parents should be included in health reviews. I have heard the messages from various Members who said that that was not their experience, and we shall give a clear set of messages to the system about addressing that. Such an approach can only boost the chances of intervening early and getting proper support for the mother, the child and the father when it is needed. In doing my job I have been moved by health visitors’ accounts. We know that post-birth is a challenging time for mums, when they are most at risk of poor mental health. The feelings of isolation and helplessness on dads’ part in those circumstances are extremely difficult, and health visitors are incredibly well placed to provide support then, and steer them towards additional help.
Will that encouragement of fathers include the time before the birth? As I understand matters—this is from CSJ—only about a third of fathers with a household income below £20,000 attend antenatal classes, compared with two thirds of those who are better off. One inhibiting factor is that if people cannot get a free antenatal class, a three-day course costs about £350. That is a lot of money for those who are already financially stretched.
The package of support that we are putting together, in terms of the continuity of carer, starts before birth and is designed to involve both parents. We are aware that there will be constraints on individuals’ ability to participate, and we need to make sure that the system is cognisant and respectful of that, and that it can make the relevant changes. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.
We need to promote initiatives such as Offload—a Warrington project for men aged 18 and over, in collaboration with rugby league. It helps men to learn the mental fitness techniques of professional sports players, to understand their own needs and help them cope. Such initiatives will enable new dads—because there is an issue with men facing up to mental health challenges—to reach out and get support from their peers.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who is no longer in his place, raised the issue of loneliness, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has done a great deal of work on that. Every father and family will have their own individual story. There is nothing like a life-changing experience to make one feel lonely, because all the familiar support networks are thrown in the air. We will expand social prescribing across healthcare services, so that all GPs can refer lonely patients to voluntary and community organisations. I reiterate that there is a role for the commissioning of the voluntary sector to do important work leading to better health outcomes. We will support spaces for community use, working with local groups to pilot ways to use space, to test how that can improve social connections. We need to make sure that we are keeping our eyes open for signs of loneliness, so that trusted support is given early.
In the short time I have left, I want to go further into the topic of mental health. Colleagues mentioned that 10% of fathers suffer mental ill health at the time of a child’s birth. We need to do more to support them. The “DadPack” used in Cornwall to help young fathers is a great development, and I want to champion all such models. I thank colleagues for the examples they have given.
We have had an excellent debate. It is only the start of our trying to do better at supporting dads and young families. I look forward to engaging with hon. Members on this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered supporting fathers in early parenthood.
School Funding: Gloucestershire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school funding in Gloucestershire.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the Minister to his place, and I welcome my Gloucestershire colleagues; I am sure they will have things to say, but I know they will be very brief, because I want to make some points.
I will start with the caveat that this debate is about schools funding. There was an excellent debate on a petition on college funding a couple of weeks ago, so I have restricted my remarks to schools funding, but many of them also apply to the college situation in our county. I will begin with four quick quotes:
“We are no longer at the ‘reduce your photocopying stage, provide your own pens and pencils’ stage in Gloucestershire. We are at the ‘don't expect a TA but do expect a class size of 35 and certainly don’t expect a payrise’ stage.”
“Inclusive schools like ours have to use 85% of the money intended to support vulnerable children with additional needs, to top up the Per Pupil Funding just to reach the same level as local selective schools. This is resulting in a two-tier education system where inclusive schools receive less money.”
“One of the more tragic results of the cuts for our more vulnerable pupils will be the financial disincentive to give these children places. In an increasingly ‘competitive’ climate there will, sadly, be schools actively finding ways to turn these children away so they become someone else’s problem.”
“Like many schools, we have had to set a deficit budget to protect the education of the children in our school. We are finding more children with significant complex educational needs are being placed with us who must be supported from existing budgets with a knock-on effect for the rest of the children within school.”
Those quotes were from a teacher in Gloucestershire, a headteacher of a comprehensive in Gloucestershire, a headteacher of a village primary school and, lastly, a governor.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for giving way, and I have a lot of sympathy with the people he is quoting. Does he agree that we are spending a record amount on education, but the distribution system is totally unfair, and the difference between the highest-spending local authority and one of the lower-spending local authorities, such as Gloucestershire, is completely unfair?
It is unfair. I will outline my own views on that; as someone who supported the f40 group for a long time, as did the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, I think we have a distribution problem as well as a problem of how much money is in the pot.
The national background is a lack of funding. The Minister might have something to say about the 3.5% pay award, which is having a dramatic impact in all our schools. Staffing costs are rising, and we have faced particular downward pressure on pupils aged 16 to 18, with a 20% cut since 2010-11. I emphasise the cuts to special educational needs and disabilities provision, which mean that it has in no way kept pace with rising demand.
Does the hon. Gentleman share the experience I have encountered in schools such as the Ridge Academy, Belmont School and Bettridge School? Those schools have to deal with a cohort of pupils whose needs are far more complex than ever before, and that that underlies part of the increased demand on their resources.
That is a very fair point and I concur, but of course those other pupils who might have gone to Belmont and so on are now in mainstream schools, which is causing additional pressures on schools across the board. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that there was something like an 8% cut in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. Although the Chancellor’s little extra might go some way, in reality it is only £50,000 per secondary school.
Let us come on to what we are really interested in: Gloucestershire and the national funding formula. In Gloucestershire, the national funding formula is still not producing a fairer redistribution of funds, as my neighbour the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out. Gloucestershire secondary schools remain near the bottom in league tables of school funding, ranked 130th out of 149 on schools block funding. According to the House of Commons Library, Gloucestershire secondary schools received £4,886 per pupil compared with the English average of £5,229, and primary schools received £3,949 compared with the average in England of £4,059.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some hon. Members in this House whose schools get far more than £5,200—some of them, I am afraid to say, Labour Members—were very indignant at the idea that schools in places such as Gloucestershire should get a bit more?
There is a need to raise this issue for all our colleagues, which is what I am trying to do. I agree; it is not a party political issue, but crosses the spectrum, and we must all work together to do something. I am sure the Minister will have something to say about that in a minute.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Is not one of the problems the fact that Gloucestershire is viewed as being a very rich county, but, although there certainly are areas of affluence, there are many that have special needs and deprivation? We need only look at the very different reading levels between schools even within one constituency. It seems to me that the current formulas do not take that properly into account.
I agree; we know our county has areas of deprivation, which I will touch on. The new national funding formula suggests that about half of Gloucestershire’s 40 secondary schools will receive the minimum per pupil spend of £4,600 in 2019-20 and then £4,800 in 2020-21. We are not really catching up. That does not take into account the broad spectrum of need across our county.
I will move on to the acute problem of SEND. Gloucestershire has a special needs crisis; I do not use that word in anything other than its genuine definition. Gloucestershire’s predicted overspend on SEND is now set to be £4.7 million, up from £3.3 million last year. The number of children with education, health and care plans in Gloucestershire has almost doubled since 2015. The Government’s announcement in December of extra funding for SEND resulted in £1.35 million for Gloucestershire and led the council to withdraw its request to transfer funds from the schools block into high needs, which had led to some controversy, as my Conservative colleagues will know.
However, that was only a sticking-plaster; it is not a long-term strategy for addressing high needs overspend. As Gloucestershire County Council’s lead education officer, Stewart King, told the schools forum in January, the overspend puts Gloucestershire in
“a very serious and challenging position”.
GCC has also now reduced the financial support it provides for individual children with SEND. Schools are forced to pick up the financial burden of SEND support and are using general funds to meet additional needs, or are unable to meet the need of individual children. Even the Conservative-run county council has identified the problem. Councillor Richard Boyles, in letters that I have now received, identifies how much of a problem this is, and the council continues to ask us as MPs to lobby for a fairer funding formula. The impact of this funding crisis is clear: increased class sizes; a reduction in the number of teaching assistants; less support for SEND students; and a reduced curriculum. Many schools will also not be able to implement the full 3.5% pay rise, or if they are able to, they will have to make redundancies.
The pressure on places and rising class sizes, particularly in special schools, is where the acute need is most felt, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said. We have to be sympathetic to that. However, there is also an issue with inclusivity, with schools that have taken the most vulnerable children facing the most difficult consequences, because we do not fund those children. High numbers of SEND children are hidden in the system.
The reality, as we now know, is that the majority of our primary schools are likely to face an in-year deficit. Quite simply, Minister, the schools do not have enough money. We can argue about the distribution issue, but at the moment the acute problem is that we need more money, particularly for SEND education.
The hon. Gentleman makes several good points. We would all like to see more money for schools in Gloucestershire, and he is right that secondary schools have faced considerable pressures. He is also correct to mention the £1.35 million SEND funding that the Government have given for both this year and next year. Those two years are guaranteed, and the Minister will no doubt want to say more on that. However, I am a bit puzzled by my distinguished constituency neighbour’s occasionally rather strong language. He referred in a tweet to deep, unjustified and ongoing cuts. That is not actually true, is it? The amount of money per primary and secondary school pupil in Gloucestershire has gone up and will go up further. Would he like to comment on the language we use as we lobby for more money?
I will comment on that. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Although Brexit has completely overwhelmed Parliament, I have been inundated with comments from headteachers, teachers, teaching unions, parents and even some pupils. Their message is that they face cuts. We can argue about how much those cuts are and how they came about, but the reality is that they face cuts. That is what they say. I have another page of quotes that I could read out that say what the situation is like.
I hope the Minister does not feel that we disagree in any way generally. We are saying that, specifically because of the SEND situation, we now face a very difficult problem in Gloucestershire, which is having an impact across all schools. We need to do something about it, and I hope that the Government are sympathetic.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) about those people’s feelings. I suggest he talks to people from schools in his constituency, whom I presume feel very much the same as those in schools in my constituency: that is, that they have faced a lot of pressure, which is now beginning to feed into the system with dire consequences.
The point is not what our constituents tell us. It is understandable that every parent, teacher and school should ask for more. The point is the language that we use. When the amount of money is actually going up, to talk about deep, unjustified and ongoing cuts is surely wrong. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that himself, because he removed that tweet within about four hours of posting it. Will he confirm, for the record, so that all our teachers and parents are clear, that there are not ongoing per-pupil funding cuts in Gloucestershire? That money is going up and will continue to do so, on which the Minister will no doubt tell us more.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are cuts. He should go into schools in his constituency and see what is happening. I have now received hundreds of responses from people at the sharp end who believe, maybe wrongly, that there are cuts. We can argue about the figures—the absolute figures may look better than the reality—but the situation is that the schools that I represent face some dire situations. That is why I am here today.
The hon. Gentleman can secure his own Adjournment debate and defend what is happening. However, I think I have more of the moral high ground, and I defend what I say because I believe that there are cuts. I do not think that it is in any way justifiable to conclude anything other than that we face a very difficult situation. I came here to pinpoint a particular problem—SEND funding—but within the wider environment of a difficult funding outlook for our county.
I intend to give the Minister plenty of time to respond, so I will not say much more. I will make three points in conclusion. First—the point I have really concentrated on—increasing SEND need has demanded a funding response that Gloucestershire has not been able to meet. That is why, despite what the hon. Gentleman says, our SEND funding will still be in deficit. That may be because more people are applying for EHCPs, but the reality is that they have to be able to meet the genuine demands of people who see their children suffer.
Secondly, this is not about scaremongering but about the reality of the impact of what has happened over a long period. The unfairness of the system dates back to the previous Labour Government, which is why I have always supported the national funding formula. The difficulty is that we are not there yet, and we will not get there for some considerable time. The reality is that the differential is getting worse in the short run, and we stand to be worse off. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds is nodding. I hope the Minister will do something about that.
Thirdly, I have just come from a drop-in session on children’s mental health. Children’s mental health is having a real impact on what we need to meet additional needs in our schools. These issues are having a real impact on our children at the moment, whether on their mental health or through our inability to deal with their special needs.
I hope the Minister is listening and that we can move forward on this. Even though we might disagree on certain aspects, five MPs from the county are here to say that the funding situation is not right and that it is affecting our pupils, staff, and parents and so on. I hope that the Minister will pay some urgent attention to us, so that we can begin to deal with this. I hope he will give me some good news.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; I look forward to the 10 or 15 minutes ahead of us. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) on securing this important debate and on his introduction of it. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for their important contributions. All of them continue to make strong representations to the Government about school funding in their area.
The Government are determined to create an education system that offers opportunity to everyone, no matter their circumstances or where they live. Schools must have the resources they need to make that happen. That is why we are investing more money in our schools, helping them to make the most out of every pound they receive, and delivering on our promise to make funding fairer through the introduction of the national funding formula. In 2017-18, funding was for the first time distributed to local areas based on the individual needs and characteristics of every school in the country. That will also happen in 2018-19, for the second year running. This historic reform is the biggest improvement to how we allocate school funding for a decade and directs resources where they are needed most.
We all want to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, receive a world-class education. We have made significant progress on that, thanks in part to our reforms. The attainment gap between rich and poor children is shrinking, the proportion of pupils in good or outstanding schools has increased from 66% in 2010 to 84%, and primary school children have achieved their highest ever score on international reading tests.
While more money is going into schools than ever before, we recognise the budgeting challenges that schools face and that we are asking them to do more. Because of that, and because children only get one chance to have a great education, the Government have prioritised school spending, even while having to take difficult public spending decisions in other areas.
In total, across the country, core funding for schools and high needs will rise from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-20. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that real-terms per-pupil funding for five to 16-year-olds in 2020 will be more than 50% higher than it was in 2000. We can compare ourselves favourably to other countries. The UK spends as much per pupil on primary and secondary state education as any major G7 economy in the world, apart from the United States of America.
As well as providing additional funding for schools, we have made funding fairer by introducing the national funding formula. Under the previous system, schools with similar pupil characteristics received significantly different levels of funding for no good reason, meaning that some schools were not getting the resources that they needed. That is why it is so important that we have delivered on our promise to reform the unfair school and high-needs funding systems and introduce a national funding formula. Government Members have been particularly active over the years, through the f40 group, in ensuring that we have a fairer funding system.
Schools are already benefiting from the gains delivered by the national funding formula. Since 2017, we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school, while allocating the biggest increases to the schools that have been most underfunded. The underfunded schools will attract up to 6% more per pupil by 2019-20, compared with 2017-18. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester is absolutely right to insist on care in how we use language. He will be aware that the School Cuts website has been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for some of the things stated on that website.
Gloucestershire schools will receive gains of 3.1% per pupil by next year, compared with 2017-18. That will mean an extra £19 million in total when rising pupil numbers are also factored in. On high needs, we have recently announced that we will provide £250 million of extra funding across England over this financial year and the next. In Gloucestershire, that means that the local authority will receive an additional £2.7 million across this year and the next, on top of the increases that were already promised.
It is important to keep it in mind that the purpose of the national funding formula is not to give every school the same level of per-pupil funding. Although that would be simple, it would not be fair. It is right that schools that have pupils with additional needs, such as those indicated by measures of deprivation or low prior attainment, should get extra funding to help those pupils. In addition, schools in more expensive areas, such as London, require higher funding per pupil to reflect the higher costs that they face. That extra funding is vital to support children who face greater barriers in education, be that because they come from a disadvantaged background, have low prior attainment or speak English as an additional language. Every child deserves to get the help that they need to reach their full potential, and that is why the national funding formula has protected the £5.9 billion of funding for additional needs across the system.
We do recognise the challenges faced by the lowest funded schools. In the national funding formula, we have included minimum per-pupil funding levels to guarantee that every school will attract a minimum amount of funding for every pupil. In 2019-20, the formula will provide at least £4,800 per pupil for every secondary school and £3,500 for every primary school. In Gloucestershire, secondary schools in particular benefit from that measure, with about half of secondary schools attracting extra funding as a result. We have not limited gains for schools benefiting from the minimum amounts, so the very lowest funded schools will see their funding increase fastest, and some schools will attract gains of 10% or more by 2019-20.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is very important that we look into the causes for why high needs provision, in particular, is coming under the pressure that it now is? We have the Milestone School, the Ridge Academy, Belmont School and Bettridge School—so many excellent special schools—but the reality is that they face such huge demands now and we have not really got to the bottom of the reason for that. Is it issues in childbirth? Whatever it is, we need to get to the bottom of it.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. That is something that the Department is looking at very carefully. There are reasons for it, and we know what they are. They are to do with medical advances, the use of private schools—private special schools—and so on. We are providing capital funding to help particular local authorities that have much higher high needs expenditure to address those issues. There is a capital pot and also a development fund, to help them to make those important decisions.
We acknowledge that the national funding formula represents a big change to the funding system. We understand the importance of stability to schools and we want to ensure that there is a smooth transition. We have therefore confirmed that for the next two years, local authorities will continue to be responsible for setting school budgets at local level. I may have got my years wrong at the beginning of this contribution: 2018-19 is of course the first year of the funding formula and 2019-20 is the second year. We have also confirmed that, in 2020-21, we will allow local authorities to use their local funding formula to allocate the funds. But we will allocate the funds to local authorities on the basis of the national funding formula.
We are pleased to see significant progress across the system in moving towards the national funding formula in its first year. Many local authorities have chosen to move towards the national funding formula locally, with 73 local authorities moving all their factor values towards the NFF, and 41 matching the NFF factor values almost exactly. It is the case that 112 authorities, including Gloucestershire, have introduced a minimum per-pupil funding level factor in their local formula. I am very pleased that so many authorities across the country are showing such strong support for our national formula.
Alongside the local flexibility, we recognise that there needs to be a degree of discretion locally to change the balance between schools and high needs funding. Although we want schools to benefit from all the gains and protections afforded by the national funding formula, it will take time for spending to be aligned to the allocations calculated at national level. The ongoing flexibility will help to ensure that the transition to the formula takes place in a way that best meets the needs of local schools and pupils.
We are committed to supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities to reach their full potential, and we expect all schools to play their part. That is why we have reformed the funding system to take particular account of children and young people with additional needs, and introduced a new formula allocation to make the funding for those with high needs fairer. As mentioned previously, we have recently announced that we will provide £250 million of additional funding for high needs throughout England over this financial year and the next. We recognise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has said, the high needs budget faces significant pressures, and that additional investment will help local authorities to manage them.
Of course, the response to pressures on high needs budgets cannot just be additional funding. That is why we have also set out plans to support local authorities in their role of providing strategic leadership and oversight of the provision for children and young people with SEND. We have announced other measures to support local authorities: a £100 million top-up to the special provision capital fund for local authorities in 2019-20 for new places and improved facilities; the removal of the cap on the number of special and alternative provision free school bids that we approve in the current wave; reviewing current SEND content in initial teacher training provision; and ensuring a sufficient supply of educational psychologists to carry out the statutory functions in relation to the EHCP process, and to support teachers and families. We will continue to engage with local authorities, health providers, families, schools and colleges to work together to manage the cost pressures on high needs budgets and ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities get the support that they need and deserve.
We recognise that schools have faced cost pressures in recent years. That is why we have announced a strategy setting out the support that we will provide—current and planned—to help schools to make savings on the more than £10 billion of non-staff expenditure across England.
Does the Minister agree that the key thing is not that funding has been cut but that costs have increased and therefore the issue is how we can share best practice among schools in order to make savings that will help to reduce any deficit that they might have?
My hon. Friend is right. We do want to spread best practice. We have a cadre of school resource managers to help schools that are particularly struggling with their budgets to find savings. Other measures are national buying schemes for things such as printers and photocopiers and the roll-out of a free teacher vacancy listing website to help schools to find teachers and drive down recruitment costs, which are a big burden on schools at the moment. We have created a benchmarking website for schools that allows them to compare their costs with those of other schools.
I again thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I reiterate our commitment to providing every child with the opportunity to reach their potential. The extra investment that we are making in our schools, the fairer distribution of school funding, and support to use those resources to best effect, will help us to make that a reality.
Question put and agreed to.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation in Zimbabwe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. May I say how pleased I was to secure the debate at this particular time? I welcome the fact that the present Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin); the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes); and a former Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) are here.
Most people will remember the euphoria—we saw it—in Zimbabwe just over a year ago, in 2017, when the long-serving President Mugabe was ousted in what can only be called a form of military coup. There was such hope then that after the years of oppression, unemployment and fear, real change was coming. At the time, some of us did point out that Mnangagwa had been very much part of the Mugabe regime and, indeed, had played quite a sinister role in the horrendous slaughter of thousands of people in Matabeleland back in the period from 1983 to 1987. Of course, he was joined by Chiwenga as vice-president. He had been the head of the combined defence forces and also played a very important role in the terrible situation in Matabeleland. But all of us who love Zimbabwe and know the potential of that beautiful country still hoped that change was going to happen.
The elections held last summer were another crucial milestone. It is worth remembering that elections in Zimbabwe since 2002 had been both violent and rigged. In 2008, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission took more than five weeks to declare the result, and more than 270 activists, almost all belonging to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, were killed. The polls in 2013 were relatively peaceful, but regarded internationally as rigged. The electoral voting rolls were grossly manipulated in favour of voters in rural areas, where ZANU-PF had the greatest support.
Shortly before last year’s elections, the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and I visited Zimbabwe to get a feeling for what was happening there before the elections and to report back to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on the possibilities of a free and fair election and how, if there were free and fair elections, we in this Parliament might engage with Zimbabwe’s Parliament. We met a whole range of people, from Government, political parties, business and civil society.
We reported back on the very different atmosphere—certainly compared with what I had seen on my many visits during the worst of the troubles in Zimbabwe—the open presence of troops, police having disappeared from the streets, and the roadblocks where police used to demand money having disappeared. We did query a number of issues that were seen during the electoral process and particularly the fact that the new constitution that had been signed up to was not being adhered to. Access to the media was not being honoured. There were still problems with the electoral rolls. And we felt that the electoral commission was not showing a strong enough and openly transparent view that it was determined to have free elections. We warned in our report that although there would not be the violence around the election that there had been in the past, there was a real danger of its being another stolen election, and that the bar for a free and fair election was actually set very low.
I commend the hon. Lady not just for securing this debate, but for her courage and tenacity in pursuing the issues that she has. Does she agree that because there is no violence in situations such as the one that she describes, there is very often an assumption in the international consciousness that elections have been free and fair when in fact, on many occasions, including the one that she is outlining, they are anything but?
Yes; the hon. Gentleman is right. The absence of violence specifically at the polling stations and so on was remarkable—there was not any—but that does not mean that the election was free and fair. Very often elections are rigged before election day, and then there is what happens afterwards. Of course, it was what happened after the election that night, literally, that made people feel that it was not free and fair.
Mnangagwa was declared the winner by the electoral commission, which was severely criticised for its way of dealing with the count and the delay, again, in making the announcement of the presidential result. We had in the country two Members of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay and Lord Hayward, who I am very pleased is here observing today’s debate. They went to the elections formally, to represent the Commonwealth —as part of the Commonwealth delegation—because of course Zimbabwe has applied to be a member of the Commonwealth again. It was very important that the Commonwealth was there. In fact, both Lord Hayward and Baroness Jay saw some of the trouble that happened immediately afterwards. Baroness Jay was in the hotel when the soldiers came in to stop an MDC press conference. Later, some totally innocent Zimbabweans were gunned down in the street by the army—some people were shot in the back. The international community, on the whole—I think that this applies to all the observers—made the point that the election was slightly freer and fairer, but there was not an overwhelming feeling that it was a wonderful Zimbabwean election and democracy was really back at its best.
Of course, since the election, the economy has got even worse. Mnangagwa made a great issue of the fact that Zimbabwe was open for business—the world could come and invest again; there was going to be this absolute change. That did not actually happen. There are huge shortages of food and other important goods. More recently, on 12 January this year, Mnangagwa announced a huge—200%—increase in the price of fuel. That was in a country in which very few people could afford the fuel price as it was, and it led to Zimbabwe, of all countries in the world, having the highest fuel prices. It was just not tenable, and people reacted. The trade unions, which have shown great courage throughout all of this, called for a countrywide “stay away” in protest, and there were demonstrations. There is no doubt that some of the younger people, unemployed people, were very angry, and probably some looting did go on in parts of Bulawayo and Harare, but what the army and the Government did was to respond immediately with huge, excessive force, which left 12 people dead and up to 100 with gunshot wounds, and hundreds of people were lifted in the middle of the night, imprisoned and denied bail.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen pretty horrific images showing what has been happening to people on the ground: not just MDC activists, although that is bad enough—it is shocking that many of them have been lifted in the middle of the night, taken away and still are not getting legal representation or any support—but “ordinary” Zimbabweans who were seen to be in areas where there was support for the opposition.
What was also done—it was a very clever move, because all of us know just how much social media has changed the nature of reporting in Africa—was that the internet was closed down, shut down, and was out of action for some three days. That made a huge difference because, as is shown in all the letters that have come out and the reports that we have seen, people felt absolutely isolated in their homes. They were in the dark; there was no electricity. Roads were closed, transport had stopped, schools were closed—everything was closed—and there was no social media, no way to contact people. That was, I believe, a deliberate strategy to cut down the information getting out of the country, and of course that leads to more worry, more concern, and a feeling that everybody has abandoned them. We saw the numbers involved.
Sky News had a very good film, which again showed the army acting, in uniform and with absolute impunity, against innocent passers-by.
I have already asked the hon. Lady to forgive me for having to leave before the end of this important debate. She has consistently done wonderful work with her group. I thank the Minister of State, who, when I returned from Zimbabwe, calmed some of my enthusiasm regarding Mr Mnangagwa and the situation there, about which she and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) have proved to be dramatically right.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that this pattern of behaviour during this period was clearly planned beforehand, and that it looks very much like the President left the country in order to come back and criticise it when he got home, and that this is part of a pattern that is totally unacceptable? Does she also agree that we must make the strongest possible representations to the Zimbabwean Government on behalf of the British Government?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his years of support and work. I know how much he cares for Zimbabwe. He is absolutely right. There was this idea that Mnangagwa left the country as soon as the fuel price rose, to go to Russia and begin a tour of different countries—not countries that we would necessarily see as our best friends—to try to bring in some investment. I think that was absolutely deliberate, because he could then say that he had nothing to do with what was happening. Chiwenga, who is seen as the person who wants to eventually take over, was very much in charge.
The systematic abuse and actual torture of individuals continues as we speak. The women who have been raped by soldiers have nowhere to report these crimes, because the rule of law in Zimbabwe has broken down. The Law Society of Zimbabwe has issued a statement raising its concerns about how all the legal cases of the people who were arrested have been conducted. It is a shocking indictment of what used to be a really good legal system. Zimbabwe was way ahead of most of the rest of Africa, in terms of rights and its attitude to the law.
People have said how they felt in the middle of this. People were too afraid to move around, because of the burning of vehicles. They knew that many of the soldiers were doing this, but not in uniform. The Zimbabwean Government had the audacity to think that people would believe their story that these people had gone to army barracks or police stations, stolen the uniforms and then taken part in this activity. Of course, that was complete nonsense. I could go on for a long time about all the terrible things that have happened, but there is no doubt that Mnangagwa knew what was going on. Whatever he has said about what he will do, nothing has happened—none of the responsible people have been prosecuted.
For me, one of the most dangerous things is how the constitution is being completely ignored and the level to which the rule of law has been trampled on by the Executive, the army, the police, the National Prosecuting Authority and some elements of the judiciary. One eminent politician, Innocent Gonese, who is the secretary for justice and legal affairs in the opposition party, said in a letter:
“I never thought I would ever live long enough to witness levels of such depravity, cruelty, callousness and downright disdain and contempt of the right of the citizens as enshrined in our Constitution and our statutes. While our country has had a history of serious violations of human rights starting from the years of colonial rule and repression and the epochs of gukurahundi, murambatsvina and the dark days of June 2008, the people thought that we had turned a corner in November 2017 with the demise of the former strongman Robert Mugabe.
Sadly it has turned out to be a false dawn. The actors may have changed with the removal of Robert Mugabe and some of his henchmen, but the script has remained the same if not worse.”
I find that pretty horrific, because we saw such dreadful things and now it seems that it is all happening again.
What can we do? First, we cannot ignore what is happening. I am pleased that the Minister called in the Zimbabwean ambassador. I am sure she will tell us more about that. We have to use our position where we can to influence and work with the South African Government and the Botswana Government. I know there is an Africa conference coming up in the next week or two; I do not know whether the Minister is going. We have to be clear that we are calling for the end of the deployment of the military. They have to go back into their barracks. We have to get the United Nations to say that and to make a strong statement on the rule of law.
We need a complete, absolute condemnation of the way that citizens’ internet access was closed down. We need to call for an independent investigation of the human rights violations, to be led by the African Union or the United Nations. We have to find out who gave the orders. It was the same with the people who were killed just after the election—we never really go to the bottom of who had given the orders. The investigation ended up being a whitewash. We need to investigate that, because the commission of inquiry in the post-2018 elections did not get to the bottom of it.
We have to be very clear—the United Kingdom Government have to be very clear—that the international community should completely suspend any initiatives related to re-engaging with the Zimbabwean Government. It is unacceptable, in my view, even to be talking about debt restructuring and private sector investment while so many Zimbabwean civilians are being assaulted and killed.
Ultimately, the sanctions we have now are very low. I am not suggesting that we go back to sanctions, because after the feeling that there was some hope for change, sanctions gave the Zimbabwean Government the opportunity to say, “The world doesn’t like us. It is only these sanctions that are causing all the difficulties.” Of course, there are no sanctions now, so they cannot say that. However, we may have to look at reviewing sanctions, particularly regarding travel. Mnangagwa got—I am not into aircraft—one of the top planes that can be hired, to go off on his trip. It cost thousands and thousands of dollars, while there are no medicines in the hospitals. Mnangagwa did not actually go to Davos. He left, because I think he knew that if he had gone to Davos, he would have received huge criticism, even there.
We are seeing crimes against humanity. Senator David Coltart, who many hon. Members will know, has made it very clear that crimes against humanity are still being committed. We have to engage very strongly with South Africa and Botswana, as I said. We have to ask the South African Government to really engage. We have not seen the criticism that could have come from South Africa.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, very unfortunately, this is a part of the South Africans’ failure to take seriously what is happening in Zimbabwe, and their failure on earlier occasions to criticise? They claim it is a reluctance to do so. It is a long-standing reluctance, which has been in place for many years. If they wish to be considered as a leading player in Africa on the diplomatic front, they need to exercise their will and their considerable power.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The South African Government need to realise—I cannot believe they do not—just how important they could be in this. They could be a real beacon, acting in the interests of the people of Zimbabwe, rather than standing back and saying virtually nothing.
I want to pay tribute to the opposition in Zimbabwe. I have known Nelson Chamisa for a long time. When I first went undercover, he was one of the people who helped to show us around in very difficult circumstances. He is incredibly brave and very charismatic. He did an enormously powerful job in getting people involved in huge rallies, including young people and people who had never been politically involved before. Despite some people, perhaps even in his own party, he has continued to talk clearly about a peaceful future and a peaceful role. Despite his being accused of all sorts of things by the Government, we should give him huge credit for his role.
I have a couple of questions to ask the Minister. Although it is clear that Zimbabwe’s application for readmission to the Commonwealth has been seriously set back, there are aspects of the Commonwealth process and engagement, particularly with the people of Zimbabwe, that deserve support. We need to remind people that it is not the United Kingdom that decides whether Zimbabwe will go back into the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth. Perhaps we have a bit more influence, but we certainly do not make that decision on our own. Are Her Majesty’s Government ensuring that the excellent work of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum on strengthening democracy at a local level is well funded and supported by the UK and other Commonwealth countries? Local democracy is an important building block at the grassroots level.
Is the Minister still engaged in helping to support charities such as ZANE, which has done so much to help older people who have been left destitute? The pension issue has still not been sorted. One or two hon. Members have made that a big issue. I await the Minister’s view on that.
There has been a worrying trend recently, which may stop again now, of some of the Zimbabwean diaspora being sent back as part of the euphoria about the supposedly new regime. The Zimbabwe Vigil, which carries out a vigil on Saturday afternoons outside the Zimbabwean embassy and has maintained its solidarity and support for people in Zimbabwe, is worried that the Home Office is perhaps being too quick off the mark to send people back there where they could be taken into custody.
Will the Minister confirm that the Her Majesty’s Government, and particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, have learnt a lesson from what I would call the ill-advised cosying-up to the Zimbabwean leadership, which owed its position, power and loyalty to the military and political machine that manoeuvred to install it and not to the people of Zimbabwe through a free and fair electoral process? I will not go into more detail; the Minister knows what I am talking about. There is no doubt that our embassy in Zimbabwe had become too identified, rightly or wrongly—I think wrongly—with ZANU-PF. A new ambassador, Melanie Robinson, has just started in Zimbabwe and there are good reports about how she is settling in. On behalf of all hon. Members present and the all-party group, I wish her the very best in that difficult job.
I want to make sure that the Minister realises that those of us who urged caution, particularly Zimbabweans who have long had to cope with the machinations of ZANU-PF brutality and the manipulation of international opinion, were rebuffed by some officials in our embassy who thought that they knew better. I hope that we have learnt that lesson. I pay tribute to all the people in Zimbabwe who have continued to work for democracy, and all the members of the all-party group and everyone in this House who will not let Zimbabwe be forgotten.
I draw hon. Members attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I praise the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing the debate and for the tireless work she does through the all-party group, which is one of the most exceptional groups in the House, among many candidates. She spoke of how members of the Zimbabwean opposition have been fearless, but she has been pretty fearless over the years in going to Zimbabwe. As she noted, her most recent trip was funded by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which I chair. I encourage other hon. Members with specific interests in countries to come to us if they want funding for that type of trip.
In private, I have occasionally accused the hon. Member for Vauxhall of being a bit pessimistic. I was always more optimistic about Zimbabwe as Minister for Africa and, subsequently, through the Commonwealth. Sadly, again, she has been proven right and a realist about the situation—the reality held up. That is a lesson not just for our ambassadors but for many others who go into Zimbabwe but perhaps do not have the decades of experience that the hon. Member for Vauxhall has.
Although I do not have the same experience, I have a long-standing interest in Zimbabwe. When I worked for Barclays in Africa, when things were doing well, all the pan-African IT for Barclays was run out of Harare—as, in fact, were all the IT systems for the whole Caribbean. That seems somewhat ridiculous, given the current situation.
Like many, I want Zimbabwe to return to being a prosperous nation state with proper elections, and I want it back as part of the Commonwealth family. Prior to the elections, however, I was premature in calling for it to be brought back into the family in a less conditional environment. I am still a bit more optimistic than the hon. Member for Vauxhall about keeping up engagement—what was called incremental engagement—which revolved around trying to move forward a little when there were some changes on the other side.
The news coming out of Zim is not only disturbing but wholly unacceptable. In the wake of peaceful civilian protests, the security forces launched brutal crackdowns across Harare and the country. Excess force and brutality, arrests and detentions are being used by the police and soldiers—and they are arbitrary arrests, because there is no law enforcement. That needs to stop.
In Rochford and Southend East, there are 889 people of Zimbabwean heritage, which is about 1% of my constituents. I have heard directly from them horrific tales and allegations about the systemic use of violence and torture by the armed and uniformed members of the Zimbabwe National Army and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, particularly in high-density areas outside Harare and in the suburbs.
One story recounted to me relates to a young man who lives in Budiriro, a high-density suburb in the south-west of Harare. He was rounded up with his neighbours and brutally set upon by police. His only crime appeared to be that he lived in the wrong street. Groups of young men had been setting up roadblocks on neighbouring streets and stopping and throwing stones at a few of the cars that remained despite the high petrol prices. The police were sent in and, instead of investigating the complaints, went round to all the homes near the roadblocks and dragged out and beat all the young men who were there, regardless of whether they were involved or not—collective punishment of the community for what had been done by a few. Some of those men are being held without charges or representation, and with no food or water. We cannot condone or accept that behaviour.
That story is horrific, but the problem lies subsequent to that, as they have no legal remedy because the judiciary is not independent. A number of lawyers have been protesting in the streets in the last few months. What should we be doing to support those lawyers who are trying to get an independent judiciary?
There is lots that we can do. The hon. Member for Vauxhall talked about the problems of the legal service. It is worse—the Government are directing the courts as to what to do. There is a series of long-term actions, such as working through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other Commonwealth countries, but at the moment, the Government in Zimbabwe are simply not listening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) describes the situation as terrible, but unfortunately, I have not got to some of the worst bits, which gives me no pleasure to say. There have been several reports about the use of sexual violence, in particular. On 23 January, ITV reported rape claims against soldiers during the unrest. It is my understanding that ITV has met 11 women, all of whom said they were sexually assaulted—that is to say, raped—and that their attackers were members of the Zimbabwean army. This appears to have been systemic and organised use of sexual violence, which should concern us even more than isolated cases of sexual violence.
The reports of death tolls have been varied and, I suspect, understated. Amnesty said that eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, while the Zimbabwean Government said only three people were killed, including a policeman who was stoned to death by an angry crowd. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said that doctors had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and more than 100 other cases of
“assaults with sharp objects, baton sticks”,
and they had seen people left with marks on their bodies after being kicked or stamped on with boots.
Notwithstanding the statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa on Zimbabwe on 17 January and the representations that were made by the Secretary of State on 22 January, we need to ramp up our representations to our Zimbabwean counterparts. We need to remind them of their international obligations on human rights and freedom of opinion and expression, and about the results of the use of excessive force, as evidenced by the injuries that were documented in medical records; those are not just vague accusations.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa cut short his foreign trip, which had been largely aimed at raising foreign exchange and returning investment. He returned to Zimbabwe to stabilise the situation. Well, I have not seen any stabilisation of the situation. I listened very carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and the hon. Member for Vauxhall, who felt that the situation had been pre-prepared: petrol prices were put up; then, the President removed himself from the country; and there was a purge. I suspect that they are probably right.
Earlier, I had wondered whether there might be something else going on, namely that the military were taking greater control, as they did when there was the earlier coup that led to Mugabe being ousted. I wondered who really is in control of the country; is it the President or is it his Vice-President, the former army general, Constantino Chiwenga? Chiwenga was the muscle behind the November 2017 push that forced Mugabe to resign and I just wonder what is going on behind the scenes. The President is clearly responsible, whether or not he directed or planned the violence; he is the President of the country.
I support the points made by a number of people about getting South Africa involved and I urge that we try to get South Africa involved at both a Government level and an African National Congress level; the ANC contacts with ZANU-PF are even more credible than the normal channels. More broadly, there is a role for the Southern African Development Community, although Botswana, Zimbabwe’s neighbour, is particularly influential.
I am not a great fan of sending great missives from the UN, which feels very distant from African countries when they have problems. However, if the UN can do something in co-ordination with the African Union, led by Zimbabwe’s near-neighbours, such as South Africa and Botswana, through SADC, that would probably complete the loop and it would give the authority and voice of the UN to Zimbabwe’s local peers when they criticise the country.
I fear that the perpetrators and masterminds behind the systematic violence will be emboldened, not by our indifference or by what we say, but by what we do. We are very limited in what we can do, but we must try to do more. I also fear that there will be an increased open militarisation of the country, with further disregard for civil law and further unrest. In all conscience, we cannot allow that to happen.
Before the elections, I had hoped to welcome Zimbabwe back to the Commonwealth; I had hoped that more investment would come in; and I welcomed the CDC investment in Zimbabwe. I still think that that is the right route for the country to take ultimately. However, it seems less and less credible for us to support investment in Zimbabwe while the atrocities take place, although I am mindful that if British money does not come in, then Israeli, Russian or Chinese money, which would be less conditional money, will come in. I do not worry about that happening from the perspective of investment returns or British national interest; I worry about it because doing business in countries such as Zimbabwe allows us to leverage our influence within them. So, there is a fine balance to be struck.
I hope that I am proved right in my long-term optimism and I hope that the hon. Member for Vauxhall is wrong in her sometimes pessimistic attitude. However, I fear that yet again she is right. She is being a friend of Zimbabwe, but also a realist, and I thank her again for making an enormous contribution and for securing this debate.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
First of all, I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on bringing this issue forward for consideration. I will place it on the record that she is undoubtedly a true democrat—the honour that she has shown this country by honouring the referendum vote is something that I sincerely wish was emulated by others in her party. She has done that very well, I congratulate her on it and we look forward to working with her on many other issues as we move forward.
Over the years, I have had a particular interest in Zimbabwe—or Rhodesia, as it was formerly—because I have a number of Zimbabweans who have come to live in my constituency who have lost their farms, their property and in some cases everything they had bar the clothes on their back. They fled the lovely country of Zimbabwe.
When I was a young man starting off on life’s road, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia was Ian Smith; those of us who are of a certain vintage will recall him. I always remember his saying, because I have used those words myself many times, when he made a unilateral declaration of independence and separated himself from the United Kingdom and from the Commonwealth: “This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It is perhaps the end of the beginning.”
If only Zimbabwe was at the beginning of a process. We had hoped that, with the election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, there would be a normalisation of the economy and a repairing of relations with multilateral institutions. We had hoped that his election would bring a new beginning, but unfortunately it has not. Indeed, the most recent clashes in Zimbabwe earlier this month were prompted in part by a sharp hike in fuel prices, which has made petrol and diesel in the country the most expensive in the world. So we can understand why people are up in arms.
Inflation in Zimbabwe is very high. Probably the only country that beats Zimbabwe for inflation is Venezuela, where inflation is running at 1 million % and is predicted to be 10 million % by the end of the year—unless, of course, there are new elections and Venezuela’s Opposition leader is elevated to the position of President.
What has happened in Zimbabwe has been the first glimmer of democracy in many years and yet it is clear that there is not democracy there just yet; there can be no true democracy without fear-free elections.
In my constituency, I have a number of churches that do missionary work in Swaziland and Zimbabwe. They are very active in education. They are the Elim Missions, whose headquarters is in Newtownards, in my constituency. There are very active Elim churches in my constituency, and indeed in nearby constituencies. I see that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is here in the Public Gallery today; there is a very active Elim church in her constituency, and there is also one in Belfast East. Collectively, they do some fantastic work in education, health and helping young people. There is also the issue of medication and HIV/AIDS, which is very prevalent in Zimbabwe.
I am well known as someone who believes in foreign aid. I believe that we should provide help in a sustainable manner to those who cannot help themselves: rather than giving them a fish, we should give them a net; and rather than have a farming show, we should show people how to farm. The ways in which we can help go on and on.
For Zimbabwe to have gone from being the breadbasket of Africa—as it was once, in its heyday, and continued to be even when Mugabe first took over—to the poverty-stricken nation that it is now is simply heartbreaking, and I sincerely believe that Zimbabweans must be helped. In this debate, we are very conscious of how we can help the ordinary Zimbabwean people.
Successful farmers helped the economy by creating jobs and wealth, but their land and farms were seized. There has been murder, destruction, the stealing of land and, as referred to by the hon. Members for Vauxhall and for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), sexual violence and the rape of women, who have been violated. It is totally wrong that those involved in the Zimbabwe army are those who are responsible for the bestiality that we have seen in recent days.
However, it is also clear that Zimbabweans need more than simply our help in the form of foreign aid funding. The Library briefing makes something abundantly clear:
“In 2018 the UK government gave support to international and local election monitoring initiatives, including £5 million specifically to support election-related work.”
There was an onus on, and perhaps a need for us in this country to ensure that the elections were free and not corrupt, so that any illegalities did not take place. Unfortunately, it was not shown that the election was entirely fair. There were many violations and concerns were expressed. As a Christian, I pray for many countries in the world, including Zimbabwe, because we hope it can reach the democratic process, and also because I have many brothers and sisters in that country who are also Christians, and I am very conscious of that.
UK-Zimbabwe trade and investment has been at low levels over the past decade and sensitive to political and economic uncertainty. In May 2018, the CDC Group, the UK Government’s development finance institution, announced an investment facility, in partnership with Standard Chartered Bank, that would lend some US $100 million to growing businesses in Zimbabwe—a really good idea. It was reportedly the first commercial loan by a British entity to Zimbabwe in over 20 years. Again, we as a country were trying to help Zimbabwe in the new democracy that was hopefully going to unfold, and we hoped that they would do better. In 2017, Zimbabwe was the UK’s 14th-largest export market in Africa, accounting for 2% of UK exports to Africa, and the 13th-largest source of imports from Africa, accounting for 1% of UK imports from Africa. So there were key economic links going out and coming in. Globally, Zimbabwe was the UK’s 91st-largest export market and the 108th-largest source of imports. We want to trade with Zimbabwe, but we also have to ensure that Zimbabwe has a democratic process and democratic institutions that work.
Let us look at what has happened recently. The hon. Members for Vauxhall and for Rochford and Southend East have already referred to this. The internet was deliberately stopped by the Government for three days; roads, schools and banks are closed; the very fabric of society has broken down; hundreds of people have been arrested simply because they were protesting about the hike in the price of fuel and food. If people and their families are starving and the new President has told them there will be a brand-new beginning, no wonder they ask, “Where is this new beginning?” People were unable to communicate for the most basic of reasons, all to ensure that no message could be spread other than the ZANU-PF propaganda.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall mentioned some of the reports on TV, which I have seen as well. The TVs did not lie. Behind the army trucks in Zimbabwe were soldiers kicking, beating and taking violent action against innocents on the street. So I ask this question: whenever the evidential base is there, how come action is not taken?
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he has mentioned the media and television; I want to praise Christina Lamb, the Sunday Times international reporter, for her work and the reports that she has brought back, which graphically describe some of the abuses that the hon. Gentleman talks about.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She reiterates the facts of the case that we all know of. There is evidence of violence, corruption, attacks on women, and the stealing of property. I do not say that everyone is innocent; some looting has taken place, but that does not take away from the overall corruption within the new Government. Such attacks are not the actions of a democratic Government. They are the actions displayed by Mugabe during his dictatorship, which we thought we had got rid of. Very little has changed, which is so sad, but it must change if we are to continue working so closely with the Government.
It is believed that Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth, submitted in May 2018, having withdrawn from the organisation in 2003, is being considered, and the Government said in April 2018 that they would
“strongly support Zimbabwe’s re-entry”.
To me, Zimbabwe has done little to engender that level of support and we need to be very careful about what we do. Membership of the Commonwealth has many facets: respect for the Queen, respect for others, and dedication to running a country in a democratic way. So are we really supporting Zimbabwe by bringing it back into the Commonwealth, which I would love to see, but with conditions that have to be met? We cannot expect it to come in willy-nilly and continue what it is doing. Should we really support that at this time? Should we be willing to observe, monitor and regulate what is happening? I understand that membership of the Commonwealth allows us perhaps to have a greater influence that we can use for the good of some countries, but if the millions that we pour in are not influencing—this is the question I ask—I fail to see how our support of membership will influence.
In conclusion, I understand that changes are not made overnight, but there has been time and there has been no improvement for the people on the farms—the breadbaskets of Zimbabwe. There has been time, but no improvement for schoolchildren and teachers who have small wages and not even books in schools; no improvement for patients and doctors, so money needs to be spent there; and no sign of change. We must make it clear that giving time is not the answer. Action is the only answer, and we must see it now.
I am grateful for the opportunity to begin the summing up in this debate, Mrs Main. I commend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing the debate and thank her for a very informative summary of where Zimbabwe has been in the recent past. She put into context what has been happening there in the past few weeks. The hon. Members for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have contributed their own knowledge, highlighting the underlying problems that have to be addressed before Zimbabwe can be returned to its people. Truly fundamental in the governance of any country is that the people should be allowed to govern themselves. The country should be governed in the interests of the people and not only in the interests of those who govern.
In any debate about alleged human rights abuses in another country there are two principles that we have to observe. First, we have to recognise the rights of nations to govern themselves. We have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country in normal circumstances. What is happening in Zimbabwe now cannot be allowed to become normal circumstances, because the sovereignty of individual nations has to be tempered by the fact that there are standards of behaviour and fundamental human rights that transcend all national borders. Where there is evidence that the power of the state is being abused to deny fundamental human rights, the international community, countries individually and collectively, have not only a right but a duty to intervene to set things right, initially through political and diplomatic efforts, but if necessary by the use of economic influence as well. I certainly take on board the caution advised by the hon. Member for Vauxhall about using economic sanctions, because too often the sanctions punish the victims without having any impact on the perpetrators.
There are obvious difficulties in knowing what exactly has been happening in Zimbabwe, but some things are clear and unambiguous, giving grounds for serious concern among the international community. I think they add up to overwhelming evidence that the international community has got to intervene.
There were large-scale protests after massive price increases left millions of Zimbabweans unable to afford the basic essentials of life. There were people with jobs who could not get to work because the bus fare was more than they would be paid. The police and army intervened in the protests and there has been significant loss of life, and significant numbers of people have been injured. Reliable reports are that at least 12 people have been killed, and 78 others were treated for gunshot wounds. A significant number were treated for other injuries. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, a body appointed by the Zimbabwean Government, has identified at least 240 cases of assault and torture. We should commend the commission for having the courage to speak out. Many institutions in Zimbabwe, even if they are not put under the cosh by the Government, sometimes think that they are there to do the Government’s bidding. It is all the more remarkable that the human rights commission is publishing such specific, utterly damning indictments of the country’s Government.
More than 700 people have been arrested. Often, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) said, there are wholesale arrests, when anyone who happens to be in a house close to an alleged incident is arrested, usually with extreme violence. People are often viciously beaten before being dragged away. Boys as young as 11 have been seen being beaten by gangs of uniformed police officers in the street. There has also been clear targeting of anyone seen as a political opponent of the Government. In one case, a councillor—not even an MP or shadow Minister—was dragged from his house, beaten almost to death and arrested, in front of his three-year-old daughter. Remarkably, that wee girl was able, despite the trauma she experienced, to give a detailed account of what happened. Hopefully one day soon her evidence will help to make sure that those responsible are brought to justice.
There have been numerous allegations—and numbers are increasing—of women being gang-raped by uniformed soldiers. It is all very well for Ministers in the Zimbabwean Government to say, “If this has happened to you, come forward and make a complaint, and we will deal with it.” It is difficult in western European democracies for women to have the confidence to come forward and report that they have been raped or sexually abused. It must be difficult to the point of impossibility for a woman in Zimbabwe to report such a vicious assault to the authorities whose very people are responsible in the first place.
The changing response from the authorities is notable and revealing. Initially, as always happens in such cases, they tried to deny anything had happened. They denied that there had been violence and said that such violence as there was had somehow been the responsibility of the protestors. Then they admitted that the police and army had used force, but claimed that it had been proportionate. A Government spokesman told the BBC,
“When things get out of hand, a bit of firmness is needed”.
It was only when there was incontrovertible video evidence that could not be claimed to be fake, making it clear that police and army officers were involved in assaults, that the authorities finally accepted it had been happening. Chillingly, the President’s own spokesperson said the crackdown was
“just a foretaste of things to come”.
We have to wonder whether the few police and army officers who have been arrested are being used as examples. Their cases seem to be the ones where the evidence is so overwhelming that no one can deny what happened. We must wonder whether a cynical attempt is being made by Mnangagwa and his colleagues to look as if they are on the side of justice, when all the evidence points to their being at least complacent about, and possibly actively complicit in, the brutality.
It is clear that the vast majority of Zimbabwean citizens have no confidence in the Government’s ability or even willingness to enforce the rule of law on its own law enforcers. The Government may blame rogue elements in the security forces, but they have a responsibility to control the behaviour of everyone they put into uniform in those forces, and the international community must take steps to ensure that they carry out that responsibility. If President Mnangagwa wants to be accepted as President he has to start accepting his responsibilities as President. Being the President, Prime Minister or monarch of any country is not a way for someone to enrich themselves and their pals at everyone else’s expense.
I want briefly to share the experiences of two of my constituents who were forced to flee from Zimbabwe during the regime of Robert Mugabe. Although in some ways their experiences may not seem directly relevant to what has happened recently, they illustrate many of the fundamental problems continuing to affect the country, which make it more difficult now for justice to be done, and be seen to be done. Paul and Brenda-Lee Westwood ran a successful business in Zimbabwe in partnership with a local businessman. Their share of the business was seized by someone who at that time was an MP in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. The seizure was illegal even under the so-called indigenisation policies of the Government of the day. Those responsible were put on trial for a fraud valued at more than $1 million but the case collapsed in circumstances that remain unclear. After Mr Westwood lodged an appeal the prosecutor died in mysterious circumstances and several of the accused and key witnesses disappeared and, as far as I know, have never been seen again.
The Westwoods then experienced months of intense intimidation with increasingly violent and explicit threats against them and their children. Eventually in 2012 after enduring that for several years, they abandoned the life they had built together and fled the country. Since then they have been trying to have their case heard in the Zimbabwean courts but, like the victims of the recent brutality, they can see nothing to make them believe that the new Government will make their chance of a fair hearing any greater. I know that the Minister and some of her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been working on my constituents’ behalf, and I thank them.
The new Government in Zimbabwe is keen to rejoin the Commonwealth. I can understand why at one point a number of people and the UK Government would have been keen on that happening. I would support the UK Government in helping Zimbabwe to become fit to rejoin the Commonwealth, but it would be a disastrous mistake to encourage or support an application when, clearly, it is not fit for membership of that honourable organisation. We need to make it clear that it cannot rejoin the Commonwealth until it can demonstrate beyond doubt that it has fully re-established the rule of law and the principle of respect for the human rights of all its people, regardless of creed, colour, race, gender or political views. I have a duty to represent my constituents, and I argue that people such as the Westwoods, and others who have suffered similar ordeals at the hands of the Zimbabwean Government, must receive a fair hearing. If an impartial court so rules, they should be given proper compensation for their loss.
There must at best be severe doubt about whether the investigation of recent atrocities and the holding to account of those who committed the crimes, gave the orders, or stood by and watched can be left to the Zimbabwean Government. I do not think it can. The rule of law has become so unreliable that those incidents can be properly investigated only with outside help. That is what must happen, because what has happened in Zimbabwe is too serious to be ignored as an isolated, localised problem.
For generations—perhaps centuries—the people of Zimbabwe seem to have been misruled and mismanaged by almost everyone. That has lasted from the absurdity of their country, and often their lives, being seen as the possessions of a Government thousands of miles away, to the appalling racialism of the Smith regime and, more recently, the combination of disastrous economic incompetence and rampant corruption under Mugabe. That has meant that in a country whose natural resources are sufficient to give all its people a very decent standard of living the majority of the population are reduced to absolute poverty. I want the Government, in co-operation with other Governments and through bodies such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations, to help the people of Zimbabwe to see how to take their country back from the despots and dictators who have held sway over them for far too long.
What is sometimes called soft power, or soft influence, is often important. Exchange visits would enable elected politicians and others involved in civic society in Zimbabwe to come to the United Kingdom or other countries to see how things are and how they operate, in what looks like a reasonable democratic society. They could then see that it is possible for differences to be resolved without guns, tear gas and violence. We have to ask ourselves, just now, whether the way politics is being done in the United Kingdom is all that good an example for Zimbabwe or anyone else. Do some of the scenes that we have witnessed in the House of Commons Chamber in the past couple of days look like—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying far off the topic of the debate. Can he please confine his remarks to the topic of Zimbabwe? I do not wish to hear too much about yesterday’s debate.
I will, Mrs Main. I suggest that the United Kingdom, and any other country that wants to set an example to the people of Zimbabwe about how democracies can operate, sometimes need to make sure that they are as good examples as they think they are.
The people of Zimbabwe have been through more than the people of any nation on Earth should be expected to tolerate. I want to see the day when Zimbabwe is returned to its people, and the citizens of Zimbabwe are able to enjoy the rights that all citizens should have: the right to self-expression; the right to assemble; the right to disagree with and protest against their Government; and the right to remove their Government and replace it with a Government of their choice, if that is their wish. I look forward to the Minister telling us what the Government of these islands can do to help the people of Zimbabwe achieve that goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing this important debate; Zimbabwe is a subject upon which she is very knowledgeable, and I thank her for her comprehensive introduction to the debate.
It is vital that we take this opportunity to discuss the violence that erupted in Zimbabwe earlier this month. A short debate on this issue also took place in the House of Lords on 21 January, which covered many of the points that have been raised today. As evidenced by the tone and content of this debate and the debate in the other place, there is clear concern about problems in Zimbabwe, ranging from currency problems to violent protests. I know that Zimbabwean people feel that way as well.
This is an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing it. My father grew up in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, and I remember the turbulent times during the civil war; I also remember the optimism when that country became Zimbabwe, and the recent optimism when Mugabe was ousted. However, does my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) agree that the current unrest is causing huge challenges for our charities, especially for Love Zimbabwe, a charity in Wales that operates in Chinamhora village?
Order. I know that the hon. Lady might have wanted to speak in this debate, but there was a lot of time for her to do so. Interventions need to be brief.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She has highlighted several issues, one of which is the hope that existed in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe finally left his position as President. Sadly, I think we have all become a little bit like the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), going from optimistic about the future to slightly pessimistic.
Zimbabwean people have expressed their concerns to me and, as evidenced by the comments made in this debate, other Members’ Zimbabwean constituents have also approached them with issues. Trade union and civil society groups in Zimbabwe regularly contact me to express their utter helplessness and despair in reaction to numerous human rights abuses, many of which occurred under the Mugabe regime and are now happening again. I was recently contacted by the TUC, which is concerned that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ secretary general, Japhet Moyo, has been arrested and charged with subverting a constitutionally elected Government, along with the ZCTU’s president Peter Mutasa. Both men have been remanded until 8 February, which highlights the fact that at the moment, anyone in Zimbabwe who raises their voice in opposition to the Government is targeted.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, in addition to the speeches that have been made so far. She mentioned constituents raising concerns, and my constituent Abigail has raised with me her concerns as a Zimbabwean, particularly about the oppression that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is clear that Zimbabwe is failing to adhere to the Patterson principles that underpin readmission to the Commonwealth, and until we have a robust understanding that Zimbabwe is making steps to adhere to those principles, readmission to the Commonwealth is not going to happen. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister needs to make a clear statement to that effect?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to bring up the issue of Zimbabwe’s readmission to the Commonwealth; I think every Member who spoke in the debate has raised that issue, and I will be referring to it later. I am sure that the Minister will be able to speak with some authority on that topic.
The Zimbabwean people are tired of the systemic issues that have plagued their nation for so many decades. It has been said that people in Harare complain that the new Administration is akin to a new driver in an old taxi. It was recently my privilege to visit South Africa, where I met many members of the Zimbabwean diaspora who expressed to us the same views regarding the lack of any change. The figurehead may have changed, but they were pessimistic that the country itself would change. As many Members said, the current violence erupted following the Government’s hiking of the price of fuel, making it the most expensive anywhere in the world. The Government’s response has been to blame the fuel shortages that caused that violence on those who hoard fuel and trade it on the black market, and while there may be some truth in that argument, those fuel shortages have been compounded by the Government’s mismanagement of the currency crisis.
The Government must also take responsibility for their subsequent actions. The violence that followed a general strike on 14 January was utterly deplorable: in the cities of Harare and Bulawayo, protesters faced a vicious clampdown, in which soldiers as well as police were deployed to shut down peaceful protests. The figures are not totally reliable, but there seem to have been around 12 confirmed deaths; at least 78 gunshot injuries; between 700 and 1,500 detentions; and 844 human rights violations. The Government’s shutdown of internet services during the violent outbreak, severely disrupting the flow of information and hiding and obscuring the behaviour of the army and the police, is also troubling.
Here we are again, with Zimbabweans suffering as a result of Government violence. Last year’s elections represented a real opportunity for the country to change following the end of Robert Mugabe’s regime. However, despite the improvements in the election process that were noted by various election observers, those elections were not free and not fair, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall outlined in her opening speech. The subsequent violence was nothing new in Zimbabwe, but it was particularly disappointing that the opportunity for change was not taken. That opportunity for change is still there, but the new leader is falling back into old habits. If President Mnangagwa is to avoid gaining the same reputation as his predecessor, he must act swiftly to restore the hope that existed last summer and put an end to attacks on civilians. We do not want history to repeat itself, nor do the Zimbabwean people. The future could be so positive for Zimbabwe, but its people will need help in getting there.
My hon. Friend talks about the need for help to be provided. Of course, DFID will be providing international aid, as I am sure the Minister will confirm. However, does my hon. Friend share my concern that such aid may be manipulated by the Government to punish political enemies, and does she agree that DFID must put safeguards in place to make sure that does not happen?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure the Minister will be able to respond to that question. It is my understanding that the majority of DFID funding goes to NGOs, not directly to Governments. I hope that will help ensure that the aid reaches the people it needs to reach.
Many have spoken about the application for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth. Rejoining would have benefits for Zimbabwe. It would vastly improve its relationship with our country and countries around the world, but we cannot just gift Commonwealth membership to Zimbabwe. A return to the Commonwealth must be conditional on Zimbabwe’s resolving its infringements of the Harare declaration of 1991. It would help if the Minister could explain whether her Government will prioritise human rights and do what they can to ensure that Zimbabwe is not allowed to rejoin the Commonwealth until its Government implement significant reforms and stop the violent crackdowns by security forces on the public that we have seen in the past two weeks.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister met the Zimbabwean ambassador recently, and I am sure she will elaborate on the outcome of that meeting. Will she say what she has been doing with our partners in Europe and with the African Union to ensure that the programme of reform for Zimbabwe outlined 12 months ago at the EU-AU summit is maintained? Finally, I know she met the EU and the African Union last week. What action is planned for Zimbabwe? In addition, what specific action will the UK Government take?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing this important and timely debate. We have had excellent and well-informed contributions not only from the hon. Lady, but from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). We also had interesting interventions from other colleagues who get credible information from a range of different sources. I pay tribute to the long-standing interest of the hon. Member for Vauxhall in Zimbabwe, including as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. I add my voice to those of colleagues who have spoken so highly of her ongoing engagement.
I can only add the Government’s view to the many examples that have been cited about the situation on the ground. The recent developments in Zimbabwe are cause for significant concern for Her Majesty’s Government. The response of Zimbabwe’s security forces to protests against the petrol price rise has been disproportionate and all too reminiscent of the darkest days of the Mugabe regime. Security forces have used live ammunition, carried out widespread and indiscriminate arrests and unleashed brutal assaults on civilians, with clear disregard for the due process of law.
I have the up-to-date figures that we have sourced. We pay tribute to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, which has recorded a wide range of human rights violations since the protests began on 14 January. We recognise at least eight deaths and many injuries. There are credible reports that arrests may exceed 1,000. Certainly, 873 arrests or detentions were documented by 29 January. Many are still detained. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reports at least 470 cases of assault, 80 of which have been gunshot-related. Many of us have seen footage of young men, and even children, allegedly scarred from beatings by soldiers. We have also seen atrocious accounts of security forces raping civilians during their violent crackdown, with indications of least nine reported rapes, some of which appear to be politically motivated.
On the subject of rape and sexual assault more generally, I confirm that DFID has extensive programming to support victims of rape. That includes shelter, counselling, case management, medical treatment and access to justice services. That includes some of the most recent cases linked to the suppression of protests. That addresses some of the points that Members raised.
We have been absolutely clear that the abuses and the failure to follow the due process of law contravene the fundamental tenets of international human rights standards and have no place in a democratic society. President Mnangagwa’s return to Zimbabwe was a full 10 days into the crisis. He committed to holding his security forces to account for human rights violations and spoke of the urgent need for a national dialogue and reconciliation. I am sure colleagues would agree that words are good, but that they need to be followed by deeds.
President Mnangagwa must act to stop the abuses and make good on those commitments. We are particularly concerned by the targeting of opposition and civil society in the wake of the protests. The abuses have continued since his return to the country. His Administration must act now and learn lessons from the events and the tragic violence that followed the election on 1 August 2018. The President must, as he promised, implement the recommendations of the commission of inquiry into the 1 August violence.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
As I was saying, President Mnangagwa must address the finding of the commission that the use of force by his security services was unjustified and disproportionate. The Government’s internet shutdown was also a disturbing curtailing of freedom of expression and the media. I was pleased that the High Court of Zimbabwe ruled the shutdown unconstitutional on 22 January.
The UK Government have been robust in our response to the crackdown, including working with the EU. Targeted EU suspended sanctions remain in place, including on Vice-President Chiwenga. I summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador on 17 January and told the ambassador that we expected Zimbabwe’s security forces to stop using disproportionate force, and that the Government should reinstate full internet access and investigate all allegations of human rights violations. The Foreign Secretary repeated that message publicly to President Mnangagwa on 21 January.
Last week, I met the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security to raise concerns about Zimbabwe. Yesterday, I spoke to Foreign Minister Moyo to reiterate our concern and to call for an end to ongoing human rights abuses. I am also travelling to the region this week, to urge a co-ordinated international approach to the crisis.
Our ambassador in Harare, Melanie Robinson, has delivered the same messages locally. She met Home Affairs Minister Mathema on 23 January and Foreign Minister Moyo on 25 January. The ambassador also met the Opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, on 16 January. She has also been meeting civil society groups supporting victims of the violence and working to bring perpetrators to account. The team that we have on the ground in Zimbabwe has been absolutely outstanding throughout. I pay tribute to our entire diplomatic service and to our DFID civil servants.
At the end of the day, Ministers are advised by civil servants, but it is we who decide. The programme of clear-eyed engagement with the new regime to encourage free and fair elections is one that I am happy to answer to in Parliament.
DFID supports the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. In fact, the UK provides extensive financial and technical assistance to a range of civil society organisations in Zimbabwe. They help to support Zimbabwean citizens to hold the state to account. I am sure that colleagues will understand that we do not publicise the names of our partners, to avoid putting them at risk. That in itself is an indictment of the Zimbabwean regime.
I assure colleagues that extensive work is being done on the humanitarian side, that no aid is channelled through the Government of Zimbabwe, and that the UK will continue to play a key role in ensuring that the very poorest in Zimbabwe will have their suffering minimised during this period when economic reforms need to be undertaken. It is vital that Zimbabwe’s political leaders focus on doing what is best for its people, with all parties rejecting violence and upholding the rule of law.
There is a Division in the House. Does the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) wish to respond to the debate? She is indicating that she does not. In that case, we will conclude the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the situation in Zimbabwe.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
English Channel: Illegal Seaborne Immigration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered illegal seaborne immigration across the English Channel.
May I say what a joy it is to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher? I am sure that we will all benefit from your benign chairmanship. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Minister and other hon. Members present.
The debate is about the number of people who are crossing the English channel illegally—often in very small unsailable, risky craft—to get to the United Kingdom. That is extremely dangerous; it has been described by the police as like
“trying to cross the M25 at rush-hour on foot.”
It is also driven by illegal people trafficking. Far too many of those who are successful remain in the United Kingdom, whether or not their claim is justifiable.
As I understand it, in 2018, 543 asylum seekers crossed the English channel illegally, including 438 in the last few months, October to December, of 2018. I invite the Minister to confirm those figures in her response. A lot of people are making that very risky crossing and those figures account only for those who make it. I would like to know from Her Majesty’s Government if there is any estimate of the number of people who have died at sea trying to make the crossing.
The main route is across the short straits between Dover and Calais, which cover only 22 or 23 miles. Recent reports, however, say that some asylum seekers try to make an even longer crossing. In January, four Iranians were caught near Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, having travelled across the North sea from Belgium—a journey 10 times longer than across the short straits between Dover and Calais. A lot of those people arrive along our coast, either on deserted stretches of the coastline or in small towns and villages. Their aim is to seek asylum. What concerns me and my constituents is that it is not only extremely risky activity that is dangerous to those seeking to cross the channel and to shipping, but it is effectively fuelled by horrendous people—the people traffickers—who charge those poor people a lot of money for the equipment to try to get across the channel.
There is also a security risk. The No. 1 priority of Her Majesty’s Government is to defend this nation. We do not know who those people are, where they come from or what their intentions are, and that activity needs to be stopped. The simplest way to stop it is this: if people are intercepted crossing the channel, they should be taken back to the ports from where they came, whether in France, Belgium or elsewhere.
When I was a television reporter I lived undercover in the Sangatte camp in Calais, and spent several weeks trying to get into the UK. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; the only way that we can stop the economic migrants—I would do exactly the same in their position, but they are economic migrants, not refugees, because they pass through many safe countries—is to break the idea that getting into Britain or Europe means they can stay there. Until we do that, the problem will go on and on.
I could not have put it better myself; my hon. Friend is exactly right. Those people need to be taken back to France, whether they are intercepted trying to cross the channel or after they have arrived in the United Kingdom.
I would like to know what we are doing to stop that illegal people trafficking. My understanding is that two Border Force cutters are bobbing around somewhere in the English channel. I am told that two more are on the way, because we had lent them to the EU to patrol the Mediterranean. Can the Minister confirm that there are two Border Force cutters in the English channel and that two more will be added to that number, and when that will happen? I understand that Border Force has a total of five cutters and six coastal patrol vessels at its disposal. Where are all those vessels deployed and what are they doing?
The Royal Navy has a patrol vessel in the channel, but I am reliably informed by sources in the Government that the Royal Navy actually has very little to do with Border Force operations. Its deployment is therefore probably just a cosmetic exercise by Her Majesty’s Government in order to seem tough on the issue. I have the highest regard for the sailors of the Royal Navy and for those who serve on the Border Force cutters—they do their best in difficult circumstances—but I am not convinced that the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence is taking the issue seriously enough. In her response, can the Minister outline what vessels we have in the English channel and what they are doing exactly? Have they intercepted any asylum seekers and, if they have, have they taken them back to France or Belgium, or have they simply ensured safe passage to these shores?
The Government have spent £6 million on new security equipment for the French, including CCTV, night goggles and automatic number plate recognition equipment, for deployment in ports on the French coast. I welcome that if it is true, but I am not quite sure why we, rather than the French, have to pay for it. That compares with the £148 million that Her Majesty’s Government have spent since 2014 on extra security at the port of Calais. I would like to see aerial surveillance close to the French coast, so that if small boats are detected trying to cross the channel, information can be relayed quickly to the French authorities, who can intercept them. Will the Minister tell the House whether the French have any vessels patrolling those waters? The rumour is that they have one French navy patrol boat doing something off the French coast. Is that true? Have any French vessels intercepted any asylum seekers and, if so, do they take them back to France, or do they offer them safe passage across the channel?
I understand that we have a comprehensive naval agreement between the Royal Navy and the French equivalent, covering a variety of defence and security issues. Under that agreement, is there any way in which we can have shared patrols so that wherever people are intercepted in the channel, they are taken back to France? It seems to me that the picture painted from all the television coverage is that if people are intercepted at sea, they have effectively made it—if intercepted at sea, they will be brought to the British coast. That acts as a magnet for people to try the passage, because they know that they do not have to get across the 23 miles; they only have to make it to the 12-mile limit and, once they have crossed it, they will be picked up and brought over to this country.
There is something called the Dublin convention, or the Dublin regulation, whereby if someone claims asylum in the United Kingdom and has been in a safe country on their way here, we are entitled to return them to that country. Are we using that? My information is that since 2015 we have only returned 1,186 asylum seekers under those rules, but the number of people claiming asylum in this country is absolutely enormous—33,780 in 2017, I understand—so we seem to return a very small number to the safe countries through which they came.
It might be an accident of geography, but we are surrounded by safe countries—pretty much all those 33,780 asylum claimants will have come through one, two, three or more safe countries before reaching our shores. Under the EU regulation, they should be returned to the first safe country in which they arrived. Those EU countries, however, do not fingerprint arrivals when they come in, so no documentation proves that they entered the EU via Italy, Greece or Spain. Especially before we leave the EU, we should insist that our present European partners enforce the regulation.
What will we do once we have left the European Union? Non-EU countries are attached to the Dublin regulation, so the idea that we have to be in the EU for it to work is simply not the case. Are we preparing the ground so that, once we leave, we can still be a member of the convention and return asylum seekers?
I also understand that 80,813 asylum applications were refused or withdrawn between 2010 and 2016, which is 80,813 asylum claimants whose claims were refused or withdrawn. Is that figure correct, and is it correct that of that number only 26,659, or 33%, were actually deported? If we are to turn down people applying for asylum in this country, we need to deport them, because they are not legal asylum claimants—but we are simply not doing that. The problem is that if those people stay in this country, even though their claim was illegal, after five or more years they can claim indefinite leave to remain. That whole problem is fuelling people coming to this country illegally: basically, they know that they can get away with it.
Civitas published an excellent report recently. The author was one David Wood, who was dangerously overqualified: he worked at the Home Office for nine years, including as deputy chief executive of the UK Border Agency and as director-general of immigration enforcement; and before that he was 31 years in the Metropolitan police. He probably knows what he is talking about. I agree absolutely with what he makes clear:
“There needs to be a two-pronged approach to the problem: to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants who enter in the first place, and to improve the rate of removal for those who are refused asylum.”
The report goes on:
“The difficulty is that if claimants know that all they have to do is to reach the UK, or Europe, claim asylum, and then disappear if the claim fails…then that is an incentive to pay criminals and take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean and, ultimately, the English Channel. The asylum system then becomes a tool of abuse for those we, as a country, have not provided with an entitlement to be here. Once an individual has been in a country unlawfully for a number of years, the courts are very reluctant to order their removal and many can then regularise their stay. Again, the unlawful entrants know this, and the systems incentivise deceptive behavior.”
He is absolutely right about that. What will the Minister do to tackle the issue?
A lot of the asylum seekers who cross the English Channel in small boats are, I understand, Iranians.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I shall draw my remarks to a close.
What nationality are the people crossing the English channel illegally? It is reported in the media that most of them are Iranian. I understand that is fuelled by Serbia giving Iranians visa-free access to Serbia for a four-month period. Some 40,000 Iranians took advantage of that and are seeking to disperse themselves around the EU, including coming to these shores. Apparently, we let 63% of Iranians in; France keeps 69% of Iranian applicants out. Two and a half thousand Iranians applied for asylum here each year between 2008 and 2017—more than in any other EU country except Germany. Why are they all seeking asylum in this country and not in other EU countries on the way? Less than 4% of the total have been forcibly removed or have chosen to leave. What action have we taken or are we taking with the Serbian Government to ensure that the visa programme is closed down?
This is a big issue of huge concern to many people. We must be able to defend our coastline from illegal immigration. We must not encourage, by either doing nothing or doing very little, the people traffickers who are driving this horrible trade that puts many lives at risk. Above all, we want to ensure we have secure borders and can control who comes here and who does not.
The Minister has until 5.13 pm, if she wishes to extend her remarks until then. That is because the previous debate finished early and we have been interrupted by Divisions.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Thank you for that clarification about how long I may speak for.
It is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that he secured this important debate. As many Members will know, this issue first came to prominence over the festive period, but it started significantly before that. We are very conscious that since October there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants attempting to cross the channel to the UK in small boats. During 2018, more than 500 migrants, most of them Iranian, attempted to travel to the UK on small vessels. Some 80% of them made their attempts in the last three months of the year. As a result, the Home Secretary announced a major incident and this issue has become an operational priority for the Home Office.
The decision to announce a major incident was taken not least to protect the lives of those attempting to make this dangerous crossing; my hon. Friend was absolutely right to point out how perilous it is. However, it was also taken because we have an absolute duty to protect the border and stop organised crime gangs exploiting vulnerable individuals who want to come here by sending them through the busiest shipping lane in the world. That is why we must stop this incredibly dangerous route becoming the new normal for those wanting to enter the UK illegally.
My hon. Friend pointed out the hazards to individual migrants and shipping, but there is also a very real hazard to brave volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, many of whom have been deployed from Dover to effect rescues in the channel, and to coastguard and Border Force officials, who have been on both our cutters and the coastal patrol vessels.
My hon. Friend was right to point out that this migration is driven very much by organised crime gangs. Just last month, five members of an organised crime group received a combined custodial sentence of 21 years and 10 months for smuggling migrants across the border, and last year alone, Immigration Enforcement’s criminal and financial investigation teams successfully disrupted 405 events of organised crime groups and their activity.
As well as those investigations, the Home Secretary has redeployed two Border Force cutters from overseas to the channel. While they are returning, other Border Force vessels have been supplemented by a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel. There has been some criticism from people who ask why the cutters have not returned sooner. It is important to note that those vessels are designed and built to work around coastal areas rather than to make longer distance or open ocean deployments. For the crews to transit the bay of Biscay during winter—especially while deep Atlantic pressures are sweeping across, causing high swells, at times of up to 14 metres—is a dangerous pursuit, which must not be taken carelessly. I fully support the principle that the safety of our Border Force commanders, crews and vessels is paramount.
All essential maintenance activity has now been carried out on the cutters. Both are fully crewed and await a favourable weather window to return to the UK safely and securely. Currently, our forecast for their return is early February. Upon their return, we will have four cutters available to operate in the channel, but Members will appreciate that I will not discuss operational deployment in detail. As I said, until the cutters’ return, we are supplementing coverage with a Royal Navy vessel. In addition to the cutters, we have Border Force coastal patrol vessels in place. I visited Dover over the Christmas period to see the great work Border Force officers are doing there. As the Home Secretary said last week, we have also started to deploy aerial surveillance of the English channel. However, Members will appreciate that that is covert surveillance and I do not wish to discuss those actions in detail.
It is important to note that we have not taken those actions alone. We have worked very closely with the French authorities to tackle the issue. Around 40% of people who attempted the crossing last year were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies. Just last week, along with the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, I visited the joint co-ordination and information centre in Calais to see at first hand the great co-operation between French and British authorities. In London last week, the Home Secretary and Mr Castaner signed a joint action plan to commit to reinforcing our border control. That builds on the 2018 Sandhurst treaty and demonstrates our determination to secure our shared border.
Through those efforts, we have reduced the number of individuals attempting the crossing from around 250 in December to 90 so far in January. However, we must not be complacent, and I am determined that we make further efforts to deter both the facilitators and the individuals who seek to make the crossing.
As Members will be aware, there is a widely accepted principle that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country they reach, be that France or elsewhere. Therefore, if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will always seek to return them to that state, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. For arrivals from safe non-EU states, asylum claims in the UK may be deemed inadmissible if the claimant has already been recognised as a refugee or given similar protection, if they have claimed asylum elsewhere, or if they have already spent five months in a safe country in which they could have claimed asylum.
We expect refugees to claim at the first reasonable opportunity. Indeed, that is a widely held international principle, and it certainly does not involve travelling through safe countries to reach the UK. Upholding that principle does not mean we will remove those who face persecution to their country. However, we will seek to return migrants to the first safe country in which they should have claimed asylum. Last week, a small number of migrants who entered the UK by small boat over Christmas were returned to France.
In the majority of cases, if a migrant is picked up in UK waters they are taken to the UK, and if they are picked up in French waters they are taken to France. The action plan we signed with France last week makes a commitment that migrants encountered in the channel will be taken to the nearest safe port, in accordance with international maritime law. Too often, migrants in the channel dictated to those who came to their rescue where they should be taken. That is not right, and I have asked officials to do all they can to prevent that “asylum shopping”, whether on land or at sea.
It is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and if we establish that a migrant first entered another EU member state, we will seek to return them there, in accordance with the Dublin regulation. We do not want people to think that if they leave a safe country such as France and get to Britain they will get to stay, which is why we are working out, with our French counterparts, ways to increase the number of returns we make.
As part of the joint action plan agreed last week, the UK and France made a renewed commitment to return migrants who attempt to cross the channel to the country they came from. That plan, which comes into force immediately and builds on the existing framework of co-operation in the Sandhurst treaty, states specifically:
“Migrants rescued at sea will be taken to a port of safety in accordance with international maritime law. The respective maritime authorities will liaise with each other about rescue operations to provide mutual assistance as necessary at sea, and to determine the appropriate port of safety for a rescued migrant.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering rightly raised the issue of funding. The UK has agreed to allocate more than £6 million to support France’s comprehensive regional action plan. As he pointed out, that has led to additional surveillance and security on French beaches and ports, as well as greater co-ordination between the French authorities on land and at sea. Just over half the investment will come from money already allocated under the Sandhurst treaty, which was signed back in January 2018, and an additional £3.2 million of new funding will be used for equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration via small boats.
The structures in place to co-ordinate operations in the channel include the joint maritime operations co-ordination centre and the national maritime information centre. They are both supported administratively by Border Force, but the Department for Transport is responsible for their governance. The Border Force maritime intelligence bureau and maritime co-ordination centre also maintain a close dialogue with the French authorities operating both at sea and in the air.
The UK’s obligations to those seeking asylum are clearly defined in UK law. Those obligations will continue to be met after Brexit, and the UK will continue to recognise refugees under the 1951 convention. If a deal is secured and finalised with the EU, we will continue to participate in all EU asylum directives we are part of, including the Dublin III regulation, throughout the implementation period, but my hon. Friend will be aware that we have not opted in to Dublin IV. The UK’s position on granting protection to those who need it will not change as a result of leaving the EU. As well as providing sanctuary to those who need it, we intend to continue to work together at every point in the migrant journey, to address push factors, to importantly tackle organised crime and to limit pull factors and abuse of claims.
I am listening to this good speech very closely. One of the pull factors for asylum seekers is that so many of those who make an asylum claim that is then rejected, get to stay here anyway. Some two thirds of rejected asylum claimants remain in this country, which is an appalling figure. What will Her Majesty’s Government do about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. He will be conscious that I have been in post as Minister of State for Immigration for a year now. One of the real concerns we have is how we address people who remain here without status and without a right given to them by the courts to be here. Both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are working very hard both on promoting voluntary returns and, where appropriate, using means of returning people to their safe country of origin by enforced measures. That does not always make us popular. I am conscious that we have an absolute duty to uphold our asylum system, to make it robust and to make it firm but fair, and part of that process is indeed returns.
My hon. Friend also mentioned pull factors in his speech, with specific reference to Iranians and he asked me to confirm that the majority of those making these small vessel crossings are Iranian. We believe in the region of 80% are Iranian, so that is a very high proportion. He also commented on the visa route through Serbia. I met—I am not sure if it was last week or the week before—the Serbian ambassador to raise this. She shared our concerns that Serbia had been used as a transit country. The visa route is now closed, but we are having close co-ordination with Serbia about the problem that has occurred there. The ambassador was positive about the role that Serbia could play, working with the UK.
There are many pull factors when it comes specifically to Iranians coming to the UK, one of which is language. I am well aware from my own constituency that a high number of Iranian citizens have come here, largely back in the 1970s. They have settled in the UK and been very successful. One of the big pull factors that we see for migration, throughout the middle east and north Africa region and beyond, is that when family members have come here, migrants often use that as reason to choose the UK, rather than other safe countries. The Home Secretary has been very clear on this point, and I hope I have been today as well. It is firmly our view that people should claim asylum in the first safe country and not the last, which in many cases is the UK.
Our position on granting protection will not change, as I said. We will still provide people with sanctuary, but we must continue with a strategy on the whole route of migration. The focus at the moment is very much on the channel, but we continue our work with our EU partners and beyond, across the MENA region, in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, looking at those strong routes of migration and working out how we can best counteract them.
Some of the best work that the UK does in counteracting the pull factors is through our extensive aid programmes, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, that make sure people can be safe, whether it be in the countries immediately surrounding Syria or further afield.
It is a month since the major incident was declared and the number of arrivals and attempts is around half that of the previous month. I would not want my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering or other Members to think that we are in any way complacent about that. We have seen these crossings attempted during perhaps the most dangerous part of the year. As spring and summer are approaching—I say that somewhat optimistically—it is imperative that we remain vigilant and continue our work with the French, to make sure that they too keep up the surveillance and observation on their beaches. When I was in Calais last week, I was conscious that it is a sparsely populated coastline, which is difficult to monitor closely. They have aerial surveillance and the French have been proactive in making sure they are playing their part. The Mayor of Calais was forceful in his message to me about how we could provide further help. It is important that we continue our work on a joint basis.
I am pleased by the progress we have made thus far, but more remains to be done. It is imperative that we go forward in the vein of joint co-operation, because migration across the channel is sadly not an issue that we will solve on our own.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered illegal seaborne immigration across the English Channel.
World Cancer Day
We now come to the next debate, which can continue with the benefit of unused time until 13 minutes past six.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Cancer Day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for being here to debate an important issue that sadly affects too many of our constituents.
This debate comes ahead of what will be the 20th World Cancer Day, which will take place on Monday 4 February. I am delighted that following a suggestion from Elaine Monro, who is a constituent of mine and a Cancer Research UK volunteer, the Palace of Westminster will mark World Cancer Day by lighting up in pink. As far as I am aware, this will be the first time that Westminster will be illuminated for World Cancer Day, so I would like to place on the record my thanks to the Speaker and the Lord Speaker for agreeing to that request.
World Cancer Day is an initiative led by the Union for International Cancer Control. Each year, the global cancer community is united in seeking to raise awareness about cancer prevention and treatment, and about the importance of Governments’ working together, tackling cancer globally. Last year’s World Cancer Day involved more than 1,000 activities in 139 countries, culminating in half a million social media mentions and over 14,000 press articles and broadcasts in 145 countries worldwide.
Cancer is a global problem. Last year, more than 18 million people worldwide were diagnosed with cancer, but the story of those patients varies hugely depending on where they were born; many countries have no access to basic treatments, such as radiotherapy. This is all about working together—a global push to tackle a global issue. As Cancer Research UK has put it:
“No single person, organisation, or country is going to beat cancer on its own. We must all work together.”
In the UK, a number of charities mark World Cancer Day through campaigns or fundraising activities. Cancer Research UK and CLIC Sargent both sell wristbands, which I am pleased that I and colleagues are wearing today, to raise funds and awareness about the day. Children with Cancer UK and the Institute of Cancer Research are also running campaigns to coincide with World Cancer Day and in previous years many other charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, Breast Cancer Now and Anthony Nolan, have also marked the day. Events are taking place across the United Kingdom, from the Scottish cancer prevention conference in Edinburgh to Cancer Research UK’s winter run in London.
I pay tribute to each and every one of those charities, their staff and volunteers; they do incredible work. They are truly a credit to our country and contribute significantly to the global effort to tackle cancer, doing hugely valuable work with global partners. Cancer Research UK is the largest independent funder of cancer research in the world and it has played a role in developing eight of the world’s top 10 cancer drugs. Can the Minister touch upon how the Government support this work and how they help the UK to continue to contribute to the global effort to tackle cancer? I know that some charities have concerns about the impact that Brexit may have on the UK’s continued contribution to this work.
There is some great work being carried out in my constituency; I shall mention a few examples. The Cancer Research UK team from Selkirk, led by Elaine Monro, has developed an official tartan scarf, which is produced in the Borders by Lochcarron and continues to sell like hot cakes, not only in Selkirk and Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. The Marie Curie team in the Borders, who now help patients with terminal illnesses generally, not just cancer, do some incredible work caring for people in their final days. I must not fail to mention that I will be running the London marathon in a few weeks to help raise funds to support my local Marie Curie nursing team. I hope that by raising £5,000 I shall be able to support their work in caring for people with terminal illness in my constituency.
In partnership with Macmillan, NHS Borders runs a dedicated, world-leading cancer centre at the Borders General Hospital, which pulls together specialist staff and treatments all in one location. NHS Borders is very good at meeting its cancer treatment waiting times, as well as targets for cancer screening, not least because of that Macmillan centre.
Although World Cancer Day is focused on tackling cancer globally, we are understandably focused on the UK’s record. Like most other developed nations, the UK has higher rates of cancer, but we also have quite high mortality rates—just above the average, according to the 2018 Global Cancer Observatory figures, and higher than many other developed nations. Given that the UK leads the way in vast amounts of cancer research, and that we have some of the world’s best cancer professionals and a universal health service, our mortality rates are simply too high.
Cancer continues to affect far too many people in the UK. More than 360,000 Brits are diagnosed with cancer each year, and that is expected to rise to the equivalent of one new case every minute by 2035. Every day, 12 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer, which remains the biggest killer of children by disease in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent speech and for securing this debate. When he mentions children’s cancer, he will be aware of a case that I have raised in Parliament and a guest that I had at Downing Street last week. Abbie Main, who sadly died on Christmas day two years ago, died of a very rare disease—sarcoma. Her legacy, through a difficult period, was to set up a charity. While great work is done by charities to raise funds for research into cancer, great work is also done by local charities such as Abbie’s Sparkle Foundation, raising money for people who have to live with cancer, to give them better facilities and better care in hospital.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I was delighted to meet Abbie’s brother at the Downing Street Burns supper last week. He has done an incredible amount of work to raise funds for Abbie’s Sparkle Foundation in memory of his sister. He is one of many examples, not only in Moray but in all our constituencies throughout the United Kingdom, of fundraising groups that are raising the profile of cancer and also raising much-needed funds to tackle it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate to the House. Does he welcome the initiative in my constituency, run by the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, which helps and supports many people who are suffering? We had a penguin parade in which 80 penguins were decorated across Tayside, and children through their summer holidays had to go on a penguin search. In the end, we raised £540,000 for the local Maggie’s Centre. It just shows that there are initiatives all across Scotland and the United Kingdom that are beneficial in raising as much money as possible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that example, which demonstrates that it is not just in large cities, but smaller communities, whether they be in Angus and Dundee, in Moray or across our county, that people are coming together to produce such great work to tackle this dreadful disease.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. One issue that is not often raised is that of people with cancer who have disabilities. Wendy Douglas, a constituent of mine, died of breast cancer aged just 36. She had very severe autism, and her cancer was caught too late because she was not able to communicate any symptoms or pain verbally to her family or doctors. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Wendy’s mother Eileen, who raises money for all kinds of cancer charities, and particularly for her work trying to raise awareness of cancer in those who cannot communicate it?
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a powerful case and example. I suppose the question is what would happen were it not for all these volunteers, raising huge amounts of money and raising awareness of cancer, and filling a gap that otherwise the NHS and the state would have to provide for. That is something we should not forget.
That is not to say that we have not made huge progress in tackling cancer. While diagnosis rates have risen significantly in the past decade, the number of people dying from cancer in this country is falling.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On the question of diagnosis, I congratulate Leeds Teaching Hospitals and the University of Leeds; their pathology department is the first in the world, I believe, to move away from glass slides to fully digitised diagnosis, and is now working with artificial intelligence, which will improve diagnosis rates and move us forward, so that many more people can get early treatment.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and raises a very good example. My brother’s father-in-law sadly died a couple of weeks ago. His treatment was provided by Leeds hospital, so I know the tremendous amount of resource and expertise they have in that particular hospital.
For breast cancer in Scotland, the mortality rate was 53 per 100,000 women in 1992. That has fallen to 32 per 100,000, despite the incidence of breast cancer increasing. In short, we are much better than we used to be at both identifying and treating cancer. That is because the UK has taken the steps that World Cancer Day promotes—in particular, tackling tobacco use and obesity levels and rolling out national cancer strategies.
Big issues clearly remain; pretty much all the cancer charities I have spoken to ahead of today’s debate agree with that. We need to get better at early diagnosis, because we know how much of a difference it can make. For example, if bowel cancer is diagnosed early, nine in 10 people will survive, but with a late diagnosis, the survival rate is only one in 10.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that research shows that the awareness around breast cancer means that women come forward quickly, but with bowel cancer people do not? Research done in the west of Scotland showed that the biggest delay was in going to the GP. We need to get people to talk about it, be open about it and go and get help.
I could not agree more. There is an awareness issue. Often, when people develop some symptoms that they are unsure of, they are nervous about going to the doctor. People need to be encouraged to step forward and go to their GP, to ensure that if there is an opportunity to get an early diagnosis, that is achieved, because the results are clearly much more positive if that is the case.
That is why we have early diagnosis targets across the UK, and why it is so serious that in Scotland, more than 20% of patients are waiting for longer than the six-week standard for diagnostic tests. Too many people are waiting too long for treatment. NHS boards north of the border are meant to take no more than two months to start treatment, but that target is being missed for every type of cancer. In some health boards, one in five patients did not meet that target. I am sure we have all received emails from patients who are faced with an agonising wait for treatment, knowing that they have cancer. While the missed targets are by no means unique to Scotland, I hope that we can all come together here—Scottish National party colleagues included—to call on the Scottish Government to make clear that that needs to get better.
I should also be interested to hear the Minister’s views on whether any consideration has been given to reviewing treatment target times with a view to introducing faster treatment targets for certain types of cancer. It strikes me as odd that across the UK our targets are the same for all cancers, regardless of type.
One significant reason for the time taken to diagnose and treat is problems to do with workforce. Demand for tests is only going to increase, due to a growing and ageing population, but we already do not have enough staff in a range of areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me on the impact of no longer having nursing bursaries? When I was a nurse, I had a nursing bursary. I could not have trained without that. We really must bring back the bursary. It is all right saying, “We have all these vacancies and we are going to have all these nurses,” but if people do not train, we will not have the people to fill those vacancies.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. There is a range of options that we need to consider. I recently met my local NHS health board, and I meet a number of my GPs frequently. There are vacancies in all different parts of the health service, and we need to consider how we get more people in to do the jobs that we need. There is a particular challenge in my constituency—many rural communities do not have enough GPs or get enough nurses. Bursaries may be part of that. There are a range of things that we need to do, and that the Scottish Government and the UK Government can do, to address those issues.
For example, there is a 10% vacancy rate for radiology consultants across Scotland. One in five of the current workforce are expected to retire over the next five years. So, yes, there are challenges just now, but there are future challenges coming down the line.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about access to existing treatments, but does he agree that more work has to be done on conditions for which treatment is not yet available? The late Tessa Jowell worked very hard on this issue, right up to the end of her life, trying to improve access to new treatments and to improve care for people with conditions for which there is perhaps no treatment out there. Does he agree that we should pay tribute to Tessa Jowell and continue that work?
I absolutely agree. We need to do much more to promote awareness of those conditions. I will come on later to the availability of drugs.
The Scottish Government recognise that the high number of vacancies is a problem, but missed their target for increasing the number of nurse endoscopists by 40%. In England, nurse vacancies are similarly too high. The availability of drugs is also an issue that concerns charities and patients alike. The most high-profile example is the breast cancer drug Perjeta, which was rejected for use three times in Scotland but was finally approved just a few weeks ago. Quicker and more cost-effective access to the latest and best treatments must be a priority in future.
I know that colleagues will want to press the Minister on what the UK Government are doing to tackle cancer in England, but all these issues need to be addressed across all parts of our United Kingdom. As a Scottish MP, I am conscious that the Minister is not directly responsible for the cancer waiting times and treatments for my constituents. However, UK-wide approaches should be taken to help us tackle cancer head on, together.
World Cancer Day is all about recognising that cancer knows no boundaries, and that individual Governments cannot address these challenges in isolation. That begs the question: are the UK Government and devolved Governments working as well together on this issue as they should be? For example, should we buy some drugs and equipment on a UK-wide basis? Current practice is that four separate bodies approve new drugs across the UK. While that allows different parts of the UK to make their own decisions, surely a UK-wide approach would make sense in some cases. We could make ultra-orphan drugs more affordable or use economies of scale to deliver common drugs at lower cost.
I am therefore interested in the Minister’s views on this suggestion. Have there been any discussions with the devolved Administrations about this possibility? Are health boards across the UK as good as they can be at talking to each other and sharing best practice? Representing a constituency on the border with England, I all too often see examples of that border acting as a barrier to co-operation. I certainly hope that that is not the case when it comes to cancer treatment.
I hugely welcome the extra funding coming the NHS’s way, which will of course mean an extra £2 billion a year for the Scottish Government to spend on health, if they choose. Will the Minister outline what that means for cancer treatment in England, and how much of that extra funding will be used to improve treatment and reduce cancer waiting times?
Can we do more to support families with the cost of cancer treatment? Parents spend an average £600 a month in additional expenses as a result of their child’s active cancer treatment, much of that on travel costs. Young people in my constituency often have to make a 100-mile round trip to Edinburgh for tests and treatment. Children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent is calling for a cancer patient travel fund, as well as a review of the disability living allowance and personal independence payments, to backdate young cancer patients’ financial support to their day of diagnosis. I certainly think that these are reasonable suggestions.
As a parent who supported a child through cancer, I know at first hand how much a child going through cancer costs and the financial strain, as well as the emotional and physical strain, on parents and families. Universal credit does not take account of the cost of cancer; both parents often have to give up work to support one child in hospital and other children at home or at school. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is absolutely crippling for those families?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for sharing her experience. This all needs to be looked at. As I said, DLA and PIP should at the very least be backdated to the date of diagnosis. Additional support, particularly for parents like those in my constituency who have to travel such long distances to access treatment, should be factored into the calculation of how much they might be entitled to. We need to ensure that the system at least recognises those extra financial pressures.
I utterly agree with the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on financial support. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that having cancer costs £570 a month, which is very difficult for some families. Will the hon. Gentleman suggest to the Minister that removing the expensive parking charges at hospitals in England would make a little difference? At the moment, a parent being stuck in hospital for eight hours and then paying through the nose for parking adds insult to injury.
I am grateful for that point. I am certainly aware of constituents, including hospital staff, facing huge penalties from the health board for parking at Borders General Hospital, because of the limited parking spaces—that is a consequence of the hospital’s parking arrangements. There are lots of dynamics, but Scotland has just as many issues as England.
It is great to see so many colleagues present today. I am pleased that Parliament will mark World Cancer Day in such a public and clear way on Monday. We have made great strides in treating cancer in recent years, thanks in no small part to the work of charities, researchers and health professionals across every part of our United Kingdom. World Cancer Day is an opportunity for us all to come together to make a strong commitment to continue the fight against this dreadful disease.
As I mentioned earlier, I have personal experience of cancer, both as a parent and a child; my mother died of breast cancer when I was five years old. From a very young age I have seen the impact of cancer on families. I have also seen treatments improve over the decades, from the time that my mother was suffering and had what appeared to me, at that young age, to be fairly rudimentary treatments, to what are now much more sophisticated treatments, which are available to children and adults in centres of excellence such as the Christie Hospital in Manchester.
The support has also evolved greatly. I pay tribute not only to the very brave people going through cancer, and their families who support them, but to amazing organisations such as Mummy’s Star, a national charity set up in my constituency to support families with children whose parent is dying or has died of cancer. It does amazing work counselling children and helping them through the process of treatment and grief, and often bereavement as well.
I also pay tribute to our hospices. Blythe House Hospice in my constituency has a brilliant “Breast Friends” group, which I have visited and spoken to. They are very brave survivors of cancer, often two or possibly even three times over. The support they get from the local hospice and community really helps them to keep going through the emotionally and physically gruelling trauma of cancer treatment.
We have very particular concerns in High Peak. At the end of last year, just after Breast Cancer Awareness Month, breast services for patients in North Derbyshire were withdrawn from our local hospital. As that is our nearest hospital, it was incredibly traumatic for patients and families, who were faced with possibly very long distances to travel for treatment. It is extremely difficult to drive and no public transport is available. That is exceedingly worrying for them, on top of the worry and trauma of their diagnosis and treatment.
Services were also withdrawn from gastroenterology patients in Macclesfield Hospital in north Derbyshire—our other nearby hospital. On both occasions, that was due to staffing shortages; there are 42,000 vacancies for registered nurses. I urge the Minister to look at the amount of investment that is going in to support not just the nurses, but the radiotherapists and radiologists who are so important in cancer diagnosis and care.
Early diagnosis is important for people’s outcomes. We do not want to see any more people than have to going through treatment, and we certainly do not want them to find out about their cancer at a late stage, when it is much more difficult for them to recover and when the prognosis is much worse.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) about the costs of cancer. Again, universal credit is an extremely complicated system for people—not just the parents of children with cancer but cancer sufferers themselves—to go through. It took six hours at a computer for one young man, Neil, who is cited by Macmillan Cancer Support, to complete the claim form for universal credit while suffering from the treatment for a brain tumour. We are putting cancer patients through an absolutely sub-human system when they should already have as much support as possible.
I ask the Minister to speak to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about the strain and lack of support available to parents of children with cancer or to cancer sufferers in claiming universal credit. At the moment, almost one in five patients with cancer struggles to pay their bills, which should not be the case for people who need to put all their efforts and energy into getting well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate.
It is staggering that about 4,600 women and more than 20 men in Scotland are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Sadly, few people, particularly males, realise that men can also be affected. My researcher was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 16 years ago and remains eternally grateful for the care and support she received from the national health service. Her paternal grandmother and great-aunt were of a different, less fortunate generation and lost their lives to breast cancer shortly after diagnosis, although a delay in seeking assistance was undoubtedly a factor in their demise.
Regrettably, previous generations were often reticent to seek assistance, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge or embarrassment. Encouraging openness and interaction, as World Cancer Day does, and media campaigns from the national health service and various cancer charities are vital if we are to empower people through education and advocacy, including peer support, to improve their quality of life and life expectancy following a cancer diagnosis.
I welcome the mention of embarrassment. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we have a particular job to do with men to get beyond the embarrassment of talking about bowels, bowel motions and other bodily functions? If people cannot talk about it with their families, they will struggle to talk about it with a GP.
I totally agree; I am of the embarrassed generation. It is challenging for males—I concede that it is men in particular—to go to the general practitioner, but we need to educate them about making that first contact and being conscious of the risk. It is particularly my generation; the generation following are a bit less self-conscious and more eager to go to the GP, where they will find that help.
As a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I have become acutely aware of the importance and benefits of research. In 2014, the city of Glasgow, not far from my constituency, hosted the European breast cancer conference. Such conferences bring together experts in their respective fields to share knowledge and experience for the benefit of patients and to consider preventive measures for the future such as developments in immunotherapy that harness the body’s immune system to target cancer cells. As I understand it, such developments may be able to complement, if not replace, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the side effects of which many breast cancer patients find more challenging than the cancer itself.
Treatment has very much improved, recognising the importance of body image in an era when the media often seek to portray the perfect person. The charity Breast Cancer Care stages regular fashion shows in which those who take to the catwalk have themselves been cancer patients. The male and female models, resplendent in their latest outfits, send a very clear message that they have beaten or are robustly fighting cancer.
Tamoxifen, a common medication for breast cancer treatment, is now just one of a range of drugs available to patients. It was heartening to learn of the Scottish Medicines Consortium’s decision to approve the life-extending drug Perjeta for routine use in treating secondary breast cancer on Scotland’s national health service. Compared with existing treatments, the drug apparently has the potential to offer valuable time to those with incurable HER2-positive secondary breast cancer.
Nowadays, cancer is treated by multi-disciplinary teams that include GPs, surgeons, oncologists, radiographers, radiologists and clinical nurse specialists. It is crucial that we have appropriate succession planning so that we can replace those vital experts as they reach retirement age or change career for whatever reason. It is quite concerning that 20% of breast radiologists in Scotland are predicted to retire before 2025, according to the charity Breast Cancer Now. We need to get the wheels in motion to replace those very important individuals.
Cancer is a challenge to our society. It changes people’s lives in different ways, and sadly some go on to develop lymphoedema. However, collectively we can meet that challenge. Some countries have a lesser incidence, so it may be prudent, as an aspect of self-help, to reflect on diet and lifestyle choices in the UK that may have a bearing on development or outcomes. The potential effects of obesity, cigarettes and alcohol need to be seriously addressed. That apart, we need to focus on the future needs of the researchers and medical professionals to protect the population who are at risk of cancer.
Finally, my constituents and I thank the national health service professionals, the volunteer drivers, the penguins of Dundee, the marathon runners from the borders and the charities. They all make the challenge of living and dealing with cancer that wee bit easier.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I will keep my speech fairly brief. I speak as an ex-nurse who worked in gynaecology outpatient clinics every Tuesday morning and as a mum whose daughter died of breast cancer at just 35. She was not overweight and she did not smoke—sometimes it is just the luck of the draw, sadly.
I will make a few short points, but the most important is that although we talk about a lot of issues related to cancer, we need to consider the people—the patients with families and lives. It is not just a disease in the abstract; it affects people. That should make us determined that, austerity or no austerity, those people should get the very best treatment possible.
We must ensure that we have the best screenings processes, because everybody knows that early detection means more positive outcomes. We need to put an end to people not being called for mammograms or waiting 12 weeks for the result of a smear test, as they do where I live—surely we can do better than that. If people have a positive diagnosis, treatment must be prompt. There should be no geographical inequalities in access to care or to a clinical nurse specialist, whether for the psychological or physical manifestations of disease.
That level of treatment should be there and everybody should be able to access it, but that is just not happening. I work with a lot of cancer groups because of my experience, and it really is not equal out there. As for surgery—fancy going into hospital and having the surgery cancelled! That is what happened to a constituent of mine. It is stressful enough going in, never mind having it cancelled and then having to go back. I spoke to another constituent recently who could not access a particular drug. People just should not have those battles; the disease is enough of a battle in itself.
If a patient is lucky enough to be successfully treated, it is vital that they can access regular follow-ups as necessary. I am a patron of Westminster Health Forum and we had a day last summer when we looked at cancer treatment in the round. One of the things we talked about was having Skype sessions instead of cancer patients having to trail all the way to a hospital and sit around. Because there are not enough nurses or doctors—I speak from experience—appointments are often an hour or an hour and a half behind. People spend hours and hours sitting around when they could have had a Skype session. That is not for every patient, but some can do it. It is about looking at what is most appropriate for that patient.
We must ensure that patient experience surveys are completed so that we know what is happening to patients and can collate that and act on it. If the disease progresses, we must ensure psychological support and medical treatment are as good as they can be. There should not be variations in end of life care. There are not enough nurses in our NHS. We have nurses in hospitals at the end of life, and we have nurses in out-patient clinics. They are a vital part of the treatment. We have lots of vacancies and apprenticeships are not being taken up at the rate that was hoped for. We need nursing bursaries back. It is not just me and Labour politicians who are saying that; the Royal College of Nursing is saying that, too. We need more nurses and more radiologists, and to get that we need bursaries.
Patients should not have to struggle with the benefits system. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) talked about filling out a form. I remember the film “I, Daniel Blake” was shown recently and a very thoughtless person—a senior politician—put something on social media saying, “It is just a film, you know.” Actually, it is what people are going through. What was said was shameful, and I do not think any apology was ever forthcoming.
Recently, I had a constituent whose husband died of cancer. He should have been on a very high level of benefits at the end, but his benefits were messed up. She tried to claim them after his death because she had to borrow money to bury him. My office fought and fought for several weeks, and we got that backdated money, but if we had not done that, she would have not got it. She would still be paying money back for that funeral, and that is shameful.
As politicians, I think we have the best of intentions, and I mean everyone in every party, but it is important that those intentions and words are matched by effective actions that ensure that people get the treatment they deserve.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing the debate and giving us all an opportunity to participate. This issue is very close to my heart. My father battled and had the victory over cancer three times during his lifetime, but watching him and my mother go through it was incredibly tough. My dad survived those three times due to the clinical and surgical skills of the doctor, the care of the nurses, who were excellent, and, as a man of faith, the prayers of God’s people. That is the experience of so many people throughout my constituency and throughout the UK.
Cancer is no man’s respecter and the reality is that in our lifetime one out of two of us in this place will have an experience of it. I was in touch with CLIC Sargent—indeed, it was in touch with all of us. It is a wonderful charity that is very active in my constituency and I am happy to support it. It gave me the following figures, which are simply heartbreaking. Some 4,450 children and young people under 25 are diagnosed with cancer every year. That is 12 children and young people every day. Those are extremely worrying figures. Around four in five children and young people survive cancer for five years or more, yet cancer remains the disease that is the biggest killer of children and young people in the UK aged from one to 24 years old.
Cancer impacts on young people and parents’ mental health. Undergoing cancer treatment is challenging, isolating and deeply personal. Young people’s ability to cope is often seriously affected by the emotional pressures and the mental health impact of a diagnosis and months of treatment. CLIC Sargent’s 2017 “Hidden costs” report found that 79% of young people felt cancer had a serious impact on their emotional wellbeing. During their cancer treatment, 70% of young people experience depression, 83% experience loneliness, 90% experience anxiety and 42% experience panic attacks. More than half of parents—63%—say they experience depression during their child’s treatment. It affects not only the child, but the family and the parents. More than a third of parents experience panic attacks and 84% experience loneliness.
I stand with CLIC Sargent, Macmillan, Marie Curie and all the other charities that are too numerous to mention, but which do great work. They are asking the Government to improve support for young cancer patients and their parents by making changes to the way benefits such as PIPs and DLA are accessed. The stories that I have heard from others in the Chamber, in my constituency and elsewhere, and in the news are disgraceful. I know that the Minister is not responsible for the DWP, but he does, I believe, have compassion and a heart, and hopefully he will pass these issues on to the Minister who is responsible. I have written to that Minister about these matters as well.
Not only do I need to see change; the system needs to see change. As treatment starts immediately and often takes place a long way from home, the costs start building up from day one. There must be a review of access to DLA and personal independence payments for young cancer patients, so that they can get their financial support backdated from the day of diagnosis. It is so important to have that financial support in place, because that worries the parents, the families, and everyone else at a time when they need that support most desperately.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement in April 2018 of the establishment of a children’s funeral fund in England, I ask the Minister to further clarify when that fund will be introduced. Again, that is not his responsibility, but perhaps he can ask that question of the Minister who is responsible. Furthermore, will the Minister provide an update on what the Government are doing to ensure that parental bereavement leave, which would give all employed parents a right to two weeks’ leave if they lose a child, is ready to be introduced in 2020?
I will quickly mention the importance of partnerships between universities and businesses to develop cures for cancer and other diseases: Queen’s University Belfast does that extremely well, and that partnership works. I will also mention that I had the opportunity to speak with Bowel Cancer UK the other day. Every year in Northern Ireland, 1,100 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer and 400 people die. By 2035, 332,000 more lives could be lost to that disease in the UK. There are some things that Bowel Cancer UK has asked for, but I will not go into those in the time I have left.
These topics are heartbreaking, but they need to be addressed. I ask the Minister for a response, either in this place or in writing, on how changes are going to be made to support the families of children with cancer throughout the UK. How can we make these impossible, dark, soul-wrenching things a little bit better? We can make them better by using common sense, and using funding in appropriate ways to provide support as and when it is needed, lightening the load in the only way that we can. That will not take away the pain of watching a child go through this, or losing a child, but it will take away pressure that should not exist in the first place.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Sir Christopher, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on having secured it. World Cancer Day reminds us all that although much progress has been made, there are still many challenges to be tackled in improving treatment, support and outcomes for individuals with cancer.
Today, the importance of World Cancer Day could not be greater. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that 2.5 million people in the UK are currently living with cancer, and about another 360,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, with nearly 1,000 diagnosed every day. Those people are our colleagues, neighbours, friends and family: everyone will have their own experience of a loved one who has been taken from them because of this dreadful illness. Tomorrow, I will be attending the funeral of my brother-in-law, Jimmy Boyle, who was taken from us by cancer. He was a loving husband to my sister Mary Jo and a fantastic father to my niece Lorna. Both spent the last six months caring for and looking after Jimmy, and both know that he will be in peaceful rest, free from pain, and will never stop loving them.
This Saturday, I will be attending a teenage cancer fundraiser with my other nieces, Eva and Lia, who along with their friends wanted to do something for teenagers who are living with cancer. It is my family’s experience and those of families across the country that motivate all of us in this House to campaign for better support for those living with cancer, or living with someone who has cancer. I am sure that other Members have been contacted in the days leading up to this debate, be it by those living with cancer, their loved ones, or charities fighting on their behalf. It is staggering to me that when a person is undergoing cancer treatment, as mentioned earlier, the average cost to their family is £600 a month. The idea that people undergoing treatment and their families should face such a financial burden at a time of emotional and personal distress is shocking, and we have heard from hon. Members about universal credit.
The UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments could and should do more to provide financial support for these families. Young lives Vs Cancer has proposed that a young cancer patient travel fund should be established to help families with the cost of transport to and from treatment, as other Members have already mentioned. That is a great idea that is worth exploring and indeed we should look at reducing the cost of travel for treatment.
We should also look at improving the public transport links to our hospitals. My local bus and rail services are at their worst level. That is another debate. In my own area of North Lanarkshire, Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 120 local women develop breast cancer every year and it is expected that there will be a 27% increase in breast cancer diagnoses in Scotland by 2027. Yet Breast Cancer Now suggests that 20% of Scotland’s cancer radiologists will have retired by 2025.
So I call on the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland to ensure that we recruit the next generation of radiologists, so that women can access the service they need. Whether we are considering breast cancer or other types of cancer, we must ensure that the NHS is properly funded and staffed, and capable of improving the treatment, care and positive outcomes that those who are living with cancer deserve. That matters not just in Scotland; it matters here as well, and across the whole of the UK.
I conclude by paying tribute to my local Maggie’s Centre, the Lanarkshire Beatson and of course St Andrew’s Hospice, which cared for my brother-in-law, Jimmy, for their care and support, and the services that they provide for those living with cancer, their families and their friends, and I urge everyone in this House to show their support for World Cancer Day.
It is great to have this debate on the 20th World Cancer Day and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont)—we need shorter constituency names—on securing it.
Obviously, it is very clear in my record and from my previous speeches that I have been a breast cancer surgeon for over 30 years. When I graduated in the 1980s, the survival rate from breast cancer at five years was approximately 53%; we are now in the high 80s and approaching 90%. However, breast cancer is not just about survival. In those days, treatment was incredibly destructive. Women lost their breasts through mastectomy and had very harsh radiotherapy, the side effects of which were awful, and there was very little in the way of other forms of treatment.
Now, we practice much less destructive surgery; we have computed tomography-planned radiotherapy; and our drugs are designed and developed, such as the immunotherapy that the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) mentioned. So the treatment has moved on, the survival rate has moved on and the impact on patients has moved on.
Critical to that movement, as is said over and over, is early diagnosis; that is the importance of screening. However, what we are seeing in many screening programmes, particularly in breast cancer screening programmes, is a gradual fall-off. So it is important that we encourage people to attend the screening that they are suitable for, whether that is cervical screening or breast cancer screening, or—as I say—people putting poo in the post once they reach that age, examining themselves, and not being embarrassed to go and see a doctor.
We have raised this issue in previous discussions, but we are lucky enough in Scotland that bowel screening—the poo in the post programme—starts at 50, and because the endoscopy that results from a positive test does not just treat cancer but gives us the opportunity to remove a polyp, the incidence of bowel cancer in men in Scotland has fallen by 18%. So bowel cancer screening is not just finding cancer early; it is a chance to prevent the cancer from developing. The Government said last August that they would also move to that earlier screening age instead of 60, and I would be grateful to know from the Minister roughly when that change will happen.
However, what challenges screening, as Members have already talked about, is workforce. Radiology is not just an issue in Scotland; radiology is an issue right across the UK. I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer and our report last year—“A Mixed Picture”—showed very clearly that as three radiologists retire, they are likely to be replaced by only two.
The other group is endoscopers. If we are running screening, and if screening in England is going to start earlier, that will generate more endoscopies. The NHS is not buildings and machines; it is people. That is a challenge for all of us and I have to say that unfortunately I think Brexit will make workforce more difficult as we go forward.
The number of cancers increases as we get older, as does the complexity of treatment. We are discovering new drugs by design, genetics and cell biology rather than just by accident, as many drugs in the past were found. We have to turn that around. We talk about access to a new drug that might be £100,000 a treatment, but how much cheaper to try to prevent the cancer in the first place? Most members of the public know that smoking is the No. 1 cause, but smoking has been going down, particularly since the smoking ban in the mid-2000s. In fact, lung cancer incidence in men is down by just over 17%. That means 17% of men not getting lung cancer, not having a big operation and not dying from it. There is absolutely no treatment that will achieve that.
What many people do not know is that obesity is the second commonest cause. We have discussed things such as childhood obesity strategies, and the need for a watershed on advertising, high-quality school meals and active transport, so it is easier for people to maintain a healthy weight and to remain fit. We live in an obesogenic society; it is really hard for people to resist things when they are bombarded from every direction. Low-quality carbohydrate food is still much cheaper than fresh vegetables and protein. That always means people are slanted in the wrong direction.
Alcohol is also a cause of cancer. I am proud that, after five years of being dragged through the courts, the Scottish Government have managed to introduce minimum unit pricing, particularly to tackle white ciders—the really poor-quality alcohol at the lower end of the spectrum.
To tackle cancer, the best strategy is to prevent it. That requires a health-in-all-policies approach right across every Department and Government. As well as preventing cancer, that would prevent many of the chronic illnesses that cause debility in older life. As well as preventing cancer, it would prevent other suffering; we would improve the quality of life of our senior citizens. That is something we should all aspire to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this timely debate, and the other hon. Members for their excellent contributions: my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George), for Lincoln (Karen Lee) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford).
World Cancer Day gives us an opportunity to come together and celebrate how far we have come in cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. It also gives us a chance to reflect on what more needs to be done to fight cancer. The Minister and I have previously worked closely together as co-chairs, as we often say in debates, on breast cancer, as I also have with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. That shows that all the main parties’ spokespersons are committed to working together on this issue.
Cancer is a very emotive issue, as we have heard in this debate in some passionate contributions. One in two of us will be affected by it in our lifetime. Most of us in this room will be here today because of the personal effect that cancer has had on our or our family’s lives. In the UK alone, more than 360,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year. That figure is expected to rise to more than half a million cancer cases every year by 2035. That is equivalent to one new case every minute. That makes the Prime Minister’s commitment to diagnose three in four cancers at an early stage by 2028 all the more ambitious.
Our NHS workforce do a fantastic job every day in caring for us and our loved ones, but as we have heard, there are chronic staff shortages across the NHS. There are vacancies for 102,000 staff, including 41,000 nurses. That makes it harder and harder for them to do the jobs that they want to do. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln, who as a former nurse powerfully made the point about the effect that the lack of the bursary has on the situation. Cancer Research UK has also pointed to the chronic shortages in the diagnostic workforce, with over one in 10 positions unfilled nationally. This is a worrying trend, as more people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer over the years and the NHS cancer workforce are already struggling to keep up with demand.
We covered a lot of this ground with the Minister in the debate earlier this month, in which we also discussed the long-term plan. The Minister said that,
“we must ensure that we have the right staff with the appropriate skills and expertise to ensure that patients receive the best care.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 60WH.]
I agree with him. Therefore, will he tell the House when he plans to publish the workforce implementation plan and when the budget for Health Education England will be set? Patients have a right to the best possible care and it is crucial that the NHS workforce are able to provide that. That is why I believe the Minister should consider it—as he probably does—a top priority.
It will be World Cancer Day on Monday, and I am proudly wearing my wristband. We must recognise the contribution the UK in particular has made to cancer diagnosis, care and treatment around the world. For example, Cancer Research UK has played a role in developing eight of the world’s top 10 cancer drugs. More than a quarter of the clinical trials that Cancer Research UK funds involve at least one other country. Cancer Research UK’s international grand challenge scheme brings together researchers from the UK, Europe and around the world on three five-year programmes, to take on some of the toughest challenges in cancer research. Cancer is an international challenge, which is why we should all unite together against cancer.
It is not just about surviving cancer. As we have heard today, it is about living well with cancer. According to Macmillan, 70% of people with cancer are living with one or more other serious health condition, often as a result of cancer and its treatment. Similarly, a third of people who have completed their treatment in the last two years say that their emotional wellbeing is still affected. As we have heard, during and after treatment, the cost of cancer can be a major issue with regard to not just loss of earnings, but travel and transport costs, and the increasingly expensive parking charges.
I have supported Macmillan’s Cost of Cancer campaign for over 10 years now. It is sad that we still need to debate and discuss this, but it is still a major issue. The issue of parking could be very easily solved. The cost of cancer also includes access to benefits, as we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak and for Lincoln. That can also be solved easily by some joined-up action across Government. That is why, when thinking about cancer, we must not forget about after-care, advice and support, especially when it comes to further symptoms that could become secondary cancer. In this regard, I believe that it is vitally important that GPs are aware of all symptoms of secondary cancer, so that it can be picked up as soon as possible.
Finally, in this World Cancer Day debate, I want to pay tribute to all the NHS cancer workforce for all the hard work they do, day in, day out. Whether diagnosing, treating, caring or advising, they do a difficult, but fantastic job, which we are all very grateful for. I also pay tribute to the scientists and researchers who discover the groundbreaking new treatments and information. Finally, I thank the campaigners and volunteers. We cannot beat cancer alone, which is why we must all come together to do so. As always, I look forward to working with the Minister to do just that.
As ever, time is short, so I cannot answer everyone’s questions, but that is the nature of Westminster Hall. It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher.
It is an honour, as always, as the Cancer Minister, to respond to these debates. As the shadow Minister said, we have been here before many times. The three Front Benchers are consistent and other hon. Members move around us. This time I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing the debate and on lighting up Parliament pink next Monday. It will be my wife’s birthday, so she will enjoy that. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend for the event on the Terrace.
The title of the debate, World Cancer Day, suggests two things to me—the fact that cancer is recognised as important enough to have its own world day, and the fact that it transcends every international border and, tragically, affects everybody, regardless of their standing, their age and the wealth they accumulate. It touches everybody, including those of us here in the Chamber. I offer my condolences to the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and his family. I hope that tomorrow goes well, and I am sure they will honour his late brother-in-law. I wish the hon. Gentleman well.
The hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) always speaks with great passion in cancer debates. She is another one of the consistencies in such debates—it is always nice to see her. She talked about the screening review. She was not here on Monday, when we had a very big debate on cervical cancer. There was a Petitions Committee debate initiated by a young lady who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31, leaving four very young children. It was a heartbreaking story, and all her friends were in the Gallery. There was obviously a lot of talk about cervical cancer and the screening age for it. As I said in that debate, Sir Mike Richards is doing a big piece of work for the Department on screening programmes, including for cervical and breast cancer. I am optimistic about what the review will bring, and I know the hon. Lady will take great interest in that report.
The hon. Lady mentioned the national cancer patient experience survey. As she knows, I agree that it is very important, because we need to know what patients are saying. She will therefore be pleased that I decided to give that a permanent opt-out from the new Data Guardian rules, to ensure that that can continue and that the data can be good. She also mentioned technology and Skype interactions, and I know that she will be pleased that technology is one of the three priorities of the new Secretary of State, and that it is at the centre of the long-term plan. She is right to say that words should be followed by action—indeed, that is why the 10-year plan for the NHS has been produced and there will be £20.5 billion a year of extra investment for the NHS in England.
As always, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) spoke from great experience and raised many good points, which I shall not repeat. She is right to say that smoking is still the biggest preventable killer in our United Kingdom. We must and will do better, and we have a very ambitious tobacco control plan in England. We had an interesting ten-minute rule Bill in the House yesterday on smoking in NHS properties in England, which provoked an interesting debate. The Bill was promoted by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin).
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire asked about bowel cancer screening at 50. I cannot give a firm commitment on timescales for lowering the age to 50, but the NHS long-term plan makes it clear that we are committed to doing so as soon as practically possible, which is the key phrase—it has to be practically possible. NHS England and Public Health England, for which I am responsible, are working hard on that. They know I am on their case about it, and I hope to be able to confirm a start date very shortly. I am following it incredibly closely and will say more as soon as I can—I know that she will be watching like a hawk.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) and my shadow, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), talked about the workforce. As I have said many times, the NHS is nothing without the 1.3 million staff who patients depend on day in, day out. With the right workforce in place, we can deliver the long-term plan. In December 2017, Health Education England published the first ever cancer workforce plan, in which we set out our ambitious plans to expand the capacity and skills of the NHS cancer workforce. That was a welcome first step, and the Secretary of State has now commissioned Baroness Dido Harding—she is working closely with Sir David Behan, formerly of the Care Quality Commission—to lead a number of programmes to engage with the key NHS interests and develop a detailed workforce implementation plan. In March they will present initial recommendations to the Department and Secretary of State, who will then consider the detailed proposals to grow the workforce rapidly as we move towards the big spending review.
The sponsor of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, raised many great points. He asked about the health boards that they have north of the border, and about those boards’ collaboration with the 19 cancer alliances that we have in England. My cancer alliance is down in Wessex—I should not think that they have an awful lot of interaction. He raises a good point, and I am always up for more collaboration—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) often raises that subject with me, certainly in the absence of an Executive at Stormont. He knows that the offer is always there. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question on health boards, to be honest, there is not much interaction between them and the cancer alliances at that level, but I would say there is significant collaboration at the clinical level, particularly on research. The original bowel cancer screening trial was based at sites in England and Scotland. Indeed, the chair of the UK National Screening Committee, Professor Bob Steele, is based at the University of Dundee. There was therefore a lot of clinical interaction, but maybe not enough practical interaction. I am happy to explore ways to make that happen.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned research, and I think that our record is clear: we are, and want to remain, a world leader in cancer research. That is made clear in the long-term plan. The National Institute for Health Research spent £137 million on cancer research in 2016-17, and the largest research investment in a disease area was in cancer.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen), who is no longer in his place, made the point about the late Baroness Jowell and her work on brain tumours. Her great legacy there is to stimulate the research community to come forward with decent research proposals that we can back. We heard the same in last week’s debate on the treatment of ME: it is not for Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care to decide what research projects will and will not happen. The projects have to come from the research community, and they have to be good to be backed by the NIHR. That is the same for cancer as it is for every area.
How much of the extra NHS funding will be used to tackle cancer? The funding breakdown for the long-term plan is still being finalised, but the plan has significant ambition for England around the 75% stage 1 to early diagnosis standard. I am very proud of that. We have already put £600 million into the 19 cancer alliances in England, and there will be more. They are very much our delivery mechanism and, as I said, I would be very keen to see any interaction between those two across the border—especially on behalf of those who represent seats close to the border.
Many other points were made—those around PIP and DLA were well made—and I know that CLIC met the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). She, too, will take notice of all the points made in the debate.
I wish to give my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 60 seconds to sum up, so I will conclude. We have made great strides in cancer in the past 20 years, and we have the best survival rate ever. On research, diagnostics, treatment and, ultimately, survival rates, however, there is so much more to do. Anyone who knows me or listens to me when I respond to such debates knows that I certainly do not lack ambition in this area, nor is there an ounce of complacency in me.
I am grateful to all Members who contributed to the debate. I am struck, as ever, by how many of us have had friends, families or people in our community—as well as people through casework—affected so personally by this terrible illness. I am also grateful for the Minister’s comments. I make a final plug for 4 February, the coming Monday, which is World Cancer Day. If people are able to join the team from Cancer Research and others on the Terrace at about 5.30 pm on Monday, they will see the Palace of Westminster lit in pink to mark that important day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Cancer Day.