Wednesday 27 February 2019
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Eating Disorders Awareness Week
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Eating Disorders Awareness week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, for this very important debate. As we are in the middle of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, this is a timely day on which to remind ourselves of the good work that has been achieved in the past year, but also to look forward to where we want to be by this time next year.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Beat—the Eating Disorders Association—and the many other charities that have been in touch with me ahead of the debate for their sheer hard work and determination to keep this issue at the forefront of the Government agenda. I see many of you in the Public Gallery and want to say thank you for all that you do.
There is always great cross-party support in debates on eating disorders. I have been in this place for only 18 months, but it is the debates in which we are all travelling in the same direction that are so powerful, because we show our constituents that we can agree, and when we do, this place is much stronger and improves lives much more quickly.
As we know, eating disorders affect more than 1.25 million people throughout the United Kingdom, but that is a conservative figure, because many sufferers have not yet been diagnosed or identified. It is for that reason that this debate is opportune. We are all here today for those in the Gallery, for those who are fighting for this cause, for those who are currently fighting this debilitating disease, for those who have fought and come through it and for those who are currently living their daily lives as normal but may suffer at some point in the future. My colleagues and I will always fight your corner, and I am delighted to see many hon. Members here today to support the debate.
I wish to begin with the topic of stigma, which is the focus of the Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign this year. As we know, eating disorders affect all age groups, genders and backgrounds. An eating disorder is not a diet gone wrong, a fad or a phase. It is not caused simply by a young female being exposed frequently to magazine images of skinny models or going on online platforms with similar material and deciding that they wish to look the same. It is an illness so deep rooted in the individual that it leads to devastating consequences for those who are suffering and for those around them.
My hon. Friend has talked about the effect on constituents. I have to say that, in this case, it was the effect on me, because a close member of my family suffered from an eating disorder. The help that was available was pretty close to negligible. Does my hon. Friend think that there is much more that we can do to increase the help available for people whose family members are in that sort of situation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The sufferer of course needs specialist support, but I will go on to speak about how I believe that we also desperately need to support families and, indeed, all those around them. This disease is so complex that it is often difficult to treat and, trapped in the disease, sufferers feel that there is simply no way out. Many believe that if the disease does not take them, they will take their own life, just to rid themselves of it. No matter how strong an individual is, an eating disorder is so all-consuming that once it has taken hold, some people believe that they will never live a normal life again, and many do not: the condition becomes chronic for about 20% of sufferers.
Normally, a series of events has encouraged the person’s mind to think differently about their body image. Perhaps they have decided that they are not good enough: one too many times, people or life events have created a narrative in their mind that they are inferior to those around them, or perhaps life is out of control in many aspects—nothing is going right. They compare themselves with others around them and see only the negatives in their own life and the positives in other lives, but they can take back control of one aspect of their life—control of what they eat. That may well start off as a diet, but not a diet that would be followed by a normal individual, which often fails. It soon becomes a focus and then a more extreme calorie-counting exercise that involves hiding food, burning off every calorie possible and social isolationism. Before they know it, the candle is burning at both ends. Before a sufferer has identified that they need help, the registered impact on their body is always perceived as being caused by some other reason. There is a voice inside a sufferer screaming that too much food is being consumed or not enough exercise is being done—praise when they miss a meal or hear the sound of a rumbling stomach. That voice inside a sufferer will not and cannot go away.
The loved ones around a sufferer see their daughter, son or friend fade into a shadow of their former self; they are helpless in every way. Parents struggle and are in emotional turmoil. They know that if their daughter falls and skins her knee, they can bathe it, put a plaster on it and make it better. If their son is upset because he is struggling at school, they can get him the support that he needs. We have solutions, and it is human nature to want to fix and help those we love. However, when it comes to eating disorders, everyone is helpless and feels hopeless. No one, unless they are trained, can provide support, other than the individual themselves. Many, if not all, sufferers who have managed to recover will say that it was the hardest journey that they have ever taken, but having spoken to some of Beat’s bravest ambassadors, we have seen at first hand the amazing, inspiring individuals they can become—but that is only if we help them.
As a result of the stigma attached to eating disorders, black, Asian and ethnic minority people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and people from less affluent backgrounds are less likely to seek and get medical support. Research developed ahead of today’s debate showed that four in 10 people believe that eating disorders were more prevalent in white people than in other ethnicities, yet research shows that they are just as common or more common in the BAME community. Thirty per cent. thought eating disorders were more likely to affect the more affluent; in fact, they evolve at the same rate irrespective of education or income. Sixty per cent. of respondents believed that they affected only young people. That is having a significant impact on adults coming forward for support, and we see men and boys not being referred as soon as girls and females.
The statistics might not be surprising, but we have to challenge them continually. They are preventing certain groups in society from appealing for help, and creating an inequality in support. As a result, people are more ill by the time they are referred, making the recovery process much more difficult and sometimes impossible. We have seen fantastic work by members of the royal family as well as other notable figures, who have raised awareness of mental health disorders and who seek to break down the barriers to people speaking out, but also recognise that it is okay to talk and okay for someone to say that they need help.
When sufferers reach out for help, they have often been suffering for years. They need urgent specialist help immediately. The average cycle of relapse and recovery lasts six years, and there must be constant efforts to reduce that. To undo months and years of torture, specialists need time and resources to allow a patient to open up, to analyse, to find out the root causes, to get under the skin of the issues and to develop the mind to fundamentally change—a long-term approach, but a life-changing one.
Families, too, need guidance and support on how to deal with this troubling time. Many do not know where to go for support. This was one comment from the social media campaign that I ran before the debate:
“When anorexia arrives in a family it is like throwing a grenade into a home and watching it explode...caring for my daughter has impacted on the mental health of all those in my family.”
That is why I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that family-based therapy would provide a much-needed support base throughout the recovery process.
Without the investment of time, those patients will be back in our GP surgeries and hospitals time and again. We must look beyond weight. This is an issue of the mind, so whether it is a case of referral or recovery, it cannot be determined by the number on the scales. As a result of the digital campaign that I ran, I heard from many people up and down the country, and I thank them for coming forward with their stories. One person, who wished to remain anonymous, said that
“my granddaughter never got so thin but she died nearly 7 years ago at the age of 19 and I feel that if there had been some positive help she would have been alive today.”
She had been disregarded simply because her weight was not low enough. Recent research shows that GPs do not have adequate training for supporting individuals who have an eating disorder, with three in 10 sufferers not being referred when required.
I call Louise Haigh.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I am troubled by the fact that, a year on, services in York are still completely inadequate. On Friday, I spoke to GPs who are trying to manage individuals with eating disorders. They have been instructed to take patients’ blood, to monitor the electrolytes, and to weigh them frequently, without the psychological support and clinical competencies that are necessary. Is it not absolutely essential that GPs receive the training that they need, so that we can put in place the holistic services that patients need?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. I will come on to speak about that in detail. I hope the Minister will give further detail on how she is approaching that with other Departments.
In any five-year medical degree at UK medical schools the average amount of training in eating disorders was 1.8 hours, and one in five gave no training at all. The concern is not confined to one part of the United Kingdom; it is a widespread issue across all nations. That seems absolutely extraordinary, given that this is one of the most fatal mental health disorders, affecting 1.25 million people. GPs must be able to tell the difference between a healthy exercise routine and a compulsive one, low body-mass index and lack of nutrition, and going through a diet phase and the beginning of an eating disorder. They must recognise the clear indicators and how eating disorders manifest in order to deliver the right treatment plan, but to do that they need training.
I would like to see further encouragement of self-referrals and more work with schools, where many members of staff may be able to identify unusual behaviour. I warmly welcome the approach taken by my secondary school, Brechin High School, which has appointed a member of staff to lead on mental health who has a support base within the school and is linked up with the local primary schools, so that at the end of primary school, when an eating disorder—or any mental health disorder—may begin to develop, that support is monitored and continued as pupils enter secondary school and progress their education. I am keen to hear from the Minister how the training aspect can be addressed. I would like to hear from the Scottish National party spokesperson how the Scottish Government could do more to include training within university tuition, and how they will address the role that schools can play in early intervention.
When help is needed, how long do we have to wait? Waiting time targets have been a focal part of the campaigns run by many charities for years. In England and Wales, by 2021, 95% of eating disorder referrals for those under-19 are due to reach a specialist within four weeks, and within one week for urgent cases. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are on track to deliver that target, which is already making a huge impact? Along with the charities, I warmly welcome the ambition shown by this Government.
This is not a political debate and I do not wish to make it one. However, once again, when I wrote to the Scottish Government asking why they refused to equalise that target for young people, no substantive reason was given. I have also asked the Scottish Minister for Mental Health about that, and I look forward to her response. The UK Government have stepped up to treat under-19s. I encourage work so that those targets continue to be ambitious. We know that the sooner patients are seen, the higher the chance of recovery and the lower the long-term cost to the NHS. The current 18-week target in Scotland simply has to be addressed. When sufferers determine they need help, their illness is more likely to be treatable, but by the time they may be seen, the likely outcome is much more negative and potentially fatal. I want my constituents to have the same opportunity for early intervention as people south of the border. I want the Scottish Government urgently to address this needless inequality.
As we know, those with an eating disorder often take up to three years to identify that they have such a disorder. Sufferers must do two things: realise something is wrong and wish to make themselves better. When a sufferer comes forward, given their scepticism about all those trying to help them, we have a moral responsibility to grasp their ask for help and support them as a matter of urgency. That requires step-by-step help, to nurture these fragile but wonderful people and not let any of them fall out of the system.
I want to conclude with a point about social media, which is a force for good in many ways, but a stain on the life of many families, which recognise it as the tool that tore them apart. All age groups regularly browse online to determine what everyone else is up to or to catch up on the news, but they normally see only positive news. I have not seen one Instagram image of anyone in this room getting up in the morning, doing mundane things, such as washing the dishes, or having a bad day at work, because we submit only positive images. However, if we also put out negative images, things might feel slightly more normal.
Social media is a platform for showcasing the positive aspect of our lives, with no balance of the negative aspect that we encounter every day. For someone with an eating disorder, or any mental health disorder, that only accentuates their problems. Recent cases have made us all stop and think. There is so much pro-ana and pro-mia material promoting a harmful mindset, which forms or heightens an eating disorder. We must not forget that this material is often put up by sufferers themselves, so we must push supportive materials towards those who promote such images and material.
I do not believe that that is above any of the social media companies. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport made a hugely positive step forward in that respect earlier this month. Will the Minister explain the conversations that her Department has had with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport? Social media platforms cannot take all the positives of social media, but refuse to take responsibility for some of the damage it causes.
In summary, I would like to thank all hon. Members for supporting this debate. I know that it is close to the hearts of many in this place. I hope that the Minister will show those who have suffered, those who are suffering and those who do not yet know that they will suffer that this Government are on their side. I hope the Minister will show that we will never rest on our laurels, but will continue to address the flaws and increase our ambition, reduce waiting times, develop support and facilities for all who need it, wherever they live in the country, intervene early and offer the right support throughout the whole process, expel the postcode lottery of support, encourage our world-class universities to improve teaching programmes, so that they are in line with the impact this disease has on so many, and ensure that social media companies play their part in bucking this trend. We have to help those who are, through no fault of their own, helpless about their own aid. For many it will be the first time in their lives, because that is what Government is here to do: help you when you cannot help yourself.
Before I move on to the other speakers, I point out for the record that the intervention was made by Rachael Maskell, not Louise Haigh, her close friend. However, I noticed that she did not notice; confusion reigns. I call Paul Farrelly.
Thank you, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on her success in securing this debate during Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I thank Beat, the eating disorders campaign group, for its unstinting efforts on behalf of the more than 1 million sufferers across the UK. After this debate, from 11 o’clock to 3 pm, during the lobby of Parliament, I am hosting a drop-in event with my good friend, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), in room R of Portcullis House; colleagues here and those listening can go there to find out more about Beat’s work.
This debate follows that secured last October by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), which shows that support for this cause is truly cross-party. We also had a debate on the subject in September with the children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), highlighting the issues for vulnerable children going into adulthood. In that debate, I focused on concerns that regularly pop up in my area of north Staffordshire for young adults suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, which have such devastating effects on them and their families.
The impact on young adults is one example of a core concern of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s groundbreaking 2017 report, which I will focus on again today. This suffering and vulnerability does not stop when children reach the age of 18. However, in my immediate locality—Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands, which have a population of well over 600,000 people—the commissioning of specialist support and treatment does stop at the age of 18.
Staffordshire is served by six clinical commissioning groups, with one common accountable officer. The budget for specialist, post-18 eating disorder services in the four CCGs serving the centre, east and south of the county is £428,000 a year, but for the North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent CCGs, it is exactly zero. Sufferers who, up to the age of 18, had been used to specialist support in the community or at in-patient facilities have to rely thereafter on the hard-pressed, overstretched and generalist child and adult mental health teams. It is a postcode lottery—an “unwarranted variation”, in the NHS jargon—that has persisted for far too long, is patently unfair and lets local families down badly.
Of course, the last thing those families and their children want is the publicity that would bring pressure to bear on the CCGs to change course and give them the specialist support that is available just a few miles down the road. Last September, however, after our debate here, one of my constituents, Sarah Pustkowski, was brave enough to speak out publicly about the effects on her.
Sarah is 25 and developed anorexia nervosa when she was 16. She is slowly recovering—touch wood—but her father says that she is not out of the woods yet. Her case shows how long the anomaly in our area has persisted, because her dad first approached me in 2014 when she was 20 to relate what a cliff edge they had fallen off, in terms of specialist support.
Until then, Sarah had access to the excellent Kinver Centre, a hospital in Stafford just down the A34. When discharged, however, all the expert support that the family was used to stopped, because our CCGs failed to commission it. The Kinver Centre can admit people from all over the country, not just the county, but not from north Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent or Staffordshire Moorlands, because our CCGs provide no funding. Sarah and her family are not alone.
Since the autumn, we have been working with sufferers, concerned local health professionals and providers, and Beat to resolve the situation. A business case has been drawn up for the two CCGs as part of their annual prioritisation process, which aims at consistent commissioning across the county. The professionals involved are more hopeful than before but, with intense financial pressures on our NHS, I pray that the dawn does not again prove false in the coming weeks.
Something that should help to make the case and, one would hope, to inform and form Government policy, is information as to what happens across the country as a whole. Last October, after our debate here, we asked the new Secretary of State which of the 190-plus CCGs in England also did not provide specialist 18-plus eating disorder services. His written reply stated:
“This information is not held centrally…NHS England does not hold information about all of the specific services commissioned by individual CCGs.”
But specialist in-patient units are commissioned by NHS England, so the response could have been more helpful.
The Secretary of State’s reply went on to say that the Government were investing £150 million in community-based care for eating disorders, which will mean that
“70…new or extended…services are now either open or in development”,
which will benefit
“at least 3,350 children and young people a year”.
We are still, however, at a loss to know precisely where. Perhaps the Minister could write to us with some more details after the debate.
In December, we served freedom of information requests on all 190-plus of England’s CCGs about the full extent of their services and funding. As hon. Members who have done that before know, it is a mammoth exercise that takes quite some following up. Thankfully, only a handful of CCGs did not respond and are being chased, and about 25 swerved the questions and gave little meaningful information, but the overall picture for adults and young adults is certainly better than the situation in North Staffordshire, and no doubt in the areas of many hon. Members present.The majority do provide specialist 18-plus services—in the community, at least.
There is still a glaring hole in the picture of specialist adult in-patient provision, however. Most CCGs defaulted on that question and referred it to our old friends at NHS England. Coming full circle, we formally FOI-ed it, too, in the new year. Under the statutory limits, a reply was due by last Thursday, but despite chasing, none has yet come. It would have been good to have had it by the end of last week to inform our local business case, and it would have been respectful to the families and sufferers for NHS England to have responded before this awareness week.
I am sorry to speak at length about our travails, but the saga demonstrates only too clearly how difficult it is for conscientious campaigners such as Beat, the families and the MPs who support them to lay their hands on the information they need. If it is difficult for us, it is fair to ask how Ministers can draw up effective and informed policy, and make sure that recommendations for improvement, such as those in the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report, are put into practice.
One of the five core recommendations in that report was that
“The Department of Health and NHS England should review the existing quality and availability of adult eating disorder services to achieve parity with child and adolescent services.”
It is that lack of parity, and the progress in reducing it, that we have been so frustratingly trying to get to the bottom of in the last six months. If the Minister has more information, I hope that she will share it with us and, importantly, ensure that NHS England does, too.
Before I call John Lamont, I inform hon. Members that I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople by 10.30 am at the latest. After some simple arithmetic, that works out as about five minutes per speaker, if we are to get everybody in, as I intend to. I will not impose a hard time limit now, but each speaker should bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this important debate during Eating Disorders Awareness Week. She made a passionate, well-informed and thoughtful speech, which I learned much from.
In my area of the Scottish Borders, some great charities and organisations work with young people to overcome issues such as eating disorders. There are now counsellors in every high school in the Scottish Borders, so teenagers have someone to speak to at school who is not a parent or teacher. We also have a specialist eating disorder nurse based in the Scottish Borders and some great work is done in the child and adolescent mental health service to support younger people.
I am sure that there are many good examples around the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has spoken to me about the Brownhill eating disorder clinic in his constituency. He holds the clinicians and the work they do for his constituents in high regard.
Treatment across Scotland is patchy to say the least. In the Scottish Borders, there are no community tier 1 services aimed at preventing the onset of eating disorders locally and waiting times for help are far too high, as we have heard. I will focus on the impact that technology can have on the issue. The all-party parliamentary group on technology addiction looks at how smartphones, tablets and social media can have a detrimental impact on our health.
We have all seen the shocking stories about how diet pills, some of which contain lethal substances, are readily available to buy on social media, or how eating disorder-related hashtags and accounts are available and easily accessible to vulnerable people. Some of the content is more subtle. Platforms where we show only the best of ourselves mean that young people in particular can find it harder to feel content with their lives. Online images of thin and happy people clearly act as a trigger for some.
Social media platforms are working to tackle the issue and remove negative content, and so they should be. The idea of allowing the promotion of a category of mental health illness that kills so many people is completely unacceptable. I agree with those who argue that the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on their final warning and that if they do not step up to properly tackle the issue, it is time to regulate. Given the clear link between mental health and social media use or abuse, there is certainly a case for requiring tech companies to mitigate the negative effects of their product, as the tobacco and alcohol industries are required to.
Although TV, films and social media are undoubtedly part of the problem, it is important to recognise the good work that some do. There are more documentaries and storylines in our soaps raising awareness about eating disorders. Social media platforms are also taking some action to tackle the issue. For example, Instagram has rolled out a warning that displays when users search for pro-eating disorder content and offers them help and support.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for making an excellent speech. Does he agree that this process should be about more than warnings and that there should be a proactive attempt to stop this sort of material being visible in the first place, which needs to be algorithmic and technology-based, so that people can recover in the community?
I absolutely agree with that important point and the social media platforms that are responsible for their content need to understand it much more clearly. They cannot just allow a free market, as it were, on their space, and if people are putting content on it that is clearly leading people to harm themselves, action needs to be taken, either by the companies themselves or, if they fail to do so, by the Government.
Perhaps above all, a vast array of online communities has been set up by people who have been through this experience and want to offer support. The internet can provide something that is immensely powerful—the sense that someone is not alone if they suffer from an eating disorder. That is what makes this issue so complicated. When it comes to eating disorders, the internet is both an enabler and potentially a powerful tool for good.
We will never get to a situation where eating disorder triggers can be removed entirely from social media. So, instead let us use technology as part of the solution, as best we can.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who secured this debate and made an excellent speech, and to the other colleagues who have contributed to it so far.
Without doubt, eating disorders have acquired a greater profile in recent years, and there are two things that are apparent and that we can learn from. One is that, as a society, we are better at talking about these things, and organisations such as Beat, which has already been mentioned, do outstanding work in making people feel that the stigma around these issues is something that we, as a society, need to get over, and therefore people will feel more comfortable about coming forward, which is good.
The second lesson that we might learn is that we are a society that, for some of the reasons that have already been mentioned, increasingly breeds poor mental health. So, I will focus my remarks on the support—or lack of it—for young people living with mental health conditions and particularly for those with eating disorders in my constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale.
Very often, it is the parents who come to me first. Parents come to me with two clear emotions: one is terror; and the other is guilt. It is absolutely essential that we are clear to people with eating disorders, and indeed to those who love and support them, that there is absolutely no need for guilt; there is no blame attached whatever. Likewise, we need to tackle the fear and the terror, which often stem from a lack of understanding or an absence of hope as to where to go next, by showing that there are things that we can do to help.
In my constituency, we estimate that three quarters of young people with eating disorders were not seen within the target time of one month, and that 100% of those with an urgent need were not seen within the target time of two weeks. That is not acceptable, but what is even more terrifying is that the numbers involved are ludicrous. In the year up to August 2018, a grand total of 13 young people in South Lakeland were registered as living with eating disorders, which is baloney: we all know that that is not true. I would comfortably say that the real number is 10 times higher. In my office, we deal with at least one new case of an eating disorder every single week. So what is happening, such that our young people with eating disorders are falling through the gaps? We need to look at a whole range of things, but I especially ask the Minister to investigate personally why this is happening, particularly in South Lakeland but—I suspect—around the country as well.
One GP got in touch with me about this issue. I will not name her, but she was very keen for me to share her experience with everyone here in Westminster Hall and everyone who is listening. She did not have any training at all in mental health while she was gaining her qualifications, but she has sought to bring herself up to speed on it in her job. She is a general practitioner. She does her best to help young people and indeed people of all ages presenting with mental health conditions, but she feeds people into the system, or refers people into it, and there is no triage.
There is no general triage once a young person has been referred for help: “Does this person have anxiety?”; “Does this person have an eating disorder?”; or, “Does this person have some other condition?” That person could be referred to the wrong silo and then sit there for months, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. I am sure that is one window into why such pitifully low numbers of people are being diagnosed, against the backdrop of what I think are many hundreds of people living with a condition who are left in desperation and not even getting the beginnings of the support that they desperately need. We are failing to catch our children and our young people when they are at their most vulnerable, so how can we then go and help them?
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence. The consequences for someone of not getting the right treatment are absolutely huge and extremely serious. However, even those who are diagnosed—this goes for younger people and for adults—may not get the help that they need. Colleagues have already referred to the fact that people will have experience—I have, with constituents of mine—of being told, “Frankly, you’re not thin enough yet. Come back when you are. You are not manifesting physical conditions to back up your mental health condition, therefore come back later on.”
Would somebody who had been fortunate enough to have been diagnosed with cancer at stage 1 be told, “Clear off till you’ve got stage 4. Come back when you’re at death’s door”? Come off it, but that is how we treat people with mental health conditions and in particular people living with eating disorders. There are people with eating disorders—I can think of some who I know myself—who may have experienced no appreciable or noticeable weight loss. They still have an eating disorder, which needs to be tackled, and tackled quickly.
In Cumbria, three years ago—to the week—we were promised a specialist one-to-one eating disorder service for young people. Three years on, it still does not exist. That is why so many people will be cynical about promises made at this time of year at events such as this. We want to see real delivery for all of our young people in every part of the country.
Finally, the Government—rightly—emphasised preventive care in the NHS long-term plan just a few weeks ago. However, just a few days before Christmas they had sneaked out the funding cuts for public health, which is genuinely preventive care. Those cuts included a £500,000 cut in preventive health care in Cumbria. At the moment in Cumbria, we spend 75p per child on preventive health care. If we want to support those people who may struggle with eating disorders in the future, it is vital that we invest early and invest now. That will be not only more efficient and more effective, but far, far kinder.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for securing this important debate in Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
According to YoungMinds, one in 12 teenagers in the United Kingdom suffer from eating disorders, and about 25% of those with eating disorders are noted as being male. Statistics for 2017-18 recorded that 536 Scots were treated for eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that take many forms, such as anorexia nervosa, which was mentioned earlier, whereby people erroneously believe that they are overweight.
The root causes of these disorders are unclear, but they may include things such as career choices. The biographies of many jockeys speak of crash dieting and sometimes dehydrating themselves with the aid of saunas, to reach a low weight prior to a race. The image of the ballerina is of a slight and fragile figure floating through the air. What must it take to maintain such a body image? In show-business, there are child stars of stage and screen for whom the limelight proves too much, or perhaps they fear losing popularity during the transition to adulthood. How will growing up affect their future career?
It is important not to stereotype and to be alert to the fact that eating disorders befall people regardless of their age, gender, race, or socioeconomic circumstances. What is clear are the dangers associated with the resulting malnutrition and the serious complications, such as osteoporosis, low blood pressure, heart failure, oedema and anaemia. Anorexia can be life-threatening; it is one of the leading causes of deaths related to mental health problems. Every single such loss is a tragedy for the individual themselves and their family—indeed, the unnecessary loss of a life is also a tragedy for the nation.
Binge eating is characterised by an uncontrolled addiction to food, involving over-eating and exceedingly fast eating in secret, whether the person is hungry or not. And bulimia is a combination of the worst elements of both anorexia and binge eating.
Encouragement to seek treatment at the earliest opportunity will no doubt enhance the chances of recovery, which very often is a long-term process, requiring an immense amount of support from professionals and family members. However, as with any addiction, the person must acknowledge their problem—in this case, unhealthy eating—and they themselves must want to seek assistance. Anxiety and depression are common threads, whether as a cause or a result of an eating disorder.
I acknowledge the good work of the child and adolescent mental health staff of NHS Ayrshire & Arran, but from the complaints I have heard at surgeries from my constituents about waiting times for appointments, it is clear that the numbers of those much-welcomed professional staff do not match society’s demand for their time and support. When individuals with eating disorders reach out for help, we as a society must grasp that hand and be there for them. I welcome the new guidelines for Scotland announced at the beginning of this week, which it is stated will assist in providing a range of approaches to mental health issues, ensuring that help is available when and where it is needed.
In closing, I ask both Governments to continue providing vital funding for much-needed support services for persons afflicted with eating disorders and their heartbroken families—heartbroken does not sum it up; it does not describe the agony and the pain that those families go through. I also ask them to consider whether there needs to be enhanced control of slimming and dietary products, especially the marketing of those products to young and vulnerable individuals. I understand from the news that only this week, concerns were expressed by Food Standards Scotland that DNP—dinitrophenol, an industrial chemical—is being illegally marketed as a slimming pill, which FSS considers to be potentially lethal. It is still available to purchase on the internet, and we as a Government need to rein in social media platforms that permit, condone, or have a policy of turning a blind eye for the pursuit of profit, regardless of the health and wellbeing of our young people. As a Government, as has been said earlier, we must seriously bring those people to book for the damage and harm that they are causing to families throughout the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for having secured this important debate, and I am delighted to participate in it, although I wish it was not necessary. A debate about Eating Disorders Awareness Week is, of course, very important.
Despite what we have heard, in so many ways, we have come so far with regards to this illness. I think back to someone of the stature of Karen Carpenter, who died in 1983 at the age of 32, when I was 15 years old. Those of us among the general population who mourned her passing did not appreciate what an eating disorder was. It has to be said that we are still learning, but we are having this debate during Eating Disorders Awareness Week, at a time when the general public are more aware—and becoming much more aware—of an illness that so many people can fall prey to. This week is an international event that aims to raise further awareness of the issue of eating disorders, and the stigma that too often goes with them. Charities work hard to encourage people from all walks of life to come forward, because as we have heard, this illness respects no gender, no class and no race.
This week, the UK eating disorder charity Beat has continued to work very hard to break down the barriers that so many people face when they try to access support. It is important that those living with this condition and their families know that they are not alone, so sharing stories of how an eating disorder has affected others from all walks of life can be a powerful tool. Those who are in the darkest days of this disorder can be greatly comforted by hearing the stories and experiences of those who have lived with it, but have come through it and are in recovery. However, we also need to remember, as we heard earlier, that eating disorders can still be present during the process of recovery, and indeed can overshadow a person’s entire life, even when recovery might seem a long time ago.
One of the key barriers to tackling eating disorders is that too often, they are stereotyped and not taken seriously. Only by continuing to raise awareness of the struggles that sufferers go through, by talking about eating disorders in places like this and by supporting charities in their outreach work, can we make the change happen that we all want. We have heard—it is worth repeating—that social media has brought added complications to dealing with an already complex condition. Our young people are immersed in social media, a forum that projects so-called “perfect” images of lifestyles and bodies, and given how much young people are exposed to those images, it is not difficult to see how a young, vulnerable person could lose sight of what looks healthy or real. We know about the scandal of particular websites advising people on how to not eat without it being noticed by friends and family, which is very chilling indeed.
We need to continue to drive improvements in mental health services and ensure that everyone who needs high-quality mental health services, including people with eating disorders, has access to the care that they need when they need it. There is no denying that there have been positive first steps in increasing the visibility and public awareness of eating disorders and mental health challenges over the past decade. However, the demand on mental health services is so great that we must always seek ways to do better by those who need the specialist support that those conditions require.
Challenges remain for mental health services across the United Kingdom, and it is worth remembering that since the year 2000, the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders has risen by 15%, and hospital admissions for adult males suffering from an eating disorder have risen by 70% over the past six years. That demonstrates the scale of the challenge that we face. On top of that, on average, it takes about 149 weeks before those experiencing an eating disorder even begin to seek help—that is almost three years lost. Offering support in ways that match young people’s lives—in fact, these days, all people’s lives—means increasing the amount of online peer support that can assist with recovery. That peer support allows someone living with this disorder to pair with a trained volunteer who has recovered from an eating disorder, who can share their experiences and offer support as and when it is needed.
Having this week dedicated to raising the profile of this illness, talking about it, and recognising its complexities and its stigma is a good start, and represents very good progress from where we were in the 1980s, when so many of us could not understand how Karen Carpenter died or appreciate the full extent of the difficulties that her family had gone through. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go, and this debate shows that we are keen to go further down that road.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on having secured this debate, especially during this important week—Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Last month, we had a debate on eating disorders, during which I revealed my own struggle with body dysmorphia when I was a teenager. Since then, I have gone on a journey. My mother spoke to me after that debate and asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?” I said, “Well, it was normal. That was how I thought everybody acted. I wanted to look that way, and it was normal and personal.” My mother said, “The only thing I noticed about you during that period was that you were a little bit obsessive and compulsive about things”, but that was a symptom of what I was going through.
I am one of the lucky ones, because my body dysmorphia went away on its own. I feel that I have gone on a journey since our previous debate. So many people have contacted me, including people I know or I have met through my job as a Member of Parliament, and talked about their personal struggles with eating disorders. Those I thought of as confident, or those I looked up to, have said to me that they struggled with the problem of an eating disorder. For them, it was a personal and private battle, as it was for me. I pay tribute to those people for the courage that they have shown in admitting that they had a problem.
I also pay tribute to Beat for all the work it does to ensure that people feel they have a safe space in which to talk about the problems they are going through. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has said, such a space did not exist when I was suffering from body dysmorphia in the 1990s, but it is there now. Another thing I learned when I met Hope Virgo and her fantastic Dump The Scales campaign team was that eating disorders are not necessarily about weight. So many people go to their GP, but get turned away because they are not light enough. They do not get help, so they turn to other mechanisms to cope.
A number of Members have talked about social media. I want to make it clear that in many respects, social media is a force for good. However, as the hon. Member for Angus said, there is so much pro-ana and pro-mia content, and it is widespread on social media. Instagram has made progress on banning images that contain suicide or self-harm. It has banned certain hashtags, but that does not stop people from going into them. It is a real problem. Some websites I have looked at are helpful and provide the type of support that sufferers of eating disorders need. People are allowed to post a diary. They meet a community that is there to help them, but other websites mask their communities. They start off by saying, “Yes, there is help for you”, but then it suddenly moves on to, “How to hide your eating disorder from your parent”, “How to hide your eating disorder from your school”, and “Anorexia and bulimia are normal.” I should make it clear that if someone does not have an eating disorder, those images of eating disorder will not bring one about. However, such images do affect the most vulnerable in society.
A recent BBC investigation in 2018 led to Instagram placing more harmful hashtags relating to eating disorders on an “unsearchable” list; if somebody enters one of those terms, no results will appear in the search box. Instagram now has more terms—including alternative spellings of “suicide” or “anorexia”, using “1” instead of “I”—that, when searched for, direct people to help and health warnings. One search term had 38 alternative spellings that could still be used by users to access harmful images. It is all very well Instagram using warm words to the Government about banning those harmful images, but it does not have moderators. It is self-moderated. If someone proactively searches for content that is against the rules, there is a good chance they will find it.
I do not want to eat into others’ time. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for the work she has done in bringing eating disorders to the fore. I spoke in her earlier debate, too, so I will bring my remarks to a close. The Government have to be careful when they regulate social media. The content could simply be driven underground into WhatsApp groups or the dark web. I raised this issue with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions. She agreed to the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries meeting me, Beat and Hope Virgo, who has her “Dump the Scales” campaign, to talk about how we can bring about a system that discourages eating disorders and provides the support that people need. I make one advertisement for Hope’s campaign: if people have not signed her petition, please do so. She is up to 68,000 signatures this morning. She needs 100,000 for the petition to be debated here, so that we can bring about a serious debate on eating disorders.
I say this to anyone suffering from an eating disorder: you are not alone. Look at the people around this room—not just the MPs, but the people in the Public Gallery. There is support there for you. This is personal and private, but when you find the courage to talk about it, there are people there for you. I urge anyone with an eating disorder to find it in themselves to talk to someone.
I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for securing this important debate. It has already been said that this debate has cross-party support, and we have come a long way in recognising and understanding eating disorders. I find it depressing that although we have made this progress, increasing numbers of people are suffering from eating disorders. We must get away from just talking and start getting some change. I hope that Eating Disorders Awareness Week will bring about that change, so that we do not stand here next year without having made significant progress.
I will limit my remarks to the research that Beat has done that shows that eating disorders do not discriminate, and the importance of early intervention and prevention. Over the past five months, I have been campaigning to raise awareness. I have spoken before in this place about the need to recognise eating disorders early. Stories such as Hope’s highlight how ludicrous it is for people seeking help to be told that they are not thin enough.
At the heart of any improvement to eating disorders treatment lies education—of our medical staff, of the whole of society, of schools and of families. I have personal experience of a family member with an eating disorder, so I know very much how families and friends suffer around a sufferer. It is not just the sufferer who is affected, but those around them.
Eating disorders are too often trivialised and seen as an illness that exclusively affects one type of person. That is reinforced by research released this week by Beat, which found that discrimination was ingrained in how we view eating disorders. Beat’s research found that four in 10 people believed that eating disorders were more common among white people, and nearly 30% thought that eating disorders were most likely to affect people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The reality is that eating disorders do not discriminate.
The tragedy of eating disorders is that they are preventable. By focusing on early intervention, the numbers of those suffering can be greatly reduced, but the stereotypes around eating disorders mean that certain people are far less likely to recognise the condition and seek or be referred to treatment. For example, ethnic minorities are substantially less likely to be referred to eating disorder services than white patients, but once referred, ethnic minorities receive the same treatment as white patients. A central problem is what doctors and the public understand about the population of people who suffer from eating disorders. The network of family and friends who surround those with eating disorders make a great deal of difference to their recognising the condition and receiving the correct help.
Research on specialist out-patient family intervention for children shows that it is highly effective and reduces the need for in-patient care, which eases pressure on the NHS. New ways of looking much more holistically at the treatment of eating disorders are highly effective, and we should look at them. The research identifies the importance of a truly joined-up approach to recovery, ensuring that the community around an individual with an eating disorder is supportive and supported by the medical team. Those types of programmes are being run in select areas across the country, and they must be extended, given their positive outcomes.
Treatment for eating disorders is a postcode lottery. We need to look at that. We must set standards and deliver training that will help doctors and medical staff to identify people who need treatment, regardless of any preconceived stereotypes. Additionally, it is vital that we continue to listen to the stories of real people who have suffered from eating disorders, and hear what they have to say about their experiences of the system.
The last thing I want to mention is the Local Government Association’s “Bright Futures” campaign. It highlights to councils across the country the importance of increasing funding, and ensuring that all the promised £1.7 billion for children’s mental health is spent in children’s mental health, not elsewhere. Prevention and early intervention, as we have heard several times today, are absolutely key to saving many lives from being destroyed, including those of friends and families of sufferers. Together, we can make a real difference, but let us make it happen, rather than just talking about it.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate on Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Mr Bailey. We have certainly raised awareness today, cross-party, and have paid credit to the week. We will continue to work together on this.
I thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for introducing this important debate. She feels strongly about this issue and wants to contribute. She mentioned that she had contacted the Minister for Mental Health in Scotland and would like an appointment with her to discuss services. I am sure we can work together to take things forward, and to ensure that collaboration throughout the United Kingdom continues.
We want to improve our services. Today, we heard that there are gaps in eating disorder services in just about every area. We have also heard how things have moved on. When Karen Carpenter had an eating disorder and sadly died, there was not much awareness at all. Now, there is greater awareness, but that has raised demand. It is incumbent on us to ensure that we are able to meet that demand, so that when young people, or people of any age, come forward, they get help in a timeous fashion.
The hon. Member for Angus spoke about stigma, an extremely important issue. She also spoke about how the stigma affects ethnic minorities, particularly males, and prevents them from coming forward. We must do much more to ensure equality in service provision, and send the message that eating disorders do not discriminate. We must support everybody who comes forward.
I want to thank the voluntary agencies who work in this field so tirelessly: the Beat campaigners, many of whom are here today; our NHS staff up and down the United Kingdom, who do their utmost every day, often going beyond the call of duty in the work that they do; and the Scottish Eating Disorders Interest Group, who also do a great deal of work in the field.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the lack of psychological support, which I hope the Minister can comment on. We have heard eating disorders described as being about weight, which is wrong on so many levels. It is psychological as well as physical. Relying simply on physical manifestations of eating disorders means that many people do not get the treatment they should at the time that they should. Often people who have, for instance, bulimia might not have a reduction in weight, and it will therefore not be obvious to a practitioner unless they have specialist, or at least additional, training in primary care and specialist services.
We have spoken a lot today about anorexia and have mentioned bulimia, but there has been no mention of obesity, interestingly, around which there is a real stigma across the population. We need to do more to make sure that those who suffer from obesity have psychological support, too, because their journey to recovery is extremely important. Again, that is linked with mental health.
Crucially, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke about technology and images online. We have done a lot of work in the all-party group on textiles and fashion, which I chair, to look at the impact of social media and the industry on body image, and the negative and stereotypical images that very few of us will ever live up to, and should not aspire to. Often the images are not healthy, either. Much more has to be done. I agree with him on what he said about regulation of the companies, the information that is put out, and being proactive.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who spoke about lack of support and comorbidity, mental health issues being very much conjoined with eating disorders. When I worked as a psychologist in mental health services, often referrals would come in for individuals who had depression or anxiety, but underlying that was a long-standing eating disorder. That is why it is important that training in primary care reaches out across community mental health teams, and is not just given to specialist eating disorder services, because often the initial referral will not give an indication of the underlying difficulty.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke about bulimia and the new guidelines for Scotland, which he welcomed. We know there is an issue with providing services for people in rural areas in a timeous way. I am pleased that the Scottish Government have dedicated £54 million to look at that. There will be new guidelines in line with SIGN, the Scottish intercollegiate guidelines network, and we look forward to collaborating on taking those issues further.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke about peer support, which is extremely important. Young people are often much more able to reach out to other young people, so I ask the Minister: what best practice is happening around that, and what can we roll out across the United Kingdom? One of my local schools, Duncanrig Secondary, is doing mental health peer support work very successfully. It is that type of project that young people grasp hold of to make a difference for each other. I pay tribute to the Trust Jack Foundation in my constituency, which reaches out to young people with mental health problems and has filled a gap in our local services in Stonehouse. Its service is being used assiduously by our local young people.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about his eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and personal struggle. That is such an important message to give in Parliament. In coming forward and seeking support, he is a role model for others, so I thank him for that. He also spoke about why it is so important to have person-centred and holistic care, and I entirely agree with that.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is an absolute champion in the field. She has collected thousands and thousands of signatures, and we support her work across this House in a truly cross-party effort to ensure we get the services that people require. I am sure the campaign that she runs to raise awareness will be successful in making a difference to people.
When I worked in psychology in the NHS, it was difficult at times to bridge the gap between primary, secondary and tertiary care, and difficult for people to be referred smoothly. I have raised that with Ministers in Scotland. When people present with an eating disorder, they do not always say, “I have an eating disorder. Can you help me?”, so it is key to have the training in place and a smooth care pathway—the two issues that I want the Minister to comment on. I know she is dedicated on this subject. I have met her numerous times, and I am keen to hear what she says today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) for securing this very important debate today, particularly during Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I was deeply moved by her powerful opening speech and I thank her and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for their persistence in bringing the issue to the House. May that never stop.
It is only four months since we were last here speaking about this issue and how we could work together to remove the stigma around eating disorders. Many colleagues here today also spoke in that debate and I thank all of them for taking the time to be here again today. I have been struck, as I am sure many have, by the collegial nature of this debate. That is important and it is what people who experience eating disorders, and their families, want. They want us to put our party colours to one side and work together to try to bring about the much needed improvements in this area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talked eloquently and powerfully about the issue. As we all know, it is brave to talk about our personal experiences in this place, and he talked about his own experience of body dysmorphia. He also talked about the bravery of others, but I hope he takes time to reflect on his own bravery and courage. I am very proud of him and I thank him.
I also want to reflect on the comments made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) about what happens in schools, which is incredibly important. The hon. Member for Angus also touched on it. I recently attended one of the high schools in my area and talked about what psychological support was available to children, specifically teenagers.
I apologise that I could not be here earlier; I was at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to help some of my constituents, particularly ladies, who have had eating disorders, and we have been able to sort those things out. I have noticed a dearth among males, who unfortunately seem not to address these issues. I commend the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for speaking about that.
The hon. Lady talked about helping schools, youth groups, and other youth network facilities. I believe that there is a need for trained officials who can notice disorders and step in early. Early diagnosis and early intervention is the way forward. Does she agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Frankly, a debate would not be complete without an intervention from him. I absolutely agree. When I was speaking to the professional at the Mirfield Free Grammar, she told me that much of what comes through her door relates to eating disorders, crucially in boys as well as girls. Sometimes we continue to stereotype that eating disorders affect only women. The reality is quite different.
As a number of Members have suggested, social media can be a double-edged sword. I will talk about Beat in a moment. Beat does excellent work and has fantastic online resources, as do a number of other mental health charities. However, other sites that we have heard about that encourage people with regard to suicide and their eating disorders can be problematic to say the least.
The Government have made a commitment that, by 2020, 95% of children and young people who are referred with an eating disorder will be seen within one month, or one week if it is considered urgent. That is obviously very welcome, but with 2020 just around the corner I am concerned that, given current workforce and funding pressures, that will be difficult to achieve, or will possibly result in manipulation of waiting time figures. A patient will get a first appointment within the timescale, but any follow-up or effective treatment will still come many months, or even years, after referral. I would be grateful if the Minister would say how it will work in practice.
Although that is all well and good for children and young people, there are still no clear plans for adults with eating disorders. I recently visited a NAViGO service in Grimsby that supports people with eating disorders, and I was struck by how many people who were older than me were experiencing in-patient treatment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) talked about his constituent Sarah. I have a constituent who was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 16. Owing to the severity of her illness, she was sadly admitted to hospital for a lengthy stretch. On her release, she attended fortnightly appointments with an eating disorder specialist. As her recovery was going well, my constituent decided that she would like to take up an offer of a university place in Manchester, because despite her very difficult illness she had achieved the most fantastic A-level results. She saw going to university as a positive step in her healing and as a way of getting on with her life. The local NHS trust that delivers mental health services in my area informed her that she would have to transfer over to mental health services in Manchester.
Neither my constituent nor her family thought too much about that, as it was not raised in such a way that allowed them to foresee any issues. However, five months on, my constituent is still waiting for the handover to be completed and, sadly, during that time she has suffered a serious relapse and is once again looking at in-patient care. I recently attended the all-party parliamentary university group, and we talked about transition when people go to university, and about mental health in general. We need to look at that in some detail.
Clearly, the administration in the health services that led to that outcome is of grave concern. It is also concerning when specialist services in a particular area stop for young people when they turn 18. Only those people going away to university or college in areas that provide such services, or those people whose families have a lot of money and can fund treatment privately, have the prospect of change. The people who are left are effectively discriminated against.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree. We had a very interesting discussion at the APPG about whether we could do more pre-screening when people go to university. We must also remember those in further education, not just those in higher education.
I ask the Minister whether what happened to my constituent would have happened had she been suffering from a serious physical condition. Earlier, a colleague made an analogy with cancer—“Your cancer is only at stage 1; we’re not going to treat you until it becomes more advanced.” As we all know, eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; yet this young lady has been left to suffer, in a new city, away from family and friends and without any support network. We all have to ask ourselves how on earth that was allowed to happen.
I commend the fantastic work being done to raise awareness of eating disorders and to support sufferers, and crucially their carers and families, by the charity Beat, some of whose representatives are in the Gallery. They work relentlessly to battle against the stigma of this dreadful disease, and to push for better access to services and treatments. When my office spoke to them about the case of my constituent, they said that sadly it was very typical of the stories that they hear every day on their helpline. How many families are going through the same mental torture day after day while waiting for that elusive appointment confirmation to drop through their letter box?
With no specific waiting time targets for adults with eating disorders and poorly funded mental health services, many overstretched mental health trusts are unable to put the necessary resources into those vital services, and treatment availability has become a hideous postcode lottery, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme highlighted. Service access and levels of funding vary widely from one area to the next.
Furthermore, there is a huge disparity between access to adult services and to those for children and young people, with adults on average waiting twice as long. The eating disorder charity Beat has had a huge rise in calls to its helpline over the last year. In 2017-18, Beat staff helped 17,000 people, and they estimate that by the end of 2018-19 they will have helped more than 30,000. It is commendable that they managed that increase in demand so well, and I know that with more funding they could help even more people.
In October 2018, following an eating disorder storyline, which Beat had been very involved in helping with, on the popular teenage soap “Hollyoaks”, calls to Beat’s helpline spiked to more than double those in any previous month. That highlights the need to raise awareness about eating disorders and, crucially, to quash the stereotypes and stigmas so that more people know that they can seek help earlier. Reportedly, it could take an adult with an eating disorder more than two years before they realise that they have an issue, and up to another two years to seek help. More needs to be done to increase awareness and access to treatments.
Beat recently undertook some research into eating disorder stereotypes. When people think of eating disorders they often think of young, white women, but that is a popular misconception. The reality is much more complex. More adults suffer from eating disorders than young people, and the number of male sufferers increases year on year, with people who identify as LGBT+ at significantly higher risk. Stereotypes prevent people from seeking and receiving medical treatment in the earlier stages, which, in turn, makes it harder for people to recover.
I am grateful that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) raised over-eating. When we think of eating disorders, we often think of anorexia or bulimia. It is important that we consider the full spectrum of disorders. Beat’s research also found that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic and less affluent backgrounds would feel less confident in seeking help from a health professional for an eating disorder. That stigmatisation and fear of speaking out can have far reaching and dangerous consequences.
We also need to work to ensure better training for those on the frontline. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made an important point about training for those in health professions so that they can better recognise and support those who present with eating disorders.
Another constituent of mine waited more than two years to be seen by a psychiatrist for depression and anxiety. During that time, sadly, she also developed an eating disorder. She was consuming less than 700 calories a day and avoiding any foods with even a trace of fat, and her weight had plummeted over a period of six months, but at her first psychiatric appointment she was told that she was not underweight enough to be considered to have a serious eating disorder. At her second appointment, the psychiatrist weighed her and congratulated her on her increased weight and body mass index. As hon. Members can imagine, that was the last thing that she wanted to hear. The psychological effect set her recovery back by weeks.
Sadly, that was not an isolated incident. There are many fantastic people working on the frontline of our health services, but there is also a minority who would hugely benefit from extra awareness training in what an eating disorder looks like, how best to treat it and where to refer patients for treatment.
I know the Minister well and am satisfied that she has huge compassion in the area, but equally I hope that she has listened to the points raised in this debate and will press the Government to put eating disorders higher up the agenda, make promises and set targets that will ultimately save the lives of sufferers. She will have my full support in doing so.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this very constructive debate. They all showed massive care and compassion, with a recognition that we have come a long way but need to go a lot further. I am grateful for their constructive contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing this debate in Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I thank her for her very frank exposition of eating disorders, and of the helplessness felt not only by those who are suffering, but by those around them. It is essential that we ensure that people have access to the right mental health support in the right place and at the right time, because time is of the essence. Improving those services is a key priority for this Government, as part of our wider agenda to improve mental health services.
As several hon. Members have said, eating disorders are serious: they have some of the highest mortality rates of any mental health disorder. We need to ensure, more than ever, that people get access to support as early as possible, because eating disorders quite often begin when people are young. Representations have been made today about why our targets are for children, rather than adults. Those targets recognise the fact that early intervention is best and that issues often surface when people are younger, but that does not in any way diminish the challenge of ensuring that adults also have access to services.
That brings me to a point that several hon. Members have made: the perception that eating disorders affect only young white women. They do affect adults. I have heard of a case of an elderly lady in a care home being diagnosed with an eating disorder that she had obviously been suffering from for decades. One of the tests that I will set myself is for that never to happen again, because we need to ensure that people get early diagnosis.
As the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) very frankly reminded us, eating disorders affect men and boys too. If there is a perception otherwise, it may partly be because men and boys are much less likely to seek help than women and girls. We need to make it clear that the issue can affect absolutely anyone, as the hon. Gentleman showed very courageously by sharing his own experience; I am very grateful for his comments.
It is important to continue to raise awareness. We need to reduce the stigma associated with eating disorders so that people are more likely to talk about them. Like all hon. Members, I pay tribute to the campaigners who do so much to raise awareness, particularly the charity Beat, which does absolutely excellent work. I also pay tribute to Hope Virgo for her campaign and look forward to meeting her very soon.
We cannot emphasise strongly enough that this is not about weight; it is about the mind. Some of the stories that were shared in this debate were quite horrific. If there is such lack of understanding among medical professionals—if the people we trust to look after us end up doing harm because they see eating disorders as a weight issue—we have a serious problem to tackle. Of course training has its part to play, but I should add that we expect a lot of our GPs. One of the real challenges is to continue to roll out multidisciplinary GP service teams to ensure that there is much greater expertise in each medical practice, rather than relying on one individual to be the expert on everything. Frankly, they are only human beings—they are not God.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I know that her time is very limited. When services let people go too early, the danger of relapse is much higher. We could prevent relapses by not letting sufferers go too early, when they are half better but not fully better.
The hon. Lady makes a good point that I will address further if I have time. We need to look carefully at the care pathway and at the whole practice of referrals and the journey that people take, so that we can ensure that they are in a position to manage their disorder. The truth is that no one is ever cured of these things; it is a matter of managing their wellbeing to tackle them.
I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for her acknowledgment that we have come a long way. She is right that we need to ensure that we have proper specialist services to do this work, because of the risk of harm. She is also right to mention obesity, which we could do an awful more to address. I watch a lot of rubbish TV—we work long hours here, so that is my relaxation—and I am horrified by some of the channels, which basically run a succession of programmes about weight that are almost freak shows. That is not how we should be talking about the issue if we want to encourage people to access help. We need to tackle the stigma around obesity as much as the stigma around any other disorder.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and I have already discussed his concerns about his area. I know that there are challenges and we need to ensure that provision is sufficient. He spoke very frankly about the guilt and terror that people around those who suffer from eating disorders feel, because they genuinely do not know how to help their friend or loved one. Reducing stigma and raising awareness is partly about helping people to understand what they can do. Everybody wants to help, because nobody wants to see people suffer so much.
Social media has been mentioned a lot. I absolutely recognise that it can be a force as much for good as for bad, but I must say that we are seeing content that encourages harmful behaviour. It is about the whole psychology of people joining communities. When people use social media regularly, they can become isolated from the physical world and join an online world in which everyone is like them. It becomes normalising, and it can worsen their experience.
Equally, social media can be a community of self-help. I agree completely with the hon. Member for Islwyn that we have to be careful: of course we must challenge companies to be responsible, but it is not black and white, and we need to handle the issue sensitively. I am pleased to say that some companies are very responsive, but not all, so we will continue to challenge them. The hon. Gentleman raised an issue that particularly concerns me: it is one thing to regulate public platforms, but encrypted direct contact is having a growing impact. We need to look at Snapchat, WhatsApp and so on, because the fact is the Government are always three steps—probably more—behind technology.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow emphasised peer support. I could not agree more: peer support is important for mental health generally. If I could make one challenge to NHS commissioners, it would be that providing support to people who suffer mental ill health is not just about clinicians; it is about the voluntary sector and peer support workers. If we are to really step up to that challenge, I hope to see much more imagination in how services are commissioned.
I have so much more to say, but I am running out of time. With hon. Members’ indulgence, I will write to them—not least the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly)—to outline our response to the points that they raised. We have a lot of figures and have shown that we are meeting targets, but I think all hon. Members would be more confident if there were more granularity—not least because of the cases raised today in which people have not received the treatment that they deserve.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Adriatic Land 5 Ltd (Stevenage)
Order. Would the people leaving the hall please leave quietly? Another debate is about to begin. I call Stephen McPartland.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Adriatic Land 5 Ltd, Stevenage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and to be here today to debate the impact of companies such as Adriatic Land 5 Ltd with the Minister. I know she has a personal desire to try to resolve such issues for leaseholders up and down the country.
Companies such as Adriatic Land 5 Ltd hold freeholds and charge ground rents. Often, the rents double every 10 to 15 years and there are other conditions, and it is that situation that is preventing homeowners in Stevenage from remortgaging or selling their properties. I want to talk a little about leasehold, about Adriatic Land 5 Ltd, and to give a few examples from constituents.
There is a discrepancy at the moment about how many leaseholders there are in the country. The figure ranges from 2.5 million, or 4.5 million, to the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership suggesting 5 million to 6 million in England and Wales alone. Scotland and Northern Ireland have different conditions. Today, I am addressing the situation in England and Wales, and in Stevenage in particular.
Leasehold is a form of residential tenure that has been abolished in most countries around the world. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 was passed with the best of intentions to give commonhold a big boost but, at the moment, that does not seem to have worked. My real focus and concern in this debate is leasehold and shared ownership. Often, first-time buyers have used Help to Buy to get on the ladder for the first time.
Adriatic Land 5 owns the freehold on a building in Stevenage called Six Hills House. Predominantly teachers, police officers, nurses and other public sector workers live there. They feel that they have been let down by their surveyors and the people that they purchased their properties from. They are first-time buyers who used Help to Buy; they now feel trapped by these conditions.
Who are Adriatic Land 5? We found it very difficult to find information about them, but we have had some help. We now understand that Adriatic Land is a residential freeholding company of various formulations, managed by the Long Harbour Ground Rent Fund. All Adriatic Land companies hide their ultimate beneficial ownership behind the directors of the Sanne Group, which has its headquarters in Guernsey. Long Harbour is a £1.4 billion fund and claims to have revenues of only £4 million on the ground rent fund, with a total of £340,000 in profits. Its sister company, Home Ground, told the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government in November 2018 that it collects £32 million per year in ground rent. Long Harbour claims to be investing in residential freehold primarily for pension funds, but there is no evidence of this, and there is a belief in the wider industry that predominantly hedge funds and speculators are behind it.
Buyers of leasehold properties can be seen as tenants on a very long-term rental, while the freeholder owns the land that the home is built on. The homebuyer of a leasehold property is required to pay ground rent to their freeholder, and the consent of the freeholder must be sought before any changes to the property are made, such as installing new windows or, if it is a house, a conservatory. The issue in my area is with flats. In flats, the ground rent often doubles every 10 years or so.
There is an accepted understanding that, as flats have communal spaces, there needs to be some kind of mechanism to collect money so that if the lifts break or there is a problem with the roof, everybody shares equally in the pain of putting that right financially. At the moment, companies such as Adriatic Land 5 do not seem to be providing any services, but are charging tenants in order to make a profit, and that is causing a great deal of disruption. In Six Hills House in Stevenage, it is preventing mortgage companies from offering mortgages. The homeowners in the flats are trapped, and that has caused huge concern among these decent public sector workers, who have tried to do the right thing and get on the housing ladder, and now seem to be trapped in the first home that they have bought.
There is a feeling in the wider media that these people should have known what they were getting themselves into; they should have read the contract; they were overexcited when they made the purchase. A first-time buyer considering a ground rent of £10 or £100, which will double in 10 or 15 years, does not expect to be there in 10 or 15 years; it is almost as if it does not apply. They do not expect to be there. Given that the mortgage company has extended a mortgage to that buyer, they do not imagine that as the terms get more onerous another mortgage company would refuse to remortgage or refuse to extend the terms to somebody else who then tries to buy it from them. The situation is causing a great deal of disruption.
My real concern is that these are shared-ownership properties, but the tenants seem to be responsible for 100% of the freehold, even though they will often only own 10%, 15% or 25% of the actual property. That does not seem fair. All the barriers to moving forward in their lives seem to be loaded on the people who are 75% tenants and 25% homeowners. It does not seem fair.
Ground rents of as little as £1 a year used to be charged by many freeholders across the country. In the early years of this century, developers began inserting clauses where ground rent was set at £200 to £400 a year, with the charge doubling every 10 years or so. The Government have taken action on that; they have launched consultations and the previous Secretary of State announced that ground rents would be reduced on new home builds to zero or a £10 peppercorn rent. The current Secretary of State met a variety of leaseholder and retirement holder groups in late January. He also said that he thought a peppercorn rate was zero, so it could not double every 10 or 15 years and could not be a barrier to moving on in property.
The Government are trying to take action on the current situation—they are trying to stop it going forward—but there are real problems with retrospective action for people who are currently in these leases. The Minister and I have had some correspondence in the past on this issue, and I know she is keen to resolve it. The hope was that developers would put pressure on the people who owned the freehold, then the freeholders would come to an agreement with the tenants, and as a result they would be able to move forward.
I will give some examples from the case of Six Hills House in Stevenage. One of my constituents said:
“I live in a fairly new department block of flats in Stevenage that were built in 2016 called Six Hills House. I moved in in November 2016 and brought a 45% share as a shared ownership help to buy scheme. This year it came to light that the lease has a clause in it that states the ground rent (which currently stands at £300 per year) will double every 15 years with a break at 90 years. Whilst this wasn’t a problem for lenders in 2016 when the flats went on sale, it has since become illegal for leaseholds to include this type of clause and has therefore made the flats unsellable to anyone other than cash buyers. I have recently put mine up for sale and whilst I found a buyer within a week, no banks would lend on the mortgage and so the estate agents have advised that I cancel all other viewings and limit to cash buyers only.”
This is two years after the individual bought their property. The constituent continues:
“I feel this option is extremely limited as the shared ownership proposition is meant for first time buyers who wouldn’t necessarily have the money to buy this share outright leaving a building of around 150 flats unsellable.
I have spoken with metropolitan housing who are the landlords for the rented part of the building who have said that they are trying to negotiate this clause with land charter who own the building however they have not heard anything back from them and they couldn’t give a timescale that this would be sorted.
This now means that the people who have put their flats up for sale including myself have paid out for private valuation fees…to get the flats to sale we are left out of pocket with flats on the market that we are unable to sell. Plus I have now come out of a fixed mortgage rate thinking I was going to sell after 2 years which was the original plan and am now paying a higher interest each month without having the option to fix in again in case it does sell.”
She goes on to say that she wanted to get in contact and explains some of the other reasons why. I stepped in and asked Land Charter what had happened. It confirmed:
“Metropolitan Housing Association purchased all the apartments from us, and then sold them on to their clients. The freehold was sold soon thereafter to Adriatic Land 5 Ltd…Although we have sympathy we have not control over the matters raised by her.”
We are still not aware of whether it was Metropolitan Housing or the developer, Land Charter, that sold the freehold. I have spoken to Metropolitan Housing, which responded in December 2018:
“Thank you for your communication received…We can confirm that Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing are not the Freehold owner of this site. We have a head lease which requires us to pay Ground Rent to the Freeholder and we have created under leases for our residents which require them also to pay ground rent as per the head lease.
When the lease was originally entered into, it was common for ground rent clauses doubling every 15 years to be included. Whilst this is not illegal it is now not considered to be good practice and the Government are currently consulting on restricting ground rent on new leases. We do not believe they will be regulating existing leases which have already been entered into.
The ground rent payable at present is a reasonable amount, however when a resident attempts to sell their property, the mortgage company of the proposed purchaser declines to lend as the lease contains potentially onerous ground rent terms for the future. In effect, this means that the properties can only be sold to cash buyers.”
That is Metropolitan Housing Association, which owns most of the shared ownership, confirming that the people trapped in those 150 flats cannot sell their properties unless they do so to cash buyers, because of the nature of the lease. In fairness, Metropolitan is trying to fix the issue. It says:
“We first became aware of this issue a few months ago and we wrote to the Freeholder asking them to vary the Ground Rent clauses in the lease in light of the wider publicity around onerous Ground Rent terms and the effect it was having on sales. The lease can only be varied if the Freeholder consents. The Freeholder refused to allow any variation in the lease stating that they purchased the Freehold in good faith based on the potential income from Ground Rent.”
It goes on to explain why Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing, as a social housing provider, cannot step in and resolve the issue financially.
I have had correspondence with the Minister on this issue, and other constituents have contacted me. People in this block of 150 flats are increasingly frustrated. I received an update from a constituent on the solution that has come forward from Metropolitan. The constituent states:
“They’ve given the option for us to extend the head lease. However, this will come at a cost and we will also be required to pay all our legal fees, including Metropolitan’s and the freeholder’s legal costs etc.”
She attached the letter for my reference, which I could read out, but I will just hand it to the Minister instead. It is easily working out to be around £10,000, which is half the deposit that the constituents saved up to get on the ladder in the first place and enter into the part-buy and rent scheme. She says:
“If I decided to go down this route and spend £10,000 to get out of this lease, allowing me to sell, I’d then be left with half the deposit I did have, unable to buy somewhere new or benefit from any other first-time buyer schemes again.”
As I say, Metropolitan has come up with a means by which it will vary the head lease and do what it can to try to extend that forward over the 90 years, so that the current tenants have to pay only a small, peppercorn rate. Unfortunately it will cost the tenants over £10,000, because although they own only part of these properties, they are responsible for 100% of the freehold fees. As a result, they have to pay both the shared ownership and freeholder fees, which come to over £10,000.
Essentially, no one really thinks this is fair. Everybody in the building is very upset about the escalating price, which is now between £10,000 and £15,000. My constituents feel frustrated and trapped, as can be imagined. From their point of view, they are missing out on any other first-time buyers schemes, because they are not currently first-time buyers, so they will never be able to benefit from any other schemes again—they have already used Help to Buy.
The tenants feel that the surveyors and the people working with them are part of a very large property industry and are involved in this field on a day-to-day basis, just as Members are. We can all use our own jargon about delegated legislation and statutory instruments—it is very easy for us, but it is not easy for someone out there to understand what any of that means. It is the same with those people who are very excited to be buying their first property. As the mortgage companies were happy to lend to them on their leases, most of the tenants felt that they would only be in those properties for five to 10 years maximum, and that they would be leaving before the ground rent began to double. It seems that within a two-year timeframe, 150 people—predominantly public sector workers—have now been trapped in a scheme in Stevenage, which is not fair. It is really frustrating my constituents and me.
The Government’s policy is to lean on developers and social housing providers to try to vary the leases, but those 150 flat owners are trapped because the freeholder—Adriatic Land 5 Ltd, which is registered in Guernsey—will not play ball. The simplest solution would be for Adriatic Land 5 Ltd to change the details on the deed, so that the ground rent clause is changed to something more appropriate. That would resolve all the issues with the mortgage companies and social housing providers. My question to the Minister is: how do we bring forward somebody who owns a freehold in a property, such as Six Hills House in Stevenage, but will not play ball? How do we encourage Adriatic Land 5 Ltd, which is registered in Guernsey, to help ensure that these 150 flat owners can move forward with their lives and sell their properties if they choose to do so?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) for being here; I did not realise this was a walk-on part—that does not need to go in Hansard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this important debate on issues concerning leaseholders, and particularly the problem in Stevenage.
The Government are committed to improving consumer choice and fairness for the increasing number of leaseholders. That includes our work to make it easier and cheaper for leaseholders to enfranchise, the support we are providing for those with onerous ground rent terms, and our aim to make service charges more transparent for all. That work should act as a guard against the practices that form the subject of this debate, namely, where freeholds are sold on to a third-party investor without the leaseholder’s knowledge.
I am aware that many hon. Members have heard from their constituents on this matter, as have I and my Department, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also received evidence on it, so I recognise the importance of the debate. It is clear that we need to act to address the issues; I will use this time to set out the work that is under way to drive these unfair practices out of the leasehold sector.
The problem here is the excessive ground rent that leaseholders are being asked to pay. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage has rightly highlighted many issues that are faced particularly by those in shared ownership properties, but I know that the issue of onerous ground rents affects many other leaseholders. As he says, leases with onerous ground rent terms can make it difficult for the leaseholder to sell their property or re-mortgage. In this instance, as I understand it, the ground rent is £300 a year and doubles every 15 years. We have heard from the Housing Committee that many regard this as onerous, and it could also make the property hard to sell, exactly as he mentioned. People can therefore feel trapped in these arrangements.
It is the Government’s view that, in most cases, any lease with doubling ground rents will be significantly worse than an inflation-based arrangement. A rise in line with inflation maintains the value of the ground rent over time, whereas a doubling term every 10 or 15 years can significantly increase the value—too much—over time. The Secretary of State met freeholders last year and made that clear. There should be no reason why any clause that doubles ground rent every 10 or 15 years should be enforced. I welcome the proposals from some developers and freeholders to vary clauses so leaseholders pay less ground rent.
We have been clear that variations must have consumers’ best interests at heart. We will not look kindly on those who reduce the cost of ground rents with one hand and rip off leaseholders with the other, whether through permission fees or anything else. We need a proportionate response. I want industry to take the lead and make the changes voluntarily. It is not right that hon. Members should have to highlight the sort of issues that have been raised here today.
I want to see support extended to all leaseholders with onerous ground rents, including second-hand buyers, and for customers to be proactively contacted. We will continue to work with the industry on a way forward to help existing leaseholders with onerous leases. I want to stress that leaseholders should seek impartial legal advice about potentially onerous ground rents contained in their leases. Free advice is also available from the Government’s Leasehold Advisory Service—LEASE. Leaseholders and prospective leaseholders can get advice on all aspects of leasehold properties, including ground rents, service charges and the enfranchisement process, so I urge them to take advantage of that free service. We have recently appointed a new interim chair to that organisation, and I am confident that the standard of advice that leaseholders receive will be further strengthened. Furthermore, if the leaseholder’s solicitor or conveyancer did not point out the onerous terms at the point of purchase, the leaseholder can make a complaint against them, which can be escalated to the legal ombudsman. I suggest that my hon. Friend takes that point back to his constituents.
I have also heard from leaseholders who have seen a sharp increase in the level of their service charges, often with poor value for money. Many leaseholders are unclear about their service charges, how they were calculated, and whether they are paying too much. I believe very strongly that service charges should be transparent and communicated effectively, and that there should be a clear route to challenge or redress if things go wrong. With that in mind, the Government asked Lord Best’s working group to look at service charges and consider how they should be presented for both existing and prospective consumers. I have also asked the working group to look into fees and charges that go beyond service charges, and consider the circumstances under which they are justified and whether they should be capped or banned. That includes administration charges and permission fees. I am absolutely clear that we must see an end to leaseholders being charged excessive and unfair fees. I am following the working group’s progress with keen interest. I look forward to receiving Lord Best’s report in July, and I will be meeting him shortly.
I hope that my remarks demonstrate the Government’s strong commitment to supporting existing and future leaseholders. Although this debate has been on a specific practice in the leasehold sector, it is clearly a wide-ranging area that is in need of reform. The Government will introduce measures to deliver that reform. The work that is under way makes that commitment clear. Although successive Governments have left that work unfinished, we are just getting started. Nothing, including legislation, is off the table. In that spirit, I thank my hon. Friend for his speech and questions, and I look forward to pushing ahead with our programme of leasehold reform.
Question put and agreed to.
Future of DFID
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Department for International Development.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Dorries. I have secured this debate because of deep concerns about the future of the Department for International Developments and its funding, and threats to our proud tradition as a distributor of aid to the most impoverished places on the planet.
Today, I seek cast-iron guarantees from the Minister that my fears are misplaced, that we will continue to make our full contribution of 0.7% of our national income to the world’s poorest communities, and that we will continue to address the deep scars of poverty and inequality that disfigure our world—the legacy of centuries of colonialism, wars, and unequal and unjust distribution of the world’s resources. We must continue to consider ourselves internationalists—brothers and sisters with the peoples of the world—not narrow isolationists, cowering behind our drawbridge.
The Department for International Development has a proud history. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, it began as a separate Ministry under Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1964. Wilson appointed Barbara Castle as the first ever Minister in charge of overseas aid—a reflection of his own internationalism and humanitarian beliefs—which then moved in and out of the control of the Foreign Office, depending on who was in Government.
Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath put overseas aid under the control of Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1970, before Wilson once again returned its independence in 1974. Margaret Thatcher downgraded it to an agency again in 1979 until finally, under Tony Blair in 1997, it became a full Department with a Cabinet-level Minister. It is to the credit of the coalition Government elected in 2010 that that cycle of upgrading and downgrading was halted, with DFID remaining part of the machinery of government, and that its budget was maintained despite deep cuts to the rest of Whitehall. Perhaps that shows how effective the work of DFID is, and how established and respected it has become, in Britain and around the world.
Some notable politicians have been at its helm. I mentioned the formidable Barbara Castle, but no less formidable were Clare Short, Judith Hart, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and on the Conservative side, I should mention Chris Patten and Baroness Chalker. The first ever black woman to serve in a British Cabinet was Baroness Amos, who was appointed Secretary of State for International Development in 2003.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not omit him deliberately, but another great Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), is taking part in the debate. In fact, it was he and former Prime Minister David Cameron who ensured that DFID stayed under a Conservative-led Government. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, DFID had been downgraded under previous Conservative Governments, but that time, it was not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I had only reached 2003, and was coming gradually to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), but he makes a valid point. That is why I congratulate the coalition Government on their tremendous decision to keep DFID as a separate Department.
DFID works in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iraq, Malawi, Nepal, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sierra Leone, Syria, Tanzania, Yemen and Zimbabwe, to name but a handful. It tackles gender inequality, helps to build health and education systems, and works with communities shattered by war, genocide or famine. It is respected and admired in all the places that it operates, some of which are the hardest places to reach for other organisations.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has quite rightly drawn attention to the good work that has been done, with our 0.7% commitment, in the countries that he listed. Does he agree that we must continue to be extremely vigilant? In a small number of those countries—particularly on the continent of Africa—corruption is rife, and many people in the United Kingdom have concerns that some of that money is not going to those who would benefit most from it.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. We must ensure that aid reaches those who need it most and that it is not siphoned away by corrupt individuals in Governments, whether in Africa or in other parts of the world.
DFID is respected and admired in all the places where it operates. Wherever the UK aid logo appears, it shows the world how much the British public care. Since the passage of the International Development Act 2002, all overseas aid must be spent with the explicit purpose of reducing global poverty. That is an important piece of legislation, because it makes clear the distinction between aid and trade: one is not a quid pro quo for the other. The Pergau dam scandal showed that some aid in the 1980s and 1990s was being linked to trade deals. In that instance, despite clear objections from civil servants, there was a link between British aid for building the dam and British arms sales to Malaysia.
My hon. Friend mentions a very troubling incident and he will notice echoes of that today, with renewed calls for our aid budget to mirror trade interests. Does he agree that common global interests are what matter, rather than narrow self-interest?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, he may be telepathic, because I was just about to mention that, but I concur fully with his view.
The Pergau dam affair was declared unlawful in a landmark court case in 1994. More recently, as my hon. Friend says, fears have been raised that our aid budget has not focused solely on poverty reduction. An article in The Guardian revealed that charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and ActionAid were deeply concerned that some of the funds were used by
“classing politically convenient projects as aid,”
rather than exclusively helping the most vulnerable. We must of course contribute vital overseas aid owing to our obligations as one the wealthiest nations in the world. I am sure that the Minister will offer warm and emollient words. She will no doubt tell us of the commitment to DFID as a Department and that the 0.7% target remains in place.
At this point, it is pertinent to pay tribute to both the former Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore, for introducing a private Member’s Bill to enshrine the 0.7% target in law, and the then Government for allowing it to become law. We should welcome the commitment in the 2017 Conservative manifesto to maintaining that 0.7% commitment, which I am sure the Minister will mention in her speech.
Why exactly should we be concerned about DFID’s future? The tectonic plates of politics have shifted in recent months and the voices that considered overseas aid a waste of money have become louder and more mainstream within the governing party—the critics are moving from the fringe to centre stage. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), seemed more aligned with the TaxPayers Alliance than with the global anti-poverty movement. She resigned after running errands for the FCO in Israel rather than running her own Department.
The previous Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), called the establishment of DFID in 1997 a “colossal mistake”.
This month, he endorsed a report by the Henry Jackson Society that calls for a dilution of DFID’s role in alleviating poverty, with a diversion towards broader international policies such as peacekeeping. He told the BBC’s “Today” programme:
“We could make sure that 0.7 % is spent more in line with Britain’s political commercial and diplomatic interests.”
Commercial interests? What could he possibly mean by that?
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) has made it clear that he believes this is the opening act in a move to downgrade DFID and to slash overseas aid. It is hard to disagree that that is the Secretary of State’s secret agenda.
On that “Today” programme, it was telling that no Minister was put up to defend the Department or to shoot down such ideas. To me, that suggests complicity with the idea itself.
That is precisely why I and others of like mind applied for and secured this debate. We are concerned about the lack of leadership in the Government, or of Government members saying “We do not agree with that.” I will elaborate on that shortly.
We are rightly concerned that UK aid and the Department with the primary responsibility for spending it are under threat, or will be diverted from the alleviation of poverty and into being linked to trade. Today, will the Minister go beyond the same old stock phrases committing the Government to the continued existence of DFID and the 0.7% target, and instead give us some cast-iron guarantees?
First, will she Minister distance herself absolutely from the comments made by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, about the future of DFID? Secondly, will she guarantee that any review of DFID’s departmental policy post Brexit will in no way undermine, downgrade, obfuscate or dilute the commitments enshrined in the International Development Act 2002 and the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015? Thirdly, will she guarantee that her party will enter the next election with a manifesto commitment to maintain, as a minimum, the existing levels of expenditure on overseas aid, with the aim of eradicating poverty and tackling gender inequality? The Minister has an open goal; will she settle the issue once and for all?
Finally, I am sure that we all stand united in our gratitude to the staff of DFID, whether they are freezing in the mountains of Tajikistan or sweltering in the heat of Mozambique, or are in the offices at Abercrombie House or just up the road at 22 Whitehall. We offer them our thanks—they are truly the best of British.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate and on his very good speech.
No Department should feel that it is there in perpetuity—Departments have to justify their existence, and changes come from time to time. I therefore make no criticism of those who argue that such matters should be reviewed, but I am in the Chamber today to make it clear that the existence and role of DFID have been settled, and should remain settled. Mercifully, I think DFID’s role was settled in the time of Michael Howard, when he was leader of the Conservative party, and by David Cameron, both in Opposition and in Government. We made it clear that we strongly supported the decision of the then Labour Government to set up the Department for International Development. Since then, everything that DFID has done has justified those decisions.
Development is very long-tail; it is different from the disciplines of foreign policy. Tony Blair, I think, used to say that just as the Foreign Office was extremely good at prose and not at numbers, DFID was very good at numbers, but not necessarily at prose. Development is long-tail and different from Foreign Office disciplines, and I used to tease diplomats when I had some responsibility for such matters by saying that they thought that development was the favourite charity of the ambassador’s spouse. That, however, is not development; development is not building schools, but ensuring that when a teacher retires there is someone to replace that teacher in his or her role.
DFID had teething problems as a new Department. From time to time, it stuck out in the Whitehall archipelago as a bit of a sore thumb; sometimes, it looked like a well-upholstered charity moored off the coast of Whitehall. Those difficulties, however, were dealt with and addressed by the time the Department came of age under the coalition Government. The National Security Council, which wired together development, defence and development, clearly brought DFID into the Whitehall constellation—it has never looked back.
Sometimes, we can become inward-facing, focusing our own problems, so we should be clear that DFID is respected around the world as the most effective organ of development policy. It is a world leader and, as I used to say, just as America is a military superpower, so Britain is a development superpower. British academia, ideas and development policy, and Britain’s brilliant international charities and non-governmental organisations, show real world leadership. Today, many people talk about global Britain and Britain post-Brexit. I would argue that Britain’s exercise of soft power—the Government’s work in development led by DFID—is a compelling part of what global Britain means: some might say it was the only aspect of global Britain.
To focus directly on DFID, it is no surprise to find that the Department has attracted to leadership roles some of the most effective civil servants and public servants Britain can boast. There have, I think, been four permanent secretaries: Suma Chakrabarti, who is now head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and highly respected; Minouche Shafik, who became deputy head of the International Monetary Fund and deputy governor of the Bank of England, and is today director of the London School of Economics; Sir Mark Lowcock, with unrivalled experience and now Britain’s lead official at the United Nations, in charge of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and, today, Matthew Rycroft, formerly the UK’s permanent representative at the UN.
When I left university, people who wanted to go into public service went first and foremost to the Treasury and the Foreign Office; my equivalents today want to go to DFID or the Treasury. The Department exercises a powerful appeal. I am always keen to say that this is not an area of policy that is Labour or Conservative; it is an area that is British. We should all, whatever party we are from, be very proud of the work that Britain does in development. In that spirit, it would be wrong not to mention Clare Short who, in my opinion, although she and I are polar opposites politically, did an absolutely outstanding job in setting up DFID. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and Valerie Amos, Baroness Amos, were both outstanding Secretaries of State who drove forward that British agenda with such effectiveness.
I will make a final point. I am incredibly proud to have served in a Government that, notwithstanding the austerity then in place in Britain, declined to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world or in Britain, and stood by the commitment to the 0.7%. Although Labour Governments had talked about the 0.7% for many years, it was a Conservative-led coalition Government who introduced it. The hon. Member for Slough, who led the debate, was good enough to make that point clear.
Our commitment is not only to the 0.7%, however, but to the rules. That is the point that came out in the “Today” interview that has been mentioned, in which I had a walk-on part. If we lose the rules, we can forget about the 0.7% because it will be plundered by stronger Departments such as the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. We must not forget that a large part of the Foreign Office budget is paid for from the official development assistance DFID budget, because much of what it does is eligible under the rules—but the rules have to be kept. My comment on that “Today” programme, which I repeat, is about my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). We all know his views, but on DFID he is in the role of a medieval pirate whose eye has alighted on a plump Spanish galleon, laden with the gold and silver of the development budget. He wants to board it and plunder it. I understand that but, nevertheless, it is wrong.
The rules are therefore probably more important than the 0.7% figure, although both go together. They are hugely to the credit of Britain and of our generations. We should be immensely proud, and we should use this debate to celebrate the effectiveness and brilliant world leadership of this great Department.
I am grateful for the contributions from the Members who spoke before me—generally, I agreed with what they said.
In my role on the International Development Committee I get to see some of the fantastic projects we are doing around the world, whether supporting M-KOPA, which is a solar power scheme in Uganda, Kenya and the wider region, investments via DFID alone and working with CDC Group, or garment workers providing safety and education in Bangladesh after that awful tragedy only a few years ago. DFID and British aid lead the world not only in transforming lives but in ensuring that the goods we receive in Britain are safe and help people around the world. It is right to say this is the best of British.
I begin by discussing why we have a moral responsibility to show leadership in development. Three months after becoming Britain’s first Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short said:
“Out of our complex history—all the bad and good of it, and the role it leaves us with on the international stage—I want us to do all we can to mobilise the political will for poverty elimination.”—[Official Report, 1 July 1997; Vol. 297, c. 126.]
Of course, “ our complex history” is a reference to hundreds of years in which UK foreign policy was literally designed to extract the wealth of poor countries, although not so poor at the time, around the world under our Empire or under other spheres of British influence. It is therefore a reference to our duty to pay some of that back and to the post-colonial days of tied aid; we have already heard about the Pergau dam scandal where €200 million of UK aid went to Malaysia to buy billions of pounds of weapons. That complex history is why Labour untied aid by scrapping the aid and trade provision, why we passed the International Development Act 2002 and why Labour established the stand-alone Department.
The Cameron Government must be applauded for continuing the Department and breaking the previous tit for tat. But I am afraid that this Government are wilfully unlearning past lessons, to ally not the majority of the Conservative party but a lunatic fringe of their own party—including a “pirate”, according to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). That fringe is against the 0.7% and the rules-based system. It is undoing the good that the coalition and Cameron Governments did following the good that the Labour Government did.
Over the course of this Parliament, aid spent outside DFID has tripled—something the cross-party International Development Committee has criticised. Most of that money is channelled through organisations such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which is constituted of many dubious programmes by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, often based on training and equipping militaries rather than alleviating poverty or creating long-term peace.
Surely, it does not matter who spends the money, but that it is spent in accordance with the rules as well as it can be. If it appears that it is not spent as well as it could be, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is the right vehicle to find that out. It does not matter who spends it; what matters is that it is spent well and within the rules of ODA.
I agree that ICAI has a key responsibility. Last year, ICAI—the Government watchdog—said that aid spent through the CSSF could not be proved not to be making the problem worse. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need scrutiny, but if the money is spent by many Departments, there is not one head to be held politically accountable. The Government can spend it where they want, but the political responsibility must be with the Department, otherwise the expertise and the political responsibility are gutted from the Department. That was the case with CSSF, which cannot prove that it is not making the situation worse.
Things were already bad enough, but they have been made considerably worse by the Secretary of State feathering her leadership ambitions and sending signals to Tory Members rather than focusing on poverty alleviation. We need look no further than her recent speeches; even senior civil servants in her own Department cannot identify any of the changes in policy from those speeches. In recent months, her office has said that our commitment to 0.7% is “unsustainable”, and it would like aid spent on building UK battle ships to
“take pressure off a stretched fleet”.
That is not part of a rules-based system.
We have heard that CDC profits should be counted as aid, which in anyone’s book is double counting and is against the rules-based system. We have even heard threats of leaving the Development Assistance Committee if it does not agreed to all our demands. Finally, there was nothing but silence when another leadership contender, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), backed a plan to decimate DFID and the Department for International Trade—a barmy proposal to reduce the aid budget and to spend the remainder on propping up the BBC. In no terms is that aid spending.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) asked the Secretary of State why we should trust her to spend the UK aid budget when she makes those sounds off, even though she is not acting on them, she said:
“They should trust me as the Secretary of State and as someone who has been an aid worker.”
It is astonishing that the Secretary of State’s defence is not one of policy or action but a personal anecdote that she happened to be a gap year worker for one year, 30 years ago, in Romania. That demonstrates clearly how much we need DFID to be governed by people who understand what aid is about. The joint Ministers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID do, but those at the top do not. We need someone at the top who does not wave red rags at the Conservative party.
Last year, the International Development Committee published the report “Definition and administration of ODA”, for which I acted as rapporteur. Almost all its recommendations were dismissed out of hand by the Government, although I understand many civil servants in the Department were friendly to the ideas. The report offers a very good basis for rebuilding the Department. Why can the Minister here not commit to our request that
“The Secretary of State for International Development should have ultimate responsibility for oversight of the UK’s ODA and the Department should have the final sign off of all ODA”?
That sounds pretty reasonable to me, but it was rejected. Perhaps the Minister could reconsider.
We put heavy emphasis on our concerns that the prosperity fund promoted UK trade above poverty reduction. Could the Minister allay our concerns? Finally, will the Minister reconsider the rejection of our request that
“The Government should make systematic improvements to coherence, transparency and—most crucially—the poverty focus of cross-government fund projects before increasing their share of UK ODA any further, and ensure that DFID”—
“has oversight of all ODA spending”?
In some cases with the CSSF, ICAI has had restricted access to investigate spending, on national security grounds. That is no basis for finding out whether funds have been spent effectively—I grant that it could have been done in camera.
In total, the Committee made 34 recommendations, which were generally dismissed by the Government. I believe that implementing those recommendations would have strengthened the hand of the world’s best deliverer of aid projects, which we can be genuinely proud of and, as we have already heard, has fantastic staff. However, those recommendations were not accepted. Instead, we hear hyperbole about getting out of the DAC, double counting and other dodgy deals with aid. I am afraid that is the wrong tone to strike about our great Department.
Order. I have to impose a five-minute limit on speeches. Anybody who goes over that limit will, unfortunately, take time away from the people who come after them, so please stick to it if possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I very much welcome this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his excellent remarks. Like the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), I had the pleasure of serving on the International Development Committee. In my seven years on the Committee, I saw the great work that is being done in so many countries by DFID staff and by organisations that are financed by the Department. I pay tribute to them, because they put themselves on the line, sometimes at great risk. They sometimes even pay the ultimate price for their work in development.
I am a great supporter of the Department for International Development, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) outlined. It gives aid and development a real independent voice in the Cabinet, and it allows a long-term view to be taken of development. I fear that if international development were put in another Department, that Department’s priorities would take precedence, whereas the Department for International Development can take that long-term view. I will say more about that in a moment.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I have seen the tremendous progress that has been made against those infectious diseases and others, such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, as a result of the investment by the Labour Government from the early 2000s through the global fund and bilateral aid, and by subsequent Governments. That investment has resulted in many millions of people being alive today who otherwise would not have been. DFID and the United Kingdom have played a huge role in that, through universities in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—right across the United Kingdom—and the work that people have done on the ground.
DFID has also played a major role in humanitarian responses. I remember someone in Sierra Leone telling me that the Royal Navy ship—I think it was HMS Bulwark—sitting in Freetown harbour that was used to support the Sierra Leonean Government to tackle Ebola gave them confidence that the world cared about bringing that appalling epidemic to an end. That was an example of joint working between UK Departments.
I stress the importance of long-term projects. I was honoured to see the community forestry project in Nepal. That joint piece of work by the Government of Nepal and DFID has run for more than 30 years and has led to a huge amount of afforestation. I ask the Minister to ensure that we look at projects in the longer term rather than on four-year cycles.
On funding, I am a firm believer in the 0.7% target. I was a sponsor of Michael Moore’s Bill, which became the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. There are opportunities to look at the OECD/DAC rules—sometimes they are a bit out of step—but, ultimately, they have to be concentrated on the alleviation of poverty. I point to peacekeeping: without peace, we can have no development, so it does not seem right that only a small part of peacekeeping in countries in conflict is attributable to ODA. That is just one example, but we have to be very clear and to abide by the rules that are in place.
On gaps, I believe we need a development bank in the United Kingdom. That would give us much greater opportunities to fund long-term projects that cannot be funded through short-term grants. Every other major development actor—the Germans, the French, the Japanese, the Brazilians and the European Union, of which we will no longer be a member—has a development bank, so it is important that we look at establishing one. I am delighted by the establishment of the small grants fund. That needs to be expanded, because it brings our constituents right into play with what is happening on the ground and enables them to see that their work in support of local charities is supported by the UK Government. Finally, DFID is very good at data, but it needs to do an awful lot more. We need to ensure that all action is data driven.
There is so much more I want to say but not enough time to say it, so let me say in conclusion that DFID is an excellent Department. Of course there is much more that can be done, including more scrutiny, and there are times when the work is not good enough, but the answer is not to abolish the Department. The answer is to strengthen it, to scrutinise it and to ensure it does the job it was set up to do—to relieve poverty.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), whom I commend for securing this debate. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) rightly criticised the Secretary of State’s effort to get the rules on development assistance changed. She seeks to undermine rules that have rightly forced Governments around the world, including ours, to be held to account for the amount of development assistance they give the world’s poorest people. It was good to hear the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) make a similar point. I take credit for much of his success as Secretary of State, because I schooled him while he was in training as the shadow Secretary of State.
There are three compelling arguments both for Britain sticking to its 0.7% level of funding for international development assistance, and for retaining the Department for International Development. First, there is a moral argument. We are one of the richest nations in the world. Surely we have a responsibility to help those in other countries who, through no fault of their own, live in terrible circumstances.
Secondly, it is surely in our country’s interests to try to support countries around the world in becoming stable, so their populations do not have to flee either to our country or to neighbouring countries. We should help them become stable so that their economies can grow, and they can have strong public services of the sort we would recognise. Given that conflict is much more likely to break out in a country where there has recently been conflict, if we continue to want to reduce the amount we spend collectively on peacekeeping, it is surely sensible to put in the hard yards by providing development assistance to help those countries get strong, effective Governments who are respected by people of all opinions.
The third argument is about soft power, which others mentioned. As a result of its huge commitment to international development, Britain is highly regarded at the United Nations. It was always highly regarded in the European Union and in a whole series of other international forums because of the work it did on development assistance, and the knowledge that everyone in the Government was committed to maintaining and enhancing the role of the Department for International Development and the aid budget.
Arguments against spending 0.7% are being made again, predominantly by people from the right of political discourse. It is argued that charities know best. I have a lot of respect for charities, particularly Britain’s charities. They make a considerable difference in the areas in which they are able to operate. However, no global player other than the Department for International Development can operate at the level that is needed to transform the poorest countries by providing aid that helps to build up the effectiveness of their Governments. Charity has a role to play, a demonstrative role in particular, and it certainly plays a useful role when a tsunami or other humanitarian crises occur, but we need to build up Governments in other countries.
Corruption is a risk, but if we use our aid money effectively, we help to strengthen the systems that stop corruption continuing to be a problem. As for the idea that charity should begin at home, every Member of the House can give examples of further Government funding being required in their constituency, and I hope we will see a change in direction when a new Government are in place, so that more resources can be made available for all of us, but I again make the point that we are one of the richest nations in the world, and we should be able to provide further development assistance.
I simply do not buy the idea that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is somehow diminished by the effectiveness of the Department for International Development. They have different roles, and they complement each other. We want a strong Foreign Office, but its strength will not be ended by an effective Department for International Development. I hope that the Secretary of State changes the language that she deploys, and that the Department’s future can be guaranteed.
Britain is an instinctively compassionate, outward-looking and humane nation, and we rightly expect our country to lend a hand in the struggle against poverty, misery and injustice; long may that continue. However, our country also has a keen sense of fairness. The British people want and expect taxpayers’ money to be used with integrity, and allocated sensibly and in accordance with their international priorities. Before I look at the central tenet of the speech made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), it is worth considering the sums of money we are talking about; that has not yet been discussed.
The 0.7% translates to approximately £14 billion. To put that into context, I was at a meeting this morning looking at legal aid in the criminal justice system—indeed, in the overall justice system—and we spend about £1.6 billion a year on legal aid. Or what about the schools high needs block, which funds such things as special educational needs, a big issue in my constituency? Its budget is about £6 billion. Our entire prisons budget is about £4 billion. Although the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, is right and is entitled to criticise, let us not forget the very significant sums of money allocated by this country. We can hold our heads high because we meet the commitment. The United States, France, Germany, Italy and Spain do not. This House must not fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow skimping on our international obligations. Far from it. We stand comparison with any nation on earth. The former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who spoke with his customary passion and eloquence, made that point crystal clear.
If we are to ensure that the British people retain their enthusiasm for meeting international commitments, it is critical that the rules be modernised and the money allocated in a way that meets priorities. Lest we forget, priorities change all the time; we must not be tone deaf to those changes. Although it is appropriate to keep a separate Department, there is a case to broaden its scope. I am delighted that the Government have acted with a great sense of purpose. I note, for example, that where the Development Assistance Committee’s rules are outdated, the Government have led the way in pushing for reform, so in October 2017 the UK secured an increase in the proportion of aid spending that can be contributed to peacekeeping missions. That is perfectly understandable and reasonable, but there is one central point that we also ought to consider in this House: the Department for International Development. Is it the exclusive purview of the £14 billion budget, or are there other broad areas that we ought to consider?
When I go to schools in Cheltenham—we ought to consider the next generation—one of the key concerns about Britain’s role in the world and how we want to express ourselves internationally is not so much to do with development but with conservation. The people in Charlton Kings Junior School that I spoke to are deeply concerned about plastic pollution, flora and fauna, biodiversity, habitat protection and climate change. The point that I want to make gently is that of course we must be internationalist and globalist, and we must continue to have a role in the world that shows that Britain is on the right side on the great moral issues facing our planet, but should that exclusively be about development? I think we need to have a debate in this House about whether there are other global priorities that we ought to consider.
When I see the tide of plastic in the Pacific ocean, I want us to do more. When I see species losing their habitats in sub-Saharan Africa and the hideous effects of climate change, I want to do more.
My hon. Friend rightly talks about conservation, but that comes under the 0.7%, and the three things he has just mentioned are within the official development assistance rules and also come under the 0.7%, so I think I can lift his spirits a little.
To some extent it does, but cosmetic changes could be made. Why can the Department for International Development not be the Department for International Development and Conservation? That would send an important message. Also, we ought to be far clearer about the amounts that we can allocate to such causes. There is a huge amount of pushback, inevitably, from the likes of Oxfam. I understand why they would want to protect their realm, so to speak, but we could lean into these areas far more effectively; that would be more consistent with the instincts of the British people, and would gain further support.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate, and thank him for giving us a chance to participate. Like other Members, I add my thanks to the Department and the Minister for what they do. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) referred earlier to the soft power that DFID generates across the world.
I got a very helpful parliamentary briefing from Christian Aid, which is very active in Newtownards in my constituency. I want to pass on some of its comments, which I wholeheartedly support. Clearly, DFID is able to address many things, including the root causes of poverty: discrimination, tax avoidance, climate change, unsustainable debt and unfair trade rules. However, it cannot be forgotten or overstated that aid is vital for saving lives—DFID aid has saved lives; I reiterate that—as well as making sustainable investments for a fairer and brighter future.
It is estimated that UK aid saves a life every two minutes, for less than a penny in every pound. Between January 2015 and December 2017 alone, UK aid supported the immunisation of approximately 37.4 million children, saving 610,000 lives. If we ever needed a reason for DFID, the best reason I can think of is that it saves lives. Over the past 30 years, we have seen impressive progress on global poverty. Our Minister, her Department and our Government can take some credit for that, and I support what they do. It is nice to see the Minister back in her place. She seems to be as regular in Westminster Hall, as am I—and, indeed, the rest of us.
The UK has led many of the international responses to humanitarian crises across the world, providing life-saving health services, food, clean water and sanitation to those in need. The UK—with the support of all parties, rightly—has been first to help those affected by earthquakes and tsunamis. Christian Aid believes that Britain’s commitment to providing effective aid is a badge of honour worthy of pride and fierce defence, and I agree; long may it continue. There has been some negative publicity about the 0.7% of GDP, but there is still strong public support for international development. I see that every year in my constituency when Christian Aid engages with the general public to ensure that money is raised. The people of Newtownards and Strangford are very generous every year.
As to possible changes, such as the merging of DFID with the FCO, I must express concern. In 2017, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that poverty reduction in the world’s poorest countries is at risk of being diluted by the Government’s increasing tendency to prioritise UK national interest in aid spending. I want the present arrangement to be retained, because it works. If it works, why change it?
Many people say that aid should be given primarily to fight poverty. I am quite happy with where it is going, as long as it goes to the right place, and there is not the corruption referred to by other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is not in his place.
UK overseas assistance is one of the most heavily scrutinised areas of Government spending, with oversight from the Select Committee on International Development, the National Audit Office and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. There is international recognition that the UK leads in the shaping of the global development agenda, and the Department for International Development scores highly on the international aid transparency index. I see many reasons to continue to support DFID as it is. I would consider a decision to take money away from a Department that meets the gold standard to be wrong, and I urge the Minister and the Government to stand firm to ensure that it continues to do what it does—saving lives, addressing global poverty, ensuring that immunisation programmes can continue, and helping with sanitation and water quality. Many Members have spoken in the debate, and those still to speak will cover similar issues. Those things are important; my constituents want them to be dealt with, and the House should support that.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to go where the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has taken us in this debate. I am thrilled to be sitting next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has done so much work in the field of international development.
The key statistic for me is that it is estimated that for less than a penny in every pound, UK aid saves a life every two minutes. When it comes to value for money, the DFID budget is more important than many others, because it has such an impact. That is what brings me here, to stand up for DFID. I take the point made that it feels as if there has been a change of tone in the past couple of years. There has always been negativity and criticism about aid being sent abroad. We should make the case for what it does for the people of this planet, and what it does for our country. It is essential to stand up for a Department that spends money well. Interestingly, in the recent transparency index, out of almost 50 countries—and, in our case, two Departments—DFID scored third for value for money, which is “very good”. The Foreign Office’s score level was “poor”; it was pretty much towards the end of the list. As a Conservative who values the concept of getting good value for money, why would I want money to be taken from a Department that spends it well and to go to a Department that has been spending it poorly?
I had a meeting at the FCO to discuss attempts to have one Minister across both Departments, and questions were asked about why the Foreign Office had got things wrong. DFID has often been beaten for mistakes, and in some of the stories that the Daily Mail has been so fond of, when the projects in question were not DFID’s, but the Foreign Office’s. The answer to the question was that whereas DFID has a ministerial requirement to go through every spend above £250, in the Foreign Office, officials have that remit. There is not same ministerial oversight, so I can see why issues may arise. However, I believe that almost a third of the UK overseas aid budget will be spent outside DFID by 2020, and it is that creep that causes me concern, because I want our money to be spent well, and to save the 610,000 lives that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned in connection with immunisation. That is what DFID does, whereas the Foreign Office has to focus its attempts on diplomacy and other key areas. When it comes to spending aid money, I believe that DFID is the Department that should do it.
I have travelled with DFID officials and charity aid partners to see how the money is spent, and have been very impressed. When I first went to Jordan and the Syrian border to see whether our money was spent well, and to see different approaches, it was with an open mind. I was incredibly impressed by DFID’s work with international partners that deal with distribution on the ground, and with partners within Government. The Jordanian Government are a classic example: they are hosting 600,000 refugees in a relatively peaceful country, propped up by a lot of aid from this country. Other countries in Europe took the view that they would take migration, but the people we met did not want to come to Europe. They wanted to stay in their country—or, I should say, go back to Syria when it is safe to do so. It is UK aid that is keeping them well. The sanitation I saw was heart-warming compared with what I thought it would be. When I compare what I saw at Sangatte in France with what we are helping countries such as Jordan to deliver, it fills me with pride at being British.
I recently went to Africa. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) about our colonial past, I would issue a warning that it is the Chinese who are now doing what he described happening in Africa. Perhaps that is where the Foreign Office could intervene—by putting more pressure on China not to take from countries, treating them almost as a back office to China, but to put something into them. The corruption that is going on in Africa is a disgrace. However, I was heartened by the fact that in Djibouti, where 40% of the population are children, the mortality rate has halved as a result of UK aid helping our partners on the ground. There is much that we do, and we do it well. In April, I am going to Iraq to see what is being done.
I absolutely support the Minister in her post. I look forward to DFID continuing in its role, and to all of us standing up to champion what it can do, and pushing back on those voices that, I am afraid to say, do not always have its best interests at heart.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate. The topic is incredibly important. A challenge for MPs is the fact that it is sometimes a hard sell with our constituents. Often they do not see the results of what is done; they just hear about the money going in at the front end. They do not see what good comes of it.
I must admit that I was slightly sceptical when I was elected in 2015, but subsequently I was appointed a Parliamentary Private Secretary in DFID—on two occasions. First I assisted the ministerial team—or un-assisted them, depending on how you looked at it. Afterwards, I worked with the Secretary of State. I saw at first hand the complete and utter dedication of the Secretary of State, the ministerial team and the civil servants who helped to pull the whole thing together. Those people have great pride in what they do and the way they deliver it. They are delivering life-saving changes around the world.
I disagree with some comments by Opposition Members that the Secretary of State does not care as much as previous Secretaries of State. I have seen at first hand that she absolutely does. I was struck in my first meetings in the Department by her insistence that it was important to prove not only that money was being spent well, but that it could not be spent better. That is a critical point that we should always have at the forefront of our mind. In January 2018, she set out five pledges, which included a proposal for boosting trade and investment with developing countries, helping developing countries to stand on their own feet with sustainable health and education systems in which they invest, and finding ways to help other Departments make their spend more effective. There is a commitment to deliver on those things.
I want to make two quick points, relating to my earlier comment about our constituents not always necessarily understanding the importance of the Department. We are talking about huge sums of money—billions. It is worth reminding the House and our constituents of some of the things that DFID helps to deliver. Between April 2015 and March 2018 it reached 26.8 million people with humanitarian assistance and supported 11.4 million children in getting a decent education. It also supported 40.3 million people in accessing clean water and better sanitation. Since 2015, UK aid paid for more than 37 million children to be immunised, saving more than 600,000 lives across the world—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised that point.
As I said earlier this week during Second Reading of the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill, DFID has supported programmes to help more than 8,000 communities—representing more than 24.5 million people—who pledged to abandon FGM and let more than 3 million women and girls get FGM protection and care services. Those things are being delivered around the world as we speak.
We should not underestimate the benefits of soft power because, as colleagues have said, that is why we are respected around the world. That is not because of our football teams—certainly not my football team, Newcastle—our pop music industry or our cars, but because we are known to be a reliable partner that is there to help less fortunate countries when they need that support. As the world’s fifth largest economy, we have a responsibility to help those countries, but that help also benefits Britain. By investing at source, problems are less likely to escalate and become more difficult, or perhaps to end up on our shores, meaning that we have to deal with those issues here, thereby putting pressure on other services. Work to prevent conflict, disease and disasters helps make this country more secure, and for those reasons I am very proud of DFID’s work. It is important that DFID remains a standalone Department, not only so that can it continue to deliver services, but so that the quality and oversight of what is being delivered receives the best possible scrutiny.
Order. We have gone slightly over time so I would be grateful if Front-Bench speakers kept their speeches to nine minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. It is a rare experience for me to be in Westminster Hall these days, but I am delighted to speak about the Department for International Development. Once upon a time I was the SNP spokesperson for international development, and our current spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), is currently attending the International Development Committee—this debate has slightly unfortunate timing because I know the Committee is hearing important evidence, but it is good that some of its members have made it here today.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important and timely debate, and I agreed with practically every word he said, just as I agreed with other Labour Members and more broadly across the Chamber—there has been a fair degree of consensus today, which is positive. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) defended the Department for International Development and the 0.7% target, and if the Government’s confidence and supply partners are keen on DFID, I think its safety is secured for the foreseeable future. We look forward to hearing from the Minister—she will also bring a bit of gender balance to the debate, as there has not been much of that. By way of an informal declaration of interest, I serve on the board of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy on behalf of the SNP, and I chair the all-party group on Malawi.
In the short time available—we want to hear from the Minister—I wish to reflect on some of the things we have heard and offer some perspectives from Scotland. In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Slough gave a good overview of DFID’s history, particularly of its achievements in its current incarnation. DFID was one achievement of the new Labour Government, and for all the faults that some of us might have seen during those years, the establishment of the Department and its continuation has been a significant achievement. The United Kingdom played a huge role in the establishment and delivery of the millennium development goals, and it has gone on to do the same with the sustainable development goals. Again, we should give credit where it is due and to the role of the coalition Government in drafting the SDGs, under the leadership of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. However, writing down goals on a piece of paper is one thing, but ensuring they are delivered is another, and that responsibility must be maintained by the Department.
DFID is one of the most scrutinised Departments, and as the former SNP spokesperson on international development I regularly took part on debates on aid spending—I know such debate continue to occur. We have the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the International Development Committee, and there are all kinds of mandatory reporting mechanisms. It is perhaps no wonder that, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, stories end up in the Daily Mail, precisely because there is so much scrutiny—far more than for some other Departments.
Such scrutiny leads to a mismatch in public perception. According to opinion polls, analysis and focus groups, the public seem to think that not 0.7%, but closer to 7% or even 10% of national income is spent on aid. The perception is different from the reality, and when people see first-hand and understand the impact that aid is making, attitudes change—that point was emphasised very personally by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey). As the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said, the small grants scheme is an important and welcome innovation, and for many years the Scottish Government have used their budget to allow that localised connection.
The amount of money spent on aid is about one tenth of spending on the health service. We spent £2 billion a year on Trident, and multiples of that on arms sales—that issue was raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). If money was diverted from that sort of spending, it could well complement the relatively small amounts that still go on aid. Importantly—this theme has come out of today’s debate—DFID must maintain its role as the lead Department, and we must recognise the importance of investing in the long term.
There is a proper debate to be had about quality versus quantity, and although it can be difficult to measure the long-term impact of aid programmes, that does not mean they do not have an impact, or that years down the line it will not be clear that the investments have paid off in the long term because cultures, habits and attitudes have changed. That is why investing in monitoring and evaluation is important—it is part of delivery, and part of what the spending is for. Recent Secretaries of State have attempted to cut bureaucracy or reduce some of DFID’s spending, and that is when we end up with money that has to be shovelled out the door and it is perhaps not monitored as effectively as possible. We must get right the balance between quality and quantity.
Since 2005, the Scottish Government—again on a cross-party basis—have run a small international development programme, and they continue to prioritise human rights, sustainable development goals, global citizenship, and a concept of ultimately moving beyond aid. There will always be a need for aid in some shape or form, but ultimately we need an holistic approach across the Government. Part of the point of the sustainable development goals is that global vision of how to achieve a better, more sustainable planet for everybody. We must implement those goals here in the United Kingdom, as well as ensuring that they are implemented effectively in developing countries.
In Scotland we sometimes hear that DFID is one of the United Kingdom’s great assets, and a reason why Scotland should not consider embarking on its own constitutional independence. If DFID is to be undermined, and if we are to be told that the aid budget needs to be scrapped and is not effective—perhaps people should be a little careful about the logic of that argument if we in Scotland want to maintain our role as global citizens. That is why the rhetoric that we hear from Ministers about aid working in the national interest must be questioned.
I have never understood—no Minister has ever been able to tell me—how achieving the sustainable development goals, eradicating poverty, and ending the impact of climate change is not in the national interest. It is in our collective interest as human beings to meet those development goals, and we should not need to try to make some sort of distinction. It is correct to have these debates and for DFID to be properly scrutinised, but the immediate context of this debate is worrying. As the hon. Member for Slough said, the Government must immediately distance themselves from the report by the Henry Jackson Society, and say that that is not their direction of travel.
The metaphor of pirates cruising around looking for galleons filled with gold is slightly unhelpful, because the amounts of money we are talking about are not vast, and the returns that we get from them vastly outstrip that investment. Finally, I say to people who think they can undermine the aid budget that there is a majority in this House and in this country who support the work of DFID. The people who campaigned, marched and lobbied for the Jubilee Campaign, the Trade Justice Movement and Make Poverty History have not gone away. They will use their voices and votes to stand up for the poorest and most marginalised around the country and the world. They can be assured of the SNP’s support and, I believe, the support of the majority of Members in the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this important debate. It is a shame that Members feel that they have to bring such debates to the House, when we thought we had settled the matter of the Department for International Development, as has been said over and over again today.
It is a pleasure to follow so many assured and supportive speeches, the majority of which gave total support for the future work of the Department for International Development, and to follow the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) gave an excellent speech; he does a lot of important work with the World Bank on behalf of this House. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) gave an outstanding speech that showed that if we look at this matter independently and objectively there is no question about the need for the independence of the Department, the 0.7% and all the arguments that he went through. On my own side, I follow the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who is a member of the International Development Committee.
In 1997, when Labour established the Department for International Development, Clare Short, the first Secretary of State for International Development, told the House of Commons that her Department had
“been given the most noble and honourable work that anyone could be asked to do.”
She said that eliminating global poverty, while
“the single greatest challenge the world faces.”—[Official Report, 1 July 1997; Vol. 297, c. 116.]
In the two decades since then, politicians from across the political spectrum have ensured that this country steps up to that challenge.
The International Development Act 2002 ensures that all aid spending remains tightly focused on poverty reduction overseas and is not diverted to other ends. In 2014 Parliament improved on that and passed the International Development (Gender Equality) Act, to ensure aid spending strives to tackle the associated challenge of discrimination against, and oppression of, women and girls. In 2015 Parliament enshrined in law the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, making us one of only five donor countries to meet the internationally agreed commitment.
Since DFID was established 22 years ago, it has become a global leader in international development. Every year it spends UK aid in ways that make tangible differences to people’s lives the world over. DFID has helped some of the world’s poorest people realise their right to health and education. It has provided emergency life-saving aid for people caught up in major humanitarian crises and has led the way in bringing gender equality into the mainstream through its development work. The UK public should be proud of the development work that their money has supported over recent decades, but all too sadly they do not hear the success stories of UK aid and the work of DFID. Instead, they hear a loud and vocal anti-aid lobby, which does its best to discredit the work, as many Members today have mentioned.
The charge against the country’s aid programme is spearheaded by a small number of major media outlets, who revel in spinning and stirring the few occasions when UK aid programmes might not have worked as we had hoped. They are hell bent on driving a hysterical hatred of the UK’s work to end global poverty. The anti-aid media narrative is a serious problem, but even more worrying are attacks from a number of Tory Members, which have many guises. I will mention three of them.
First, there is the straightforward misspending and diverting of aid away from poverty reduction. Last weekend the Guardian reported a letter sent to the Chancellor from 23 international development agencies, raising their concerns about the way Ministers are spending aid. They warned him that aid is being diverted away from the poorest countries in order to promote commercial and political interests. From using aid to help UK companies expand their businesses overseas, to suggestions that aid be spent on UK naval ships, we are seeing more aid than ever being spent on projects that no one sincerely believes are about reducing global poverty. Those attempts do nothing but feed into the idea that the UK aid programme is a waste of UK taxpayers’ money.
Secondly, there are blatant attempts to dissolve the Department altogether. It is no secret that the former Foreign Secretary wants to see the Department dismantled. Earlier this month, he threw his weight behind a report that said DFID should be folded back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and that the UK’s aid budget should be slashed. Such a move would be a disaster for the country’s aid programme. It is only DFID that has the specific and sole purpose of poverty alleviation and a dedicated staff working to achieve this goal. Merging the Department with the FCO—or any other Department for that matter—would dilute the agenda and see more money diverted away from poverty towards other foreign policy interests.
We can learn from Australia, where the international development department was merged with the foreign office, with a number of negative knock-on effects. The country’s strategic vision for aid was lost, the Government witnessed a brain-drain of development expertise and an estimated 2,000 years of collective experience left the department.
We already know from our own experience, where almost one third of our aid is spent outside DFID, that only DFID meets the highest spending standards. The Aid Transparency Index, the only independent measure of aid transparency among the world’s major development agencies, rated DFID “very good”, while the FCO’s aid spending was rated “poor”, according to the same measure. Likewise, the ONE Campaign recently launched an aid index that rates aid spending by different Departments. It found the FCO to be “weak” on its ability to keep aid focused on poverty, and that no other Department spends aid as well as DFID.
The third threat, which is related, is the worrying challenge to our aid and development work presented by the persistent undermining of the very concept of aid. The Secretary of State has made clear her desire to change the definition of aid. She recently launched a consultation on her plans to reduce the amount of public money that needs to be spent on aid by counting profits from private investments towards the aid budget. There are no two ways about it—aid is either spent to alleviate poverty and the causes of poverty, or it is invested to make a profit. The Labour party rejects any attempts to commercialise the UK aid budget.
The Secretary of State has said that she thinks the 0.7% of aid spending is unsustainable. Will the Minister expand on that comment, which was reported to have been made in a Cabinet meeting? We know that the Secretary of State wants to rewrite the international rules set by the OECD that govern aid spending. In the context of the sustained threat that is faced by DFID and ODA, I am delighted this debate has been called.
Anyone who believes that this country has a role to play in international development must be ready to defend the Department and the budget. I cannot fathom why some people are so obsessed with eroding and ending aid.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was right for the British Government to seek to rewrite the rules to allow aid spending to be used to deal with some of the appalling consequences of the dreadful storm in British Overseas Territories? Does he agree that it was appropriate that British aid should go towards that deserving cause?
As we heard from the hon. Gentleman’s earlier contributions, maintaining the focus of the 0.7% is the most important issue. If we keep trying to erode and change the definition of aid, we are not backing that concept.
It disgusts me that people put so much energy into blocking support for the world’s poorest people, when a fraction less than 1% of our country’s income is spent on aid. I am a proud internationalist and I am proud that my party was responsible for setting up the Department for International Development. I believe the country’s aid programme is about morality, justice and pragmatism.
It is shame that we are debating whether we should continue with our UK aid commitments and whether our world renowned Department for International Development can survive many more years of Tory in-fighting, or be saved from being turned into a political football in any future leadership contest. I hope the Minister can give some guarantees on behalf of the Government.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s debate. It is worth highlighting that we have had a range of excellent speeches, eight of which were from Conservative and Democratic Unionist party colleagues, while there are five Labour Members here. The way in which the issues were raised in the debate, and the endorsement that the Conservative manifesto at the last election gave to the 0.7%, sets our record straight right off the bat, in terms of our commitment and our pride in being part of the movement that put 0.7% in statute—we are the only country in the world to have done that so far—and to the Government’s policy to retain the Department for International Development as a stand-alone Department. The reasons for that were well articulated by a range of Members.
I am a Minister in both the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That makes a great deal of sense because, to highlight just one, South Sudan, of the worst humanitarian crises—where some of our biggest DFID budgets are—we can see that it is entirely a man-made conflict, and we need to work not only through providing humanitarian assistance, but by doing what we can on the political track to try to bring that conflict to a resolution. That is why it makes sense for me and the Minister for the Middle East to be in both Departments.
We have heard a range of excellent speeches, many of them focused on history and some of the lessons we have learned through history on how to do what we do more effectively. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who spoke eloquently about the role of the Department, many of the people who have served in the Department over the years, and the role of overseas development assistance in soft power and Global Britain. His characteristic modesty did not allow him to mention that he, I think, came up with “UK aid—from the British people”. That is now widely used in our projects—I saw it on an Ethiopian water tank only last week. We should pay tribute to him for that; I know Ministers would like to see more of it.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) spoke about M-KOPA and CDC. I was glad to hear that, because I have not always heard a consistent message of support from Labour Members on CDC, the private sector development arm. It brings a great deal of private sector capital into development issues and M-KOPA, which he highlighted, is a particularly good example.
The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund plays an important role. I reassure colleagues that 100% of our 0.7% spending comes in a form that is approved by the Development Assistance Committee. We have pushed to change some of the rules over the years and have been successful in doing that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) highlighted one of those successes. We have also been able to get the allocation for peacekeeping up from 7% to 15%. The role of the UN peacekeepers is important and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund providing the foundation of peace and security for development is vital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) rightly highlighted the important work that has been done through the aid budget to tackle a wide range of diseases, not just malaria and neglected tropical diseases but diseases such as polio. He spoke of the need for long-term development funding, which we do primarily through the World Bank now. He is making a powerful case for the UK to have its own bank. He rightly highlighted the importance of the Small Charities Challenge Fund and the aid match projects that allow us to match one-to-one the wishes of the British public with spending.
The Minister will be aware of the SheDecides global movement, which supports the right of every girl and woman to make the decisions that only they should make. SheDecides Day is coming up fast. Will the Minister tell the House why the Secretary of State has not agreed to be an ambassador for the movement?
I cannot, because I was not aware of it, but I know that there is no one who women and girls around the world can count on more than our Secretary of State for her championing of the need to put women and girls first. It is putting women and girls first, and creating an environment where they do well, that enables the rest of the country to do well. That is vital and is incorporated in all of our programming.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) also raised the issue of corruption, which is an example of where cross-Government working is so important, so that we can work with the National Crime Agency to tackle some of the financial flows and corruption that flow from some developing countries where we are spending overseas development assistance, through the UK courts and UK financial system. It is a good example of where we need to work across government.
Members discussed the fact that some other Departments spend overseas development assistance. Of course they do, for a range of things, whether that is trade, development, the work of the National Crime Agency, the work on the environment and plastics through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or the work that we do on tackling climate change, which needs to be joined-up across government. There was a wide outbreak of consensus on that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised an important, underlying function: for us to save lives through what we do with aid. He was absolutely right to highlight that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) highlighted the importance of value for money and being able to tell the British taxpayer that we are getting it. The debate has allowed us to highlight some excellent examples of value for money.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who I thank for the excellent work he did as my previous Private Parliamentary Secretary—he would be welcome back any time; he just needs to support the withdrawal agreement—highlighted that it is not just that the money should be spent well, but that it could not be spent better. The hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) also made supportive comments.
I am glad to be able to reassure hon. Members that it is indeed Government policy to continue with the excellent stand-alone work of the Department for International Development. We can point to a strong track record of delivering results. We will continue to work across Government in a joined-up way in trying to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030. We have heard a lot about the past of the Department. The future of the Department must surely be about focusing on achieving the sustainable development goals and on spending more of our money in areas of extreme poverty.
Will the Minister categorically say that she is against the former Foreign Secretary’s comments? Some of us are looking for the reassurance that post Brexit there will be no downgrading of our legal commitments.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
I am very much heartened by the comments from the Minister, and her commitment. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber for their invaluable contributions to this very important debate and for the cross-party consensus that we have managed to maintain throughout.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Department for International Development.
Electoral Funding: Unincorporated Associations
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of unincorporated associations in electoral funding.
It is very good to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries; I believe this is the first Westminster Hall debate I have participated in where you have been in the Chair.
I will introduce this somewhat obscure topic of the role of unincorporated associations in UK electoral funding by setting the scene. We begin in the Glasgow suburb of Clarkston, the type of place that is usually prefixed with “leafy”. As many hon. Members from Scottish constituencies, especially in the west, will know, it is composed of the mid-century, semi-detached houses that are a familiar sight across the west of Scotland and, I am sure, elsewhere. Anyone who has watched “Two Doors Down” on BBC Scotland might know what I am talking about.
In one of those houses lives a seemingly upstanding citizen by the name of Richard Cook, a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative party and former Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate for East Renfrewshire. A cursory search turns up photos of Mr Cook with numerous Tory grandees, including the current leader of the Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, Member of the Scottish Parliament, and her interim replacement, Jackson Carlaw, the local MSP. There is also a photo of Mr Cook with the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who came to East Renfrewshire to campaign for Mr Cook in 2010, in the election campaign that, as we all know, made Mr Cameron Prime Minister.
During that campaign, voters in East Renfrewshire were given an impression of a candidate in a Tory target seat who fitted the zeitgeist well—a waste management consultant who could almost have been hand-picked by Conservative campaign headquarters to represent the new, green Tories. His leaflets spoke about protecting green spaces and improving recycling.
Incredibly, during the campaign, the company that Mr Cook founded, DDR Recycling, was involved in a scam relating to the illegal shipment of waste tyres around the world, as confirmed by the Environment Agency in the UK. During investigations into those shipments, it was alleged that Mr Cook submitted false evidence to authorities in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of India investigating the case. That case is the loose thread that pulls apart the Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate’s carefully managed public persona.
Thanks to the excellent work of investigative journalists such as Peter Geoghegan and Adam Ramsay at openDemocracy, we have been led carefully through a mystery tour of Mr Cook’s business dealings, which belied the conventional suburban milieu from which he came. DDR Recycling is now in liquidation, owing the UK taxpayer £150,000, but before that, it became embroiled in a Californian court case brought by an international haulage firm, which alleged $1.5 million of unpaid bills for waste shipments to South Korea.
That was only the beginning. Just before leaving DDR in 2014, Cook set up a company called Five Star Investment Management, with 75% of its shares held by the now late Prince Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz, a former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, and the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Kingdom. A third partner, a Danish national by the name of Peter Haestrup, had previously been involved in a gun-running scandal in the Republic of India. That is only a glimpse into a dazzling array of international deals, including another $1 billion environmental project in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which looked to most trained observers like a litany of fraudulent deals.
While my hon. Friend wets his whistle, before he moves on from the role that journalists played in exposing the Constitutional Research Council and Mr Cook’s activities, will he acknowledge the role played by Jim Fitzpatrick of BBC Northern Ireland’s documentary series, “Spotlight”? His marvellous documentary, “Brexit, Dark Money and the DUP”, began this whole investigation and should be commended.
Order. That should be an intervention, not a speech.
Perhaps I can remind the Chamber that my hon. Friend’s name is Brendan O’Hara. I totally agree with him and commend those who have assisted in exposing dark money to the light.
Why is all that relevant to a debate about unincorporated associations in the political process? Mr Cook is the poster boy for the way in which UAs have been used to funnel vast swathes of dark money into our political process. Even worse, the Electoral Commission allows fraudsters such as him effectively to mark their own homework. The Electoral Commission gave me a very informative briefing ahead of this debate, and I will use its definition of an unincorporated association:
“UAs are associations of two or more people, which do not fall into any of the other categories of permissible donors, are carrying on business or other activities wholly or mainly in the UK and have their main office here. They are permitted to donate money to political parties, non-party campaigners, individuals in elective office such as MPs, and referendum campaigners.”
The key phrase in that definition is,
“which do not fall into any of the other categories of permissible donors”.
That is what today’s debate is about. If the Minister answers only one question in this debate, I would like it to be this one: why, given all the ways in which individuals and organisations can donate money to political parties and groups in a transparent and straightforward manner, do we still allow this backdoor method, which seems to me to be easily exploited by those who would seek to obscure the provenance of funds?
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech. Is he surprised and disappointed, as I was, to learn that when SNP councillors lodged a motion asking Tory councils in North Ayrshire to make a statement on dark donations to local Tory branches, the Labour councillors abstained? Does he, like me, suspect that that is not unrelated to the much-denied informal confidence and supply arrangement that exists between Labour and Tory groups across Scotland?
[Mr Ian Austin in the Chair]
It sounds like “Better Together”.
The case that proves my argument beyond doubt is the unincorporated association that Richard Cook leads: the Constitutional Research Council, or CRC. He describes the CRC as a group
“to start promoting the Union in all its…parts”,
and while it is based in Scotland, critically, it has managed to spread its tentacles across the rest of these islands. The CRC is most famous—or should I say infamous?—for the £435,000 donation it made to the Democratic Unionist party during the Brexit referendum.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not at the moment, no.
That was a vast sum for a party whose election expenses do not normally even get past five figures. Some £280,000 of that donation was spent on a wrap-around advert in the Metro newspaper in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, despite the fact that the only part of these islands where the Metro is not distributed is the part in which the DUP itself stands.
The bizarre situation, Mr Austin—it is good to see you in the Chair, sir; perhaps you will remember folks’ names, if they are allowed an intervention—allied with the fact that the advert itself closely resembled the type of advertising promoted in the official “Vote Leave” campaign, meant that the case soon came to the attention of those investigating illegal collusion between the campaigns, including this Parliament’s own Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
While the where or why of that collusion is not relevant to the debate, the vehicle used by the campaigns as a conduit for this cash—the CRC—is. Because the CRC is an unincorporated association, it could mask the ultimate sources of those funds. I will let the Committee report say it, as it is incredible.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, no. The Committee stated that
“this Committee and the wider public have no way of investigating the source of the £435,000 donation to the DUP made on behalf of the CRC and are prevented from even knowing whether it came from an organisation, whose membership had either sanctioned the donation or not, or from a wealthy individual.”
This is a political donation equivalent to twice the price of the average house in most parts of these islands. It is almost 60 times greater than the £7,500 threshold for naming normal political donors, but we know absolutely nothing about its source, and the Electoral Commission cannot tell us, as elected Members in this Parliament, how it verified that it was permissible.
Will my hon. Friend give way on this point?
I will briefly, yes.
I am extremely grateful. Sometimes this stuff is hiding in plain sight. The Electoral Commission figures released earlier today tell us that the Conservative party has received a total of £400,000, with one donation coming from the household of a former Putin Minister eight months after the Salisbury poisoning, which killed a British citizen, and the other one coming from a weapons dealer and gunrunner who is a personal friend of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Does my hon. Friend agree that if that money is not returned, it confirms the Tory party’s status as a complete moral sewer?
On that point, will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. I will make it clear that I fundamentally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and the Minister will not be able to turn to civil servants to answer on behalf of the Conservative party, because this is purely political. Let me also make it clear that this is the exact opposite of the probity and good governance that we would expect from a properly functioning liberal parliamentary democracy. I am sure that I am not the only one to come to the same conclusion as the DCMS Committee—that the CRC used this method.
Let me quote the Committee again. It stated that
“in order to avoid having to disclose the source of this £435,000 donation, the CRC, deliberately and knowingly, exploited a loophole in the electoral law to funnel money to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.”
I am of course disappointed not to see, for the first time ever, a member of the Democratic Unionist party at a Westminster Hall debate.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to speak on behalf of the DUP, but I will not give way. I wonder how many DUP Members know what the true source of the money was and whether it did the requisite due diligence before accepting it. Why do we continue to let cowboys such as Richard Cook effectively mark their own homework? Surely there must be a way to ensure that the probity of major political donations can be assured.
Let us not forget that there is a legitimate reason for UAs to exist; it is not my intention to suggest otherwise. In a legal sense, it is understandable that certain groups may want to keep structures that have no legal existence separate from their members.
On that point, will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. As someone who worked for many years in the third sector in my constituency, I know very well—[Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members will listen, rather than asking for an intervention they will not get. I know very well the value of UAs to organisations that do not want to be encumbered by the bureaucracy of other statuses.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Once again, no. Political parties do this, of course. My own SNP branches—Clydebank, Dumbarton and the mighty Vale of Leven—make donations to the party, and vice versa, but the point is that they are able to do so in a transparent and accountable manner. Political parties and the sub-units therein are already, as you will know, Mr Austin, regulated as accounting units. Anyone going on to look at the list of donors to my political campaigns will know exactly where the money came from, and if it is not from an individual, people can be certain that it is from a group whose aims are well stated and well understood.
However, as we can see from the outcomes of the DCMS Committee report, donors who want to obscure the source of their donations are using unincorporated associations as a vehicle to do that. Quite simply, unincorporated associations beyond regulated political parties are a subtle legal fiction that allows fraudsters to dump dark money in our system, which is not confined to the outer reaches.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Again, no, I will not. [Interruption.] One moment. It turns out that using UAs and similar convenient legal fictions to funnel dark money into our political system is the favoured modus operandi not only of Richard Cook, but of the Scottish Tory party of which he used to be the vice-chair.
My hon. Friend is making a really powerful speech. He speaks of transparency and accountability being important and of a functioning liberal democracy being something that we should all support. Does he share my astonishment, because of course electoral support comes in forms other than hard cash, that the Prime Minister has yet to reply to my letter of 7 January about the visit of AggregateIQ to Downing Street? That follows on from her failure to write to me after Prime Minister’s questions as she said she would on 12 September.
It does not surprise me, because the leader of the Scottish Conservative party has never even responded to my request in terms of a letter about dark money.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not at the moment. I am going to make some progress, because I know we are short of time.
Let us be quite open: news outlets such as openDemocracy and the Ferret have documented how UAs and similar legal entities designed to obscure donations have been used to flood Scottish politics with cash. During the 2016 Holyrood election campaign that saw the Scottish Tories become the official second party, hundreds of thousands of pounds were funnelled through other organisations with an illegal remit such as the Irvine Unionist Club, the Scottish Unionist Association Trust, the Scottish Conservative Club and, of course, Focus on Scotland. Indeed, during the election to this place, in which Members from the other parties were elected, several elected candidates from the Scottish Conservative party accepted donations from opaque organisations.
Quite simply, I do not think it is befitting of our political system to continue with this type of ambiguity. In 2017, all my colleagues and I stood on a manifesto to enhance the powers of the Electoral Commission and increase the punishments available to it. The manifesto stated:
“SNP MPs will support new powers for the Electoral Commission, providing them with legal authority to investigate offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983. We will also support the Electoral Commission’s call to make higher sanctioning powers available to them, increasing the maximum penalty from £20,000 to £1,500,000.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I think that we are all very rapidly—[Interruption.] If this is a debate, perhaps a member of the Democratic Unionist party should have been here, rather than members of the Scottish Conservative party.
No. I think that we are all very rapidly—[Interruption.] One moment. I think that we are all very rapidly becoming aware, if we were not already, that the current regulations and various pieces of legislation that police our electoral system are being tested to the absolute limit, and most certainly at the wrong time.
In learning about the activities of shysters such as Richard Cook in our own political process, I was sadly reminded of some of the characters in the recently released book “Moneyland” by the investigative journalist Oliver Bullough. In that book, we see how the unscrupulous and corrupt have used the mechanisms of international finance and regulation effectively to create a place—Moneyland—that puts them outside the normal jurisdictions that mere mortals such as ourselves must live under. One of the more upsetting aspects of the book is the way in which this city has become the clearing house par excellence for both the money and the reputations of a whole host of unsavoury characters who see the banks, the legal services and a whole range of other civil society bodies and institutions as ready and willing to help them in that regard, and do not ask too many questions about it. [Interruption.] Not at the moment.
Ultimately, this is what Richard Cook has done with the CRC. He has used his reputation as a former chair of the Scottish Conservatives and as a former candidate in East Renfrewshire to create the appearance of probity in the organisation, while at every turn refusing to reveal the ultimate source of its donations or even who constitutes its membership. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether she is happy to see the reputation of her party being used for that purpose. Although I have many profound disagreements with the Conservative party on policy, I understand that, in terms of parliamentary democracy, its reputation affects the entirety of our political system, and I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would be happy with those realities.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. This Government have undoubtedly allowed that to happen to our political system, with dark money now flooding unhindered through it. Dark money is a cancer in our political system, and unincorporated associations are the most prominent way in which that cancer enters the bloodstream. It is a malignancy that works by removing transparency and confidence in the system of political funding—something that undermines trust in the political system as a whole.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. And we must be—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. We must be unflinching in our determination to root this out. As Oliver Bullough writes near the end of “Moneyland”, political parties have been guilty of accepting money from sources where they cannot be entirely clear about the ultimate source of those donations. Whether it be the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionist party or the Vote Leave campaign, they have simply failed to do the correct due diligence. I will draw my remarks to a close with a quote from that book:
“Disapproval of these surreptitious payments should not depend on whether they are befitting your own side or not. They are inherently harmful. Without trust, liberal democracy cannot function.”
I shall recap and pose the questions that I would like the Minister to answer. Given all the ways in which individuals and organisations can donate money to political parties and groups in a transparent and straightforward manner, why do we still allow unincorporated associations, which are not political parties, to participate so freely, especially in a way that is easily exploitable by those who would seek to obscure the provenance of funds? Will the Government support the Scottish National party’s manifesto commitment to increase the sanctioning powers available to the Electoral Commission from £25,000 to £1,500,000? Will the Government do the right thing and extend the transparency rules around donations made in Northern Ireland from 2014? The cancer of dark money must be removed from our political system. I call on the entire House to join us in that process.
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Austin. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for calling this debate, and for the contributions made by various hon. Members. I am only amazed that he took no intervention from anyone other than his friends.
I would be delighted to hear from my hon. Friend.
I am hoping that the Minister will say that the Government and all political parties want to root out any wrongdoing. I came here for a Westminster Hall debate, but the sewer of accusations spewed forth by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) is an absolute disgrace. As the Minister said, he took many interventions from his own party, but refused dozens of interventions from others. This was not a debate; it was a diatribe, and he should be ashamed of himself.
On a point of order, was there a question to the Minister in that last intervention, or was that also a diatribe?
As far as I can see, nothing disorderly has taken place so far. The Minister can respond to Mr Lord’s question, if she wishes.
Thank you, Mr Austin.
I will set out the rules surrounding the involvement of unincorporated associations in election funding, which will be helpful in responding to the debate. These associations are included in the list of permissible donors set out in section 54 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The additional Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 introduced reporting rules for UAs that supported political activities; those rules are in schedule 19A of the 2000 Act.
Unincorporated associations must notify the Electoral Commission if the political contributions that they make over a calendar year are more than £25,000, whether that is through a single contribution or several. An unincorporated association must also notify the Electoral Commission of the reportable gifts that it received in the calendar year before it made the contribution, the calendar year of the contribution, and the calendar year following the contribution. That information is published by the Electoral Commission in its register of unincorporated associations and its register of recordable gifts to unincorporated associations. In this way, there is transparency as to who is providing the funds that are paid out by the associations.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not, for entirely unsurprising reasons.
Reportable gifts include a single gift of more than £7,500, two or more gifts of over £500 given by the same person in the same calendar year that total more than £7,500, and any additional gifts of more than £1,500 given by a source from which the UA has already received a gift of more than £7,500 in the same calendar year. Electoral Commission guidance also states that any UA that intends to make contributions of more than £25,000 should keep records of all the gifts it receives that are worth more than £500.
There are various ways in which offences are deemed to have been committed. As hon. Members are aware, responsibility for regulating political finance sits with the independent Electoral Commission. It is right and proper that that should sit with an independent body. Any concerns about breaches of the law should be reported to the appropriate authority, and a record of the regulated groups who make and receive donations, including MPs, MSPs and other politically active people, is publicly available on the Electoral Commission’s website. That data is a treasure trove of information, because it reminds us that the Scottish National party and pro-independence campaigners have accepted political donations from unincorporated associations. Who would believe it?
It is very good of the Minister to give way; it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) would not. As the Minister was about to say, the Scottish Women’s Independence Fund Trust, an unincorporated association, has donated money to the SNP. On an associated subject, I would like to ask her opinion of another way of raising finance. The SNP have mentioned sewers; the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, raised £100,000 for a court case—and may have raised more money subsequently. We are talking about a different way of raising money, but does the Minister agree that perhaps Alex Salmond should give that £100,000 back? [Interruption.]
Order. I call the Minister to respond.
Thank you very much, Mr Austin. My hon. Friend reminded us that all parties ought to be above board and transparent about their donations. I can confirm that the Conservative party is above board and transparent, as I would expect it to be.
The Government believe that the rules governing permissible donors and the reporting rules for unincorporated associations are sufficiently comprehensive. The permissible donor rules capture the groups that operate in this area, and the relevant reporting rules provide appropriate transparency, but do not swamp these often small organisations in red tape, which is a consideration. The Government therefore have no plans to amend the law. The 2000 and 2009 Acts introduced greater transparency into this area. We welcome that, because it means that we are able to have this debate backed up by a record from the Electoral Commission of who has received what, allowing us all to be transparent.
I will address transparency in Northern Ireland before closing my remarks. The anonymity provisions there have an important historical provenance. They were introduced by the Labour Government in 2001 and were based on careful recommendations in the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s fifth report, published in 1998, which concluded that it would be unsafe to disclose the names of those who had made donations to the Northern Ireland parties, as it might result in their intimidation. The retrospective removal of anonymity could put individuals’ safety at risk. We understand the history of that rule. That is why the donations and loans regime for political parties in Northern Ireland was different from that in Great Britain, and that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
However, thanks to this Government, there is once again greater transparency around those donations and loans; the Electoral Commission publishes full details of all donations and loans to Northern Ireland parties from July 2017. That start date was set because it represented a consensus across the Northern Ireland parties, which is very important.
Finally, donations to the Conservative party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission. It is unhelpful when hon. Members make accusations that do not seem to fit with what senior members of their parties say. One might note what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said on “Good Morning Scotland” in July 2018. Was there any evidence that the Conservative party had improperly received donations? “No. Absolutely not.” Let us have some consistency, and an understanding of what our elections rules exist to do and the way in which they provide transparency. That applies to unincorporated associations, as well as to the range of other organisations that are correctly mentioned in our electoral law. It is important that we have those rules.
I hope that I have set out why those rules exist, and how they provide transparency to the public. Through that transparency, some perhaps surprising points have arisen from the records. I hope that that is helpful to the House. I hope it allows us all to conduct politics in the respectful manner that we expect, and to display such respect to our constituents.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Residents of Leisure Park Homes
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rights and protections for residents of leisure park homes.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. If you were to visit my constituency, drive along the A20 past Harrietsham, then turn up a winding single-track lane into the rolling hills of the North Downs area of outstanding natural beauty, after about five minutes you would find yourself at Pilgrims Retreat. It is a beautiful spot surrounded by fields and woodland, and there is hardly a building to be seen other than on the site. It is an ideal spot for a holiday, within easy reach of Leeds castle and the Kent coast, and a lovely place to retire to. That is the dream that several of my constituents gave their life savings to buy into.
The reality is a long way from the rural idyll that they were hoping for. Some have spent a six-figure sum on a park home that they believed they could spend the rest of their days in, only to find that they have bought a holiday home, which means that they do not have the same status as permanent residents and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
Some arrived at their new property and found that they could not get in, because there was no path or steps up to the front door. The site owner, Fred Sines, a man with a record who has been previously mentioned in the House, then demanded thousands of pounds in cash to fix the problem. I am told that he has also hiked pitch fees overnight with little warning, and that there is a culture of fear and intimidation, with people being banned from using facilities such as the club room, and threatened with having their properties demolished. All the while, they are paying council tax to the local authority, even though they are not permanent residents.
I recognise that leisure park homes or holiday homes are a significant part of Britain’s tourism industry. They are often in beautiful rural or coastal settings, and can be important drivers of the local economy when used for their true purpose: holidaying. According to a recent report by the UK Caravan and Camping Alliance, holiday homes in mobile home or caravan parks make up 8% of the UK’s tourism sector, generate £3.9 billion in visitor spend, and support 170,000 jobs.
When run in a decent and proper way, holiday parks support local economies and provide much-needed jobs in areas where work can be hard to find, but that is not always the case, and Pilgrims Retreat is not a one-off. In my constituency and elsewhere, holiday homes appear to be being mis-sold as residential homes, depriving the local area of tourist income and leaving residents, some of whom are elderly, in poor health and vulnerable to exploitation, with few rights or protections.
The situation is compounded by the failure of local authorities to enforce the terms of holiday home licences consistently by checking whether people are living there all year round—they should not be—and that they have another, main address. There are undoubtedly many wonderful holiday parks where the owners follow the rules, holidaymakers come and go in peace, and the local economy benefits, but that is not always the case.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case as to why the subject needs to be looked at, and is highlighting the problems that her constituents have experienced. Does she recognise, however, that many operators do a good job and provide employment for local people? I have several examples in my constituency, such as Meadowhead Ltd, which provides a good service. It is important that the whole industry is not tarnished by the way that those bad examples have conducted themselves.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are also well-managed park homes sites in my constituency, which is a reason to take action where the system is not working. We have to make sure that the whole industry is not tarnished by the actions of an unscrupulous minority.
For a subset of sites, there is a problem. Gaps in the law and inadequate oversight by local authorities allow unscrupulous site owners to benefit from a lack of consumer awareness. To fix that, we need to strengthen the rights and protections for holiday home owners, make sure that owners and potential owners know those rights, and make sure that the law is properly enforced.
My hon. Friend is making a coherent case on both sides of the argument. Does she agree that in some cases—not many—tenants are gaming the system to the disadvantage of park owners, and that a way forward may be more formal legal requirements, through which people who sign leases receive legal advice and are properly bound by the contracts that they sign?
I have heard the same thing. It is as if my hon. Friend had seen my speech in advance—although I know he has not—because we have clearly come to some of the same conclusions.
I reiterate that where the law does not work and enforcement does not happen, the industry overall gets a bad name. As a consequence, individuals’ dreams of an idyllic retirement in a country or coastal setting turns into a nightmare. One specific reason for that is because the owners of a holiday park home do not own the land that they live on; they are simply leasing the caravan or the mobile home on that land. People think that they are signing up to own the property in the long term, but they are actually signing a short-term lease, which can be for as short a time as 12 years. As they are leaseholders, they are covered only by consumer protection legislation, not wider housing laws.
Under the Mobile Homes Act 2013, local authorities have powers to issue notices to residential site owners when the site is not kept in a good condition. They can be fined up to £5,000 for failure to comply with those notices. The Act also gives councils emergency powers to enter sites at short notice to enforce those notices. Holiday park homes are excluded from the Act, however, so although it has helped to reduce exploitation on residential sites, that exploitation seems to have shifted to holiday home sites. Solving one problem appears to have created another.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. In Scotland, there is a requirement for licences to have been issued to owners by May, whether they permanently reside on a holiday or residential site. The purpose is to give them the guarantees that are lacking in the cases she has referred to. The Scottish Confederation of Park Home Residents Associations has come together to help those people, and to give them a voice that can be heard by the council when there are complaints, and, more importantly, by the site owners when they deviate from what we would all expect.
In general, we should look at what is happening in all parts of the United Kingdom to see what works best, and learn from it. I will refer to Wales in a moment, and no doubt the Minister will do the same.
I have already had conversations with the Minister on the issue. She is sympathetic and concerned, and is very much looking into it, which I appreciate. My first questions are whether she will consider extending the relevant parts of the 2013 Act to holiday home owners; whether she will consider introducing tougher penalties for unscrupulous holiday site owners to discourage them from acting in an exploitative way; and whether she will look at the fit and proper person test, which could be introduced in England for residential homes under the Act, and has already been introduced in Wales. Although the test is not perfect, it would be a step in the right direction, and would make it harder for a known unscrupulous landlord to get a site licence.
As well as introducing stronger rights and protections for the purchasers of holiday homes, we need to make sure that existing legislation is enforced. My understanding is that in England, the responsibility falls on local councils; the local council, for instance, should check that holiday home owners have another primary address, so that their holiday home is not their only and main address, and should also ensure that holiday home owners are not staying in their holiday home all year round.
It appears, at least in Maidstone in the case of Pilgrims Retreat, that my local borough council has not been doing those things, so the situation has been allowed to continue, not just for months but for years. It has built up, so that tens, indeed potentially hundreds, of people who believe they are residents are affected, even though the same local authority has been collecting council tax from these individuals, as if they were permanent residents.
The site licence at Pilgrims Retreat has been extended from 11 months to 12 months, which compounds the confusion of individuals seeking to buy properties there and live in them by giving them the impression that they can stay in these places all year round. I do not believe that my local council is alone in doing that.
Given the situation and the various ways in which individuals at Pilgrims Retreat have been let down, I welcome the fact that my local council is considering an amnesty for them and is trying to find ways to avoid making the residents—as they believe they are—homeless, because these properties are their only residence, and they have spent their savings on them; but in general, the situation should not and must not be allowed to continue.
If borough councils across the country are really struggling and failing to enforce the rules, it would be right to look at other options for licensing and enforcement. I ask the Minister to consider what could make enforcement work better. What changes to the rules might make enforcement easier? Should there be other organisations involved, or other levels at which enforcement and licensing occur, perhaps at county level? Or should there be an independent regulator with statutory enforcement powers?
To make things easier, perhaps there should also be a change to the rules. When a site has a 12-month licence, people might be told that they cannot stay there all year round, but it is really hard to enforce that rule. It would be easier if a site simply closed for a period of the year, for one or two months. That would not necessarily be popular with the holiday park owners, who are trying to run a business in which people might want to take a holiday at any time of the year, but there is a balance to be struck between making sure that the business model works, and making sure that these properties are holiday homes, because if they become de facto housing developments, they are totally failing to achieve their objective for the economy.
We need stronger protections for the individuals who live in these homes, and need to make sure that any new protections are properly enforced. We need to make sure that consumers know their rights. I have spoken to the British Holiday & Home Parks Association and listened to stories from all around the country, and it seems to be clear that many people are not alert to the risk of being mis-sold a holiday home. They hear that residents pay council tax; they know about 12-month leases; and often the site owners are the only source of information and advice for somebody planning a purchase, up to and including the point of sale. Many purchasers genuinely believe that they are buying a residential home.
My hon. Friend is making some good points. On the issue of advice, is there not a potential role for solicitors in providing advice about the transactions involved? We are not talking about inconsiderable sums of money; sometimes we are talking about a lot of money for the individuals who are buying these park homes. What role does she feel that solicitors and the legal process should have in helping people to make wise decisions and understand the risks involved?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which is similar to one that was made earlier. When individuals are spending these sums of money—£100,000 or £200,000—perhaps they should be required to get some form of legal advice; it would be right to consider that. Clearly, we do not want to make the process more onerous than the process of buying a home, but one cannot buy a bricks-and-mortar house without going through a conveyancing process. Perhaps if there was a requirement for some kind of more formal process, fewer people would fall into the trap of misunderstanding what they are buying.
There is also a role for communication. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a communications campaign targeted at this market—at potential and current holiday park home owners—so that we get the message to people who might well become victims of this situation. We need to address the mismatch between people’s perceptions and the reality of buying a holiday park home. People need to understand that they are not buying the land; they are buying a lease. They need to know the implications of that.
Looking around, I believe that there are colleagues who may wish to speak, and I am very keen to make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has time to answer my questions, so I will conclude by saying that by strengthening legislation to give protections to holiday park home owners, by ensuring proper enforcement, and by improving consumer awareness, we can and must make sure that other people do not fall into the same trap that my constituents at Pilgrims Retreat did.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall at any time, but this issue is one that I have a particular interest in, because I have a leisure and park homes facility in my constituency of Strangford, located in the village of Ballyhalbert. It has been there for many years.
I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing this debate. I am mindful that the last time I spoke in Westminster Hall on the issue of leisure and park homes, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), was not a Minister, but she is now. She brought this issue forward in that debate, and she and I both spoke then. It is a pity that some years have passed by and we have not seen the conclusion that she and I wanted to see.
I will speak on a very specific point, which relates to some of the problems that we have had in my constituency. They may not be the issues that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent has referred to, but they are issues that I feel I have to air in Westminster Hall today.
They relate to my time prior to coming to Westminster, when I was in the Northern Ireland Assembly, doing the job I had before this one. During my time in the Assembly, the Caravans Bill, which was a private Member’s Bill, was brought before us and I fully supported the rights not simply of those who owned holiday caravans but of those who chose to live permanently on site, of whom there were many. Caravans were a burgeoning business at that time, but from the local council to the Assembly and then obviously to here in Westminster, I have followed the issue. I was supportive of proper rights then and I am supportive of them now. The hon. Lady has put forward a very good and solid case today.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in Westminster Hall again. She seems to be in Westminster Hall almost as often as I am; this is two days running. [Laughter.] I jest.
Back in 2015, I questioned the then Minister—now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—about electricity prices for park home residents, outlining concerns about the lack of energy efficiency schemes for those living in park homes. I was ever mindful of the fact that the age of those living in park homes is from 55 upwards, perhaps up to 80, and I asked the then Minister to see what she could do to help those people, taking into account the fact that park homes cannot have electricity meters. That was just one of the many issues that I raised at that time. It was clear that there were indiscretions and difficulties, and I want to highlight some of those as well today.
We are considering another issue in this debate. The Mobile Homes Act 1983 gives protection, as do the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and part 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which protects consumers from enforceability of unfair terms in contracts—the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent referred to unfair terms in contracts. In addition, there are the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. There are all of these pieces of legislation, and yet residents are not protected and are unsure of their rights. I want to air those issues today.
For the record, it is important that I say that this matter is a devolved one in Northern Ireland, and so it is not the Minister’s responsibility to respond to all of my points. Nevertheless, I want to air these issues, because the problems that the hon. Lady mentioned are happening in England—that is why all the English Members are here today—and they are probably also happening in Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, they would be under the control of the Assembly—if only we had a functioning Assembly.
I have been dealing with an issue related to the park homes in my constituency, in co-operation with the local council, and these matters are certainly not straightforward or simple. As an example of the litigation and the problems that occur as a result of it, the removal of fences was a battle from beginning to end. The owners of the park homes site are required to operate under a licence issued by the council, which is displayed on site. The licence conditions relate to amenity and safety, and are based on model licence conditions issued by the environment Department in 1992.
I had a meeting with local residents. Again, many things happen at those meetings: some local residents come with problems, and others sometimes need some encouragement to follow the rules that are laid down.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have many holiday parks in my constituency, and it is important to put on record that not all are as unscrupulous as some of the examples that we have heard about. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point: often, the constituents who come to us with problems are not fully aware of their rights, or of some of the remedies that are available to them. Does he agree that we should be looking at how to raise awareness of those remedies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What he has said is what we are all trying to achieve, including the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and myself.
All parks are inspected annually for compliance with the model conditions during the annual site licensing visit to the park homes. The licence states:
“Fences must not be erected around or near to individual caravans unless they are of non-combustible material and they do not present a safety hazard.”
I felt at the time, and still feel, that many of these people have had these fences in place for 10 or 15 years, and there was never a bit of bother until about three years ago. People planted their wooden palisades, their trees or small bushes, and some council staff then interpreted those things as dangerous.
The council stated:
“While the Council has a duty to ensure compliance…the responsibility rests with the park owner. In this case…the owner had failed to ensure compliance and to recognise that the presence of such combustible materials can assist the rapid spread of fire, and that”
enclosing individual sites
“does not allow for access for emergency vehicles.”
That was what the whole issue was about.
I urge the devolved Administrations, when examining issues with residential park homes, to look at what this Parliament did with the revised legislation and regulations. I had a steady stream of casework prior to those revisions; I have not had a single piece of casework since. In the light of the residential issues that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, I urge the devolved Administrations to look at what this Parliament has introduced.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I am just coming to my conclusion, Mr Austin, as you will be glad to hear. The conclusion is that we got to the end of the road and got the problem sorted—hallelujah for that. However, getting it around took a long time. After much deliberation, and by agreement between the park homes and the council, the residents have been permitted to retain the boundary fencing as it does not assist the spread of fire from property to property, which we always said it did not.
That one issue highlights the quagmire that living in a park home can create. We need to have specific, clarified regulation to protect park owners and residents, and to allow a better working relationship with local authorities. Those in park homes are typically retired and sometimes vulnerable people, and I do not feel that the current quagmire of guidance and legal protection offers those people protection. I truly believe that this must change.
I have to call the Front Benchers at 5.10 pm. There are four people who want to speak, so I would be grateful if Members could restrict their remarks to about four minutes.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for raising this issue, and endorse much of what she has said. The holiday park homes in my constituency bring in hundreds of thousands of holiday makers, and their revenue, every year. Those homes are extraordinarily well managed; they produce a very high-quality consumer product; and a huge amount of reinvestment takes place every year to keep that product at its high standard. I am always aware of the problems that I have had with park homes in the past, but those were largely—in fact, exclusively—confined to the residential homes in my constituency. I have never had any difficulty with the holiday homes; they are all extremely reputable organisations.
With respect to the residential homes, by and large, I have again had little difficulty, particularly when they are operated by public limited companies in which there is someone who people can deal with. There are, however, a number of homes run by—I am struggling to find the delicate words to use—people who have neither the social nor managerial skills to make a success of it, if I can put it that way. It is sometimes difficult to contact anyone representing those park homes, and that is the area in which we need to come up with a better form of intervention. The question of “fit and proper person” has been raised, and it is an appropriate question to ask.
One of the issues that many residents of residential homes raise with me is that of the 10% selling-on fee. It is extraordinary to me that people enter into contractual arrangements without advice and without realising what they are letting themselves in for. Nevertheless, if that is to be addressed, we have to recognise that realistically, it is part of the economics of running a park home and we would therefore expect that revenue to be paid for elsewhere in these people’s site fees. However, for park home owners of the nature that I have described, there is always an incentive to increase the turnover of sales by making vulnerable people’s lives miserable so that they move on. Removing that incentive is a clear argument for addressing the issue of the 10% fee.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for raising this important issue, which affects a lot of us here. I have visited both residential and leisure park homes in my constituency, and under the correct management, there is no doubt that they can be well-run sites that are great places to live or to go on holiday. However, some of them are in the wrong hands, and bad practice can creep into leisure sites, creating an exploitative way of doing business. The lack of regulation is certainly making that situation worse.
During my visit to a leisure park site in my constituency, I heard accounts from many constituents of maintenance disputes, intimidation and harassment by site management, and rules being changed: one day, those residents could have an outdoor shed, and the next day they could not. One day, they could have plant pots, and then suddenly they could only have three plant pots, with all the rest being smashed. The management was quite threatening, and the residents were definitely frightened.
Even more concerning were reports about mis-selling of leisure homes as permanent accommodation, and unclear contractual arrangements on reselling and pitch fees. There were many stories of people having been sold a dream of selling up and buying a holiday home, with an emphasis on the site being open for most of the year. I was even handed photographic evidence of signage stating that a site was an ideal starter home, and encouraging people to move into those starter homes. In places such as Chichester, where the average house price is over £300,000, that is an attractive offer for many. Of course, all the buyers think is that they have to go on holiday for two weeks, which most of us do. Many of the residents were only given part 1 of their licence agreement during the sales process, with part 2—the terms and conditions—made available only after the sale, or in some cases never supplied. One gentleman I spoke with explained that he had signed his contract despite not seeing all the small print because, after divorcing, he needed to find somewhere to live really quickly.
From those examples, and from others shared by Members today, it is evident that there is a widespread problem of holiday park sites being used residentially, with owners not adequately protected under consumer rights legislation. Of course, local authorities have enforcement powers, but they are concerned about using them: they know that this is going on, but they are concerned about creating a problem that they cannot solve, because if people are made homeless there are not enough homes. If an owner is a member of the National Caravan Council, then they can also use that council to raise concerns. However, not all sites are members. I visited a park home site recently, and it had left the NCC, so there was no means of redress.
Where site owners are guilty of mis-selling, the balance of power is completely in their favour. Residents have no permanent address and possibly no local connection to the area. That can lead to problems registering on the electoral roll, accessing local services or receiving benefits they need. Residents are often too scared to come forward with complaints because they are all too aware of their vulnerable position. They are almost stateless in a way; they do not have any rights. Essentially, they are fearful of being evicted and made homeless. Consumer rights legislation does not offer these grey area residents the same level of statutory protections, such as against harassment or rights over information such as utility charges, as those living on residential sites. I fully support the calls we have heard for the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to be extended to leisure home owners, which would go a long way to evening up the imbalance and protecting the many vulnerable and often elderly residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate, and on highlighting a growing problem in the leisure park sector that is devastating the lives of many people, and turning what was supposed to be a dream into a nightmare.
The issue is of interest to me for two reasons. First, the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which was brought in to stamp out abuses in the park homes sector, started off as a private Member’s Bill that I took through the Commons. It appears that the measures introduced by that Act to outlaw rogue site owners have had the unintended consequence that they now focus their attention on holiday parks. Secondly, the holiday parks sector is important in my constituency. Leisure park homes are a vital component part of the tourism industry around Lowestoft and along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Generally, those businesses are well run. It is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of site owners are responsible business people.
As I see it, we have to address two issues: the unscrupulous operators who have moved into the sector, and the people who have moved into the parks with the intention of living, rather than holidaying, there. They can be addressed in two ways. First, there is a whole raft of legislation that prohibits mis-selling and fraud, and it should be enforced. That includes the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Misrepresentation Act 1967, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and, very importantly, the Fraud Act 2006.
Secondly, responsible site owners should do all they can to ensure that people do not live on parks as their main homes. That means properly checking the purchaser’s home address, and asking for a utility bill and a council tax receipt to confirm it. It means watching out for tell-tale signs that the mobile home might be being used as a permanent home, such as cars leaving and returning at what could be described as commuter times, and washing being on the line throughout the year—in particular, school uniforms being hung out to dry.
My concern about additional legislation is that we would need to ensure that it did not have an unintended negative impact on local economies, many of which are in coastal locations and are fragile and heavily reliant on tourism. Moreover, it has to be pointed out that in many instances local authorities do not enforce existing laws and regulations due to financial restrictions and staff shortages. I have to ask: what is the point of passing new laws that will not be enforced?
We need to get the councils a better local government funding settlement at the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, so that they can properly regulate the sector, applying the rules so as to drive out the rogues who are making many peoples’ lives a misery. My hon. Friend has highlighted a growing problem that must be stamped out, and I will work with her to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this debate. The issue has arisen on a number of occasions in my constituency, and I have carried out casework on behalf of people on both sides of the equation. Before I get into that, may I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the emergency services in Somerset, who responded so well to the ceiling that collapsed at Pontins in Brean the other night? A number of people were injured. I hear that the emergency services responded with their usual professionalism and expertise, and ensured that injury and inconvenience were absolutely minimised.
Brean is a wonderful place to go for a holiday. Tens of thousands of people do so every week, all season long, and there are many more caravans and mobile homes in the wider Burnham-on-Sea area. I understand that it is second only to Skegness in the European rankings for concentrations of caravans. We are very proud of that.
I feel that I should mention that my hon. Friend is completely correct: Skegness is the proud owner of the highest concentration in Europe. While I envy my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing this debate, it is important to set it in context. The overall benefit to the economy of the industry is enormous, and the rogues are small in number, even if their effects are genuinely profound.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows, as I do, that what Brean lacks in quantity as against Skegness, we make up for in quality. I know he agrees with that.
There are effectively four groups affected by the issue. The local community beyond the park are frustrated that there is additional pressure on local services and infrastructure without any due planning process having been followed. Sedgemoor District Council has had to retrospectively allow planning permission to protect the value of the asset that the residents of park homes have spent money on, but there is a lack of consultation and transparency in the planning process when that emergency measure is taken. There is also a loss of tourism revenue, because permanent residents tend not to eat out and use local attractions as much as those visiting for just a week.
The local community is disadvantaged, too. Reputable, law-abiding caravan and leisure parks in the area miss out. There is the reputational risk to the industry of all operators being tarred with the same brush, which is unfair. When this issue arose two or three years ago, Sedgemoor employed a company called Capacitygrid. I am sure it did nothing other than what it was invited to do, but its method of checking that all the tens of thousands of caravans in the Brean area were legit was to be quite harassing in how it did its business, and how it got proof of another address. The park owners had to put up with their residents being affected by that company, which had been instructed by Sedgemoor to go in and check on the scale of the problem.
The local council has to pay for enforcement out of our council taxes. It has the grumpiness that comes with the difficult planning decisions that it needs to take if it is to retrospectively approve the caravans as permanent places of residence. As the caravans are already there, there is none of the community infrastructure levy or section 106 money that would come with a more routine planning decision, so there is none of the development that comes with having secured that money during the planning process.
Most importantly, the residents are so often taken for a ride. They are overly trusting, but they see an opportunity to have a permanent home in a place where they have enjoyed holidaying their entire working life. They take that opportunity and put their life savings into it, only to find that what they have bought is effectively worthless, because there is no planning permission for that residence to be used year round. I have had it reported to me that residents struggle to access local services. They are at the mercy of unscrupulous park owners.
I agree with so much of the expertise that has been shared with us about what could be done. There is plenty of legislation that protects consumer rights, and our first instinct should be to use what is on the statute book, rather than to develop new laws. However, it is important that we address this issue. From my experience in nearly four years as the MP for Wells, I have seen enough of this problem on the coast to know that it is something that the Government should address. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for introducing the debate.
For anybody watching, I begin by making clear the distinction between leisure park homes and residential homes, because that is extremely important. The terms are not interchangeable. I completely agree with the concerns about leisure park homes raised by the hon. Lady and others. Leisure park homes can be bought by unsuspecting people in the mistaken belief that they can live in them all year round, when that would be a clear breach of licensing conditions for holiday homes. Those who have purchased a leisure park home must have a permanent residential address elsewhere, as such homes cannot be used as a main residence. That can affect council tax, planning permission requirements and so on, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) said.
Permanent residential park homes, of which I have a couple in my constituency, are not the same; owners can live in those houses full time, all year round. The regulation of those sites is a matter for the Scottish Government. However, clearly the terms and conditions attached to the different kinds of parks—leisure park and permanent residential park homes—need to be made absolutely clear to prospective buyers. As we have heard, that is not always the case.
The situation is complex. With regard to permanent residential homes, I have heard of situations in Scotland where parks are not properly maintained, despite significant charges being levied on residents for that very purpose. In response, the Scottish Government have introduced a new licensing system that gives local authorities enforcement powers that they had not enjoyed before. That means that the local authority can serve improvement notices if the site owner commits a criminal offence in breaching a licence condition.
In addition, the local authority can take the steps set out in an improvement notice if the site owner defaults. Penalty notices can be served, and the local authority can apply to the sheriff for the appointment of an interim manager. Furthermore, emergency action can be taken if there is imminent risk of serious harm to the health and safety of a person. That represents a significant beefing up of local authority powers, and is a response to site managers or owners simply collecting money while not fulfilling their obligations to keep sites maintained to the standard that those with park homes are entitled to expect. Where there are gaps in the law regarding leisure park homes, they should be addressed, as the hon. Member for Chichester pointed out.
Another issue relating to permanent sites that owners are simply not aware of in every case, until they reach the point of resale, is that permanent residential park home owners have to pay sales commissions of up to 10% on the resale of their park home, as the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) pointed out. The question that we must ask is: if residents do not know about the charge, why do they not? Clearly the system is not working as we would wish it to. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, the power supply to these homes is also an area of concern.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
We are really short of time; I think the Chair would like me to proceed. I do apologise.
In Scotland, we hope to counter some of those difficulties. All prospective mobile home buyers will now have 28 days’ notice to consider the terms of the agreement before the sale can be concluded. It is important that this group of consumers have the proper protection that they need when choosing to live year-round on licensed permanent mobile home sites, because it is a very expensive undertaking. It is important that the system be transparent, open and fair, both to permanent residential site owners, and to those who choose to live on such sites.
I say to the Minister, as other Members have said, that protections are required to make the system of purchasing leisure or residential homes, and the rights and responsibilities of each party, fair for all concerned and transparent. Those measures need to be in place. As I always say in such debates on devolved matters, it is really important that England looks at what Scotland has done to see what can be learned, and vice versa. We should all pursue best practice, no matter where in the UK we live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) made a convincing case for the need for protection of leisure park homes. She also painted a lovely picture of her constituency. Is it any wonder that people want to go to the rolling hills of the north downs and retire there? What a terrible thing it is when they find that it is not quite what they expected.
We heard tales of pitch fees increasing, and about the culture of fear and mis-selling. The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) rightly asked who some of the people running these homes are, and what can be done about the problems. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked why nothing had been done, when he has been raising these issues for some years. The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) talked about people feeling almost “stateless”, which is a strong and apt word.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about his role with regard to previous legislation, and made a really important point about the need to protect the tourism industry. Anything that we do must not damage that. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) told us that his area is second only to Skegness in its concentration of caravans, and we must listen to what he has to say.
I am very sorry that I was not here earlier; there were distractions in the House. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is incredibly important to draw a distinction between sites that are badly run and badly managed, where bad practices are endemic, and really well-run sites that have had zero complaints over many years? For example, there is Pinewoods in my constituency, near Wells-next-the-Sea, Searles park in Hunstanton, and McDonnell caravans park. We have a number of really well-run sites with no history of complaints whatever. We need to find a way of ensuring that we drill down and protect those people who need protection, while not damaging those well-run sites.
I agree with that completely. The poor form tarnishes the whole industry, and people who are doing things well do not, on the whole, object to changes to regulation or legislation because they are already doing what they should be. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
As we have heard, there are lots of problems that we need to try to fix. Residents in leisure park homes are not afforded the limited protections of mobile home owners on sites with residential planning permission. They do not have the special protections under the Mobile Homes Act 2013, as we discussed. In the Opposition’s view, it is right to call for protections to be extended to residents living permanently in leisure park homes. We should also ask why residents are being sold permanent homes in leisure parks that do not have residential planning permission. It is unclear how widespread that practice is. Perhaps the Minister can tell us her sense of the scale of the problem, and what the Government consider the issues to be.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent talked about the protections afforded to residents of park homes through the 2013 Act, but it is worth emphasising that abuses are still happening across all park homes despite those changes in law. There is a need for wider reform. Organisations such as the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign and the Park Homes Policy Forum have worked for years to expose the exploitation of park home residents, which is still ongoing. Park homes have been described to me as
“like leasehold bullying, but with criminal thuggery thrown in.”
We know that 62% of leasehold home owners feel as if they were mis-sold them; I would not be surprised if a similar, or higher, number of park homes residents felt the same way. Just as there are leaseholds with onerous ground rents, park home owners can be charged extortionate pitch fees that can increase rapidly each year. As with leaseholds, hidden clauses in park homes contracts can cause significant hardship down the line; residents have limited routes of redress when things go wrong, and any enforcement is often affected by a lack of transparency and opaque structures.
However, unlike the situation with most leaseholds, park home owners also report, as we have heard, experiencing or being threatened with violence and other illegal activity. We saw that most prominently in the disgraceful treatment of Sonia McColl, a leading campaigner for park homes reform. After campaigning for action on rogue park owners, Sonia had to sell her park home and move due to death threats. She then, astonishingly, had her entire home stolen while waiting for it to be delivered to her new site. She was made an OBE for services to society, but I think society has let her down. I asked her what issues she would like to raise with the Minister; she wants to know, first, when the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index will be used to calculate the increase in pitch fee, and secondly when independent research will be done on the 10% commission payable to site owners on the sale of residence properties. She will be happy to share the Minister’s response with the 30,000 residents on her database.
I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I will say only a little more. The Government have recognised the systemic problems with park homes, and have promised to legislate on areas such as pitch fee reviews, but they have not done so yet. They have been promising for some time to get a grip on the wider leasehold scandal, but there has been no primary legislation on it. Stronger laws are worthless if they are not enforced; I am sure that the Minister will talk about the duties of local authorities, but in their own recent analysis the Government admitted that the 2013 licensing and inspection powers are not being applied because of a lack of dedicated resource in councils. That is not really a surprise, given the billions of pounds of cuts made to local authorities under this Government.
I hope that the Minister will outline when her Department will introduce the legislation that was promised back in October, and will say how she will support councils that are too strapped for funds to enforce it. The Conservative party claims to be the party of home ownership, but here we are again, talking about homeowners being exploited, mis-selling, exploitative contract terms and excessive fees and commissions charged to residents who were told that they were buying a home, with all the rights and freedoms that that affords. This is the third time today that the Government have been challenged by a member of their own party about the treatment of homeowners on their watch. I look forward to hearing when they will act on their promises.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate and on her tireless work on rights and protections for holiday caravan owners. Fifteen other Members have made estimable contributions, and I commend them all; they really know their stuff, and it has been a great debate.
Last year, my hon. Friend brought to my attention her concerns about some terrible issues facing holiday caravan owners on a mixed-use caravan site in her constituency. Since then, she and I have had fruitful discussions to better understand the issues. Some of those issues fall within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; I extend my thanks to the Minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst)—for her interest in the matter. We have already had discussions and agreed several actions for both our Departments, and we hope to update my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent on them over the coming weeks.
Several important issues have been raised today about the rights of holiday caravan owners and the challenges that they face. The Government have already introduced significant protections for holiday caravan owners. Planning permission may be granted for part of a site to be used for holiday purposes and other parts for residential purposes; I understand that my hon. Friend’s concerns relate to such mixed-use sites. Sadly, our discussion will not include the information that Sonia McColl was after, because we are talking about holiday sites.
Those who live permanently on the residential part of a mixed-use site are protected under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, but as we have heard, that protection does not extend to holiday caravan owners on the site. The local authority will also issue a site licence once planning permission has been granted, but before I talk about site licensing, let me address my hon. Friend’s queries about the rights of holiday caravan owners.
As my hon. Friend highlighted, some holiday caravan owners end up living permanently on their holiday sites, for complex reasons. Some consumers see holiday caravans as a cheaper option—my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) mentioned the disgraceful situation facing first-time buyers—and may buy them without seeking legal advice, which obviously should not happen. Some holiday caravan owners can end up living permanently on the holiday site because they have been mis-sold their holiday caravan by a rogue site owner who has presented it as being suitable for residential use. That can put them under huge financial pressure, so I understand the suggestion to tackle the problem by extending the protections of the 1983 Act.
The mobile homes legislation, which sets out the contractual relationship between a site owner and a resident, applies only to those on sites with planning permission for residential use. Applying it to all holiday caravan owners would mean such accommodation no longer being available in the tourism sector. As we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Wells (James Heappey), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), it is important that we protect the holiday sector and the many benefits that it provides.
The Government have already introduced significant protections for holiday caravan owners under consumer legislation. What is required is to ensure that prospective purchasers of holiday caravans are aware of the rights and responsibilities available to them under consumer law. The rules, which are designed to protect individual buyers from unfair commercial practices, are set out in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Breaches of those rules are a criminal offence. In 2014, they were supplemented to provide a private right of redress for consumers who have fallen victim to misleading commercial practices such as presenting a holiday caravan as a permanent residence, hiding information, or providing information in an unclear, ambiguous or untimely way.
Will the Minister give way?
Very briefly, dear boy.
Sometimes purchasers do not know that their property will depreciate massively within a year or two. They need to be told that at an early stage.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman brings luminosity to the problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent knows, enforcement of the legislation is the responsibility of the local authority trading standards service. There are already strong penalties for mis-selling by providing misleading advice or omitting material information: it is a criminal offence punishable by a fine on summary conviction, up to the statutory maximum, or up to two years’ imprisonment, as my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Wells mentioned.
I am very aware of the mis-selling legislation, but I am sure that the Minister is aware that some residents are truly fearful of going down that route, because they think that they are so vulnerable that they may lose their homes.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Towards the end of my brief speech, I will answer her as best I can.
Another measure that I know is of interest to hon. Members is the fit and proper person test. We have also heard of cases of harassment and intimidation of holiday caravan owners; harassment is a criminal and civil offence, so I advise anyone being harassed to immediately contact the police.
Let me expand on the caravan site licensing requirements that I mentioned earlier in relation to the fit and proper person test. Under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, all caravan sites in England, except those exempted, are required to have a site licence in addition to planning permission. The purpose of licensing is to ensure that sites are safe for residents and other users.
The Mobile Homes Act 2013 amended the 1960 Act to introduce a new local authority site licensing regime, which applies to all “relevant protected sites”, including sites with planning permission for residential use only, as well as mixed-use sites with planning permission for both holiday and residential use. Local authorities’ powers include the ability to issue compliance notices if a site owner breaches their site licence conditions. If an owner fails to comply with a notice, the local authority can prosecute them; if convicted, they face an unlimited fine. The 2013 Act also made provision to introduce a fit and proper person test for site owners and managers of all relevant protected sites, including mixed sites. I know that Members will be pleased to learn that we will publish a technical consultation in the summer and legislate to introduce the scheme when parliamentary time allows.
The issues that we have discussed today are very complex, but I reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to improving the sector. We have already introduced important legislation to strengthen the rights of consumers, but we know that there is more work to be done. I will continue to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood, to consider what other measures can be taken on consumer protection, to raise consumers’ awareness of their rights when purchasing holiday caravans and traders’ awareness of their legal obligations.
I will arrange a further meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent to update her on the actions that I have set out to undertake. Once again, I congratulate her on securing this debate on such a hugely important matter. It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall again.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I feel that it has been a very balanced conversation: it has made it clear that the vast majority of those who operate holiday home sites do so in an appropriate and thoughtful way and look after the users of their park homes, but that we need to crack down on the unscrupulous owners.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).