Wednesday 20 March 2019
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Special Educational Needs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered SEN support in schools.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, I think for the first time. Before discussing the policy that I wish to address, I will take a moment to emphasise why special educational needs support in schools is such an important topic. I secured the debate because of a number of constituency cases that have come through my surgery. Constituents raised the issue with me and brought me to the point at which I felt the need to discuss it in Westminster Hall. I will not talk specifically about constituency cases, because I want to speak to the wider issue, which affects not just cities such as York but the whole country. That is reflected in the number of Members attending the debate this morning.
I will touch on the importance of SEN and why it is worth taking the time to ensure that the system of support works for all children with SEN. Our starting point should therefore be to see SEN as something that informs mainstream education policy, rather than a specialist area relating to a minority of pupils. More than 1.2 million pupils in England—that is 14.6%—have an identified special educational need, of whom 250,000, or one in five, have either a statement of SEN or an education, health and care plan in place. We should also be conscious of the fact that the SEN of many more students are likely to remain unidentified. For me, that is the wider issue of real concern.
New research by Professor Lucinda Platt at the London School of Economics and Dr Sam Parsons of University College London has helped to inform us about the short, medium and long-term effects on people’s lives of being identified with SEN at school. While the findings are alarming, they serve to underline the obligation on us all to ensure that the next generation of children do not experience their special educational needs as something that impacts negatively on their prospects at school and future life chances.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this incredibly important debate. SEN support has an impact on children throughout my constituency. I am outraged on their behalf and that of their parents when I hear that some students who have an EHCP are left without any education, some for up to a year, or just having it for an hour a week. He mentioned the long-term impact of an SEN diagnosis and schools that cannot cope with the needs of those children, and that is incredibly important. I look forward to hearing him expand a little on that.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Members will mention different examples of constituency cases in the debate, which shows that this is a wide issue. However, I completely accept the point that it is about not just diagnosis but the next steps. I will come on to that, and I will put a few questions to the Minister. I hope that she will be able to respond to them accordingly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading this incredibly important debate. Does he agree that mainstream schools must be supported as much as possible to educate SEN children in that setting? If they cannot and they exclude children, that in turn puts huge pressure on special schools, which cannot then cope, increasing the risk of exclusion into incredibly expensive independent provision, which drains the budget.
I entirely agree. There is also a wider issue: it is important for children to be taught together with their peers—I want to come on to this, and the study I mentioned talks about it—because of the potential stigmatisation of being taken out of mainstream education and the consequences that can have for all the students. I completely accept the importance of that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am listening with interest to his analysis, and I look forward to his further comments. I welcome the extra resources that the Government have given, but real issues and concerns remain. Is he aware that in my borough the high needs in Bexley meant a 14% increase in the number of education, health and care plans during the 2017-18 academic year, but with only a 1.9% increase in the high needs block allocation this year? Bexley works hard to ensure that needs are met, and has agreed a contribution with the schools forum given the schools’ own high needs funding cost pressures, but the increase in demand is letting down our children.
I was not aware of the specific percentages and increases in my right hon. Friend’s local borough, but I accept them completely—I think they mirror what we see across the country, and certainly in my region. He makes the point very well, and I am sure that his council is working hard with the resources available to it to ensure that those children get the best education possible.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I want to develop the point a little. The reports that I get back from schools in my constituency indicate that the knock-on effect of pressures on local authority funding for such children is on mainstream school budgets. Increasingly, schools have to fund special educational needs from their mainstream budgets to make up for the local authority shortfall. That therefore impacts on the wider educational opportunity, not just that of those who need the specific funding.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I accept, and it is certainly what I have seen in the evidence before me. I will develop this further, but the wider point is about schools and local authorities actually identifying all children with SEN—if they identified them all, there might be a financial impact on those specific schools. For me, that is the wider concern in the process.
The study by LSE and UCL found that children with SEN at school are three times more likely than their peers to lack a close friend and to experience bullying most days. Sadly, problems experienced at school have long-term consequences, and the study found that by the time those children are young adults, those with SEN are nearly twice as likely to see friends only once or twice a year and to feel that they have no one to listen to their problems. There is also an impact on relationships and family life in middle age. Adults who had SEN at school are four times as likely to be single and twice as likely not to have children.
The report also suggests that the pressure that children with SEN face at school to perform socially and academically is having a detrimental impact on their long-term mental health and wellbeing. They are twice as likely as their non-SEN peers to feel that life’s problems are too much. There is also a significant concern that a disproportionate number of those caught up in the criminal justice system have a special educational need—the relevant studies find that they represent between 25% and 50% of offenders. All that is extremely alarming.
Addressing the disparity in outcomes for SEN children has been a priority of successive Governments of all political persuasions and colours. There is evidence that policy changes have made a positive impact on the lives of a new generation of SEN children. The reforms brought in by the Children and Families Act 2014, and the introduction of education, health and care plans—touched on already by hon. Members—were welcomed as positive step towards providing more reliable and individually tailored support for those with the greatest needs.
Last week the Government talked about creating 37 new SEN schools. Although I welcome the 3,400 extra high-quality school places that could be created, I am not convinced that will address the need for early intervention in mainstream schools, as other hon. Members have mentioned. It is possible that will further contribute to the social marginalisation of SEN children.
What does the hon. Gentleman think about the role of teaching assistants in schools? For children with SEN or EHCPs, one of the fundamental support mechanisms in school is teaching assistants, but their numbers have been drastically reduced; they are often the first to lose their jobs when there is restructuring and school budget cuts.
The hon. Lady makes an important intervention. Teaching assistants and teachers have a huge role to play—I will touch on that later in my speech—because it is about spotting SEN at an early age. If we can tackle it at the beginning, it will be easier to tailor support for those children. The first port of call has to be teachers and teaching assistants at school.
The Government’s announcement last year that they would invest an additional £365 million from 2018 to 2021 is to be welcomed. However, I am not convinced that funding alone can address the disparities that children with SEN face. Far-reaching policy changes are required. The first of those that I want to touch on is exams. By far the largest query that I receive from constituents in relation to SEN is about assessment concessions—extra time in exams. Although I understand that the recent move towards an exam-based system in schools, from the perspective of academic rigour, is probably the right way to go, I am concerned that has had the undesirable side effect of limiting the potential of SEN students.
Constituents tell me time and again that their children’s two biggest problems in exams are the anxiety that they inevitably generate and the unfair concentration on one small aspect of that child’s ability: namely, the ability to memorise facts. The GCSE religious studies exam includes a requirement to learn 64 quotations. I do not think I could do that; perhaps a number of Members could, but it would be beyond my ability. The GCSE physics exam requires the ability to memorise 24 formulae—I might find that slightly easier.
The default response to the disadvantages that SEN students face in exams is to offer extra time, but no amount of extra time will address the fact that exams as a means of assessment are intrinsically unsuitable for some types of students and learners. The solution has to be to revisit the place of coursework, which once made up 40% to 50% of GCSE assessment. Coursework does not discriminate against SEN children with high cognitive ability but for whom memorising facts does not come that easily. Coursework has the additional benefit of alleviating the anxiety of one assessment and spreading the pressure throughout the year, rather than concentrating on the examination period.
The traditional argument has been that we need coursework for people who cannot do exams, and that those who can do exams are fine, but that binary choice is unhelpful. The parent of a child with autism in Bury spoke to me about his daughter’s ability to take the new times tables test that has been introduced. In fact, she is really good at maths; what she struggles with is the speed at which an immovable testing mechanism is applied. Although her ability to calculate is not a problem, she is expected to answer questions that move on at a fast rate. We must not fall into the trap of suggesting that those with special educational needs are somehow non-academic or unable to perform in mainstream education, because all they need is a better, more dynamic service.
I entirely agree; the hon. Gentleman makes the point very well. Many of those children have really high ability, but their ability needs to be managed so that they can get through the system. The point I want to make, as he mentioned, is that ultimately we need a balance to be struck. It is not all about the individual exam, and it is not all about a shift to coursework. When major changes such as moving from coursework back to exams are made, there will be consequences. The system has to recognise that a balance has to be struck.
Does my hon. Friend agree that regarding the education of those with special educational needs, we need to look longer term to career prospects? I find it fascinating that some employers specifically look for those with autism because they are better at dealing with computer challenges than others. Those with special educational needs have some strengths that those without them do not. Surely, the education system should recognise that and take it into account when developing programmes, so those children can take advantage of their employability when they leave school.
That is a fair point, but I reiterate that this is not about compartmentalising individuals; it is about making sure they are kept in mainstream education and have the ability to thrive and prosper, as everyone should have. The system has to allow that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about spreading the pressure throughout the course, but he mentioned children being included in school. Does he agree that we really need the Government to look at the exclusion policies adopted of late by academies? Many children are excluded just before the exam and never get the opportunity to sit it.
That is a really important point. Where that happens—I know it does in certain circumstances—it hugely impacts the life prospects of the student involved. Ultimately, this is about ensuring that young people have the best opportunities in life, and that we harness their individual skills—they all have them—and maximise their life prospects. We must ensure that we do not in any way damage them or, ultimately, exclude them from the system or from society as a whole.
This point has already been raised in interventions, but another thing I believe can make a real difference is the professional development of teachers. Research by the Children’s Commissioner in 2013, and the Salt review in 2010, found that training does not always adequately prepare teachers to teach pupils with SEN. That has contributed to pupils with SEN not being identified and supported sufficiently early in their education, which can have huge implications later on. Catching children at an early age can make a real difference. Such awareness is vital if we are to increase early intervention for students with SEN. That is important for literacy skills, which are more challenging for older children and adults to acquire. If children with SEN are not identified early enough, the problem gets worse.
Mainstream schools have taken to relying exclusively on SEN co-ordinators, or SENCOs. Valuable though they are, SENCOs are often overstretched, as demands on their time and resources increase. The British Dyslexia Association recommends that the Government should consider an integrated approach instead. Training existing teachers would result in more responsive early interventions and allow SEN support to be conducted without compromising course delivery. That has the potential to reduce costs and, really importantly, to ensure that those children do not feel marginalised from mainstream education. I have already touched on some of the hidden consequences of that; we must not forget that really important point.
Teachers need to be trained to an appropriate level to teach children with the full range of SEN that they may encounter. I am not a professional in this, but I am told that three levels of SEN professional development are available to teachers: accredited learning support assistant; approved teacher/tutor status; and associate membership of the BDA. The first qualification entails 24 hours of contact time and 20 hours of monitored support, all integrated within the teacher’s work in school. I suggest that directing money to such professional development may result in significant savings and improve the prospects of children with complex needs. Fundamentally, though, my constituents tell me that the way we approach SEN funding for schools has to be reconsidered.
The contributions we have heard will make a real difference, but on the hon. Gentleman’s point about somebody being responsible, our constituents often tell us that they always seem to have to fight the system, which never delivers for them just as a matter of public policy. That is not out of any lack of desire in the system; it just seems that everybody is responsible but nobody is. Parent after parent tells me, “This is what I’m entitled to; I can’t get it,” or, “This is what I need; I can’t get it.” Their child’s plan says they should have it, but it just does not happen. It just seems that the system does not work, even though everyone is trying to make it work. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that, and does he find that the fact that parents have to fight the system is one of the frustrations we all share?
I entirely agree. That is what drove me to introduce this debate. Constituents come to me to say exactly those things. I will touch on this in my conclusion, but we have to remember that there are parents out there—I do not blame parents—who are prepared to go out and fight for their children, get them in where they need to be and get the right support, but there are also disadvantaged children who may not have parents who are prepared to go and fight for them. They are the ones who fall through the gaps.
This is about parents’ ability to go out and fight, not their preparedness to do so. Again, please let us not fall into thinking that the parents who reach our door are those who are prepared to. They are simply the ones who are able to. Someone who faces changing shift patterns and has to use public transport, for example, may be prevented from reaching our door. The fact that we hear so much about these issues from parents who are able to reach us shows that there are great swathes of parents who do not speak to us directly about them but very much face the same, if not worse, issues.
I accept that. That is a very important point. The point I was making is that there are parents from all backgrounds who, if I am brutally honest, will not know that their children might need support. As I said, it is those children with unidentified needs who fall through the gaps and do not get that support. That goes back to what I said about the whole system and the need for early identification. Schools and teachers need to be able to work with parents so they get that support. We should not have the problem, which the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) identified—I entirely agree with him—of parents having to go to their local MP or their local councillor, or to the different voluntary associations that work with parents, to try to break down barriers or get through doors to get that support for their children. That is the wider problem. I think everyone present would agree that parents should not have to do that.
The Education Committee is conducting an inquiry into this hugely important subject. The Committee heard that most people accept the positive intention of the policy introduced in 2014—the education, health and care plans and so on, which my hon. Friend has covered. In theory, that policy puts more power and control in the hands of parents, but does he agree that it is impossible to deliver what is supposed to be a needs-based system with a finite budget? Problems are created because the things pupils need are not deliverable on the budget available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) makes a really important point about the extent of the budget. Do we as a community not have to recognise that needs are much higher than they were even 20 years ago? The special schools in my constituency—whether it is Belmont, Bettridge or Ridge—increasingly deal with medical issues that impact some of these children’s ability to learn, yet those medical needs have to be funded from the education budget. That simply adds to the strain on that budget.
That is a good point and I am glad I took the intervention, to which I hope the Minister will respond. I did not want the debate to turn into one about child adolescent mental health services referrals but I am sure all Members have experienced frustration over the referral time lag. I have raised questions in the House and it is immensely frustrating—and part of the reason is that it is a cross-departmental matter, between education and health. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, a lot of the money comes from the schools budget.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Does he agree, on the issue of school budgets, that there is an inequality between schools? The fact that schools are forced to pay for the first 11 hours of meeting an EHCP from their own budgets disadvantages those that do the right thing and take significant numbers of children with special educational needs, and inadvertently helps those that do not. Would it not then be wiser for the Government to agree that EHCPs should be directly funded so that the money followed the pupil entirely, instead of penalising schools that do the right thing?
Thank you, Mr Davies. I will try not to take any more interventions, and to bring my remarks to a conclusion, but the point that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made was the one I wanted to go on to. There is genuine concern that the system provides a perverse incentive to schools not to rigorously identify and protect children with special educational needs. Schools are not provided with straightforward per pupil funding. Rather, a notional proportion of their overall budget is earmarked as SEN funding. Crucially, however, that is not ring-fenced, which means that by identifying more children with SEN, and funding them, schools will allocate up to £6,000 per pupil that they could have spent on other areas. That is exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman made.
Schools have access to additional funding from local authorities for children with especially complex needs, but my concern is the effect that that has on children whose SEN provision schools have to fund in its entirety. Alarmingly, the percentage of pupils with identified SEN but whose needs are not complex enough to qualify for a statement or EHCP reduced from 18.3% in 2010 to 11.7% in 2018, while the proportion with complex needs remained static. I do not want to prejudge the reason for the reduction, but it is certainly dramatic. Surely it reflects not an actual reduction in the number of children with SEN, but rather a reduction in the number who have been identified. In the absence of a proactive approach from schools, parents tell me they have to fund diagnoses for their children privately and are becoming frustrated with schools that are failing to investigate their concerns properly. As we have heard, Members across the House face the issue regularly in their surgeries.
On the other side of the matter are local authorities, which have also complained about pressures on the high needs funding block. The National Autistic Society has raised concerns about the wait that children face to be provided with appropriate support, and a worrying increase in the number of requests for EHCP assessments that are refused by local authorities. In November, Mr Dave Hill, the executive director for children, families and learning at Surrey County Council, told the Education Committee that SEN funding was approaching a “national crisis” because of
“all the money being spent on firefighting and no money being spent on prevention.”
Indeed, North Yorkshire County Council’s high needs funding has increased by only 0.75% at the same time as demand has risen by 10%. Councils are now liable to fund children with complex needs from the ages of nought to 25 under an EHCP.
As I mentioned earlier, the introduction of EHCPs is to be welcomed and indeed they have proved popular with parents, providing both certainty and individual flexibility. However, councils have expressed concerns that their high needs budgets are becoming increasingly committed to the funding of the 20% of SEN pupils who qualify through having an EHCP, leaving little to spare for the remaining 80% of SEN students who do not qualify. That is an important point. It is particularly frustrating for the parents of children with complex needs who just fail to meet the threshold for EHCP qualification. The concern is that that is creating an all-or-nothing system, where a dramatic difference in support results from the fine margin on which someone does or does not qualify for an EHCP.
I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion because I know a number of Members want to speak. We need to look at the exam assessment concession system and whether it adequately addresses the disadvantages that SEN children face.
Order. Perhaps you can try to bring your remarks to a close in a moment. I am already down to two and a half minutes each for other speakers. Carry on—you are entitled to speak as long as you like, but be aware that there are eight speakers, plus the Front Benchers.
I appreciate that advice, Mr Davies.
We need to review the perverse incentives that result in schools failing to identify children as SEN, and the controversy between parents and local authorities over EHCP qualification. We need to prioritise teacher training, so that all teachers have basic skills for working with children with SEN, creating a more integrated approach. I have questions whether the policy of new SEN free schools is the right way of addressing the underlying issues, as I have mentioned.
Finally, we need to look at the effectiveness of education, health and care plans, especially in regard to the proportion of local government higher needs SEN funding spent on those plans at the expense of the 80% of SEN children and students who are not on the plans or who just miss out on qualifying for an EHCP. Ultimately those children are falling through the gaps, and the consequences for their future development and potential opportunities are huge. We Westminster politicians must not forget that, and must face up to it and react. I hope that the debate, given the number of colleagues present from across the House, will mean that we can try to move things on. I look forward to hearing what the Minister and other Front-Bench speakers have to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to start by mentioning two incredible young people whom the Education Committee met yesterday. One young man called Ben said
“we are not…SEND. We are human beings, the same as the rest of you…remember that fact...We are…not a problem...Work with us”.
Another wonderful young woman called Eva said SEN children have dreams and ambitions too.
That should be at the core of everything we talk about and what makes and shapes our policy decisions—the children at the heart of it.
I agree with many things that the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, including about the tension—I say conflict of interest, but other people say tension—between a needs-based system and a finite budget. If we truly wanted all our young people to have those dreams and ambitions, to be seen as capable individuals who are able to achieve and just need that extra support to get there, we would not have a finite budget. We would genuinely match the needs of every individual child.
There are many problems on the way, and in the few moments I have I want to mention some of them. There is currently no audit of the notional SEN budget. There is the £6,000 that schools are supposed to spend, but there is no audit of how they spend it or what they spend it on. There is a lack of consistency in SEN support, including for pre-EHCP children, where there is no consistency in what the support should look like, what they should have and what the standard should be. There are issues with teacher training, in that not enough time is spent on SEN. That has been an issue since time began and a conversation that schools have been having ever since.
The therapy services that should be offered to support children are missing from local government, particularly those relating to speech and language provision. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) pointed out, that is an issue for schools because teaching assistants have to deliver it and so it comes out of the education, not the health, budget.
I would like to say one final thing: our SEN children are fundamentally underfunded and there is a fundamental lack of recognition of the issue’s importance and of what these children can achieve. I plead with the Government to change the accountability system and give our schools the money they need.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate on a hugely important issue. Special educational needs and disabilities provision touches on every part of education, from early years all the way through to further education and higher education—not just for the vulnerable children who need the support, but for everyone else, as it has an increasing impact on schools’ core budgets and spending.
In the very limited time available, I will touch on one specific issue; I will use my own council in Nottinghamshire as an example, but it is a wider issue. Nottinghamshire County Council has a good reputation for SEND support, but there are growing problems and it loses out on funding compared with the national average, making it impossible to sustain that support.
Compared with its statistical neighbours, the council receives £7 million less for providing the same services. It is punished for having historically been inclusive, keeping children with SEND in mainstream schools as far as possible and pushing the money down from its own budgets into those of individual schools. That means that the council has historically spent less, which works against it in the funding formula—having taken the right educational decisions for pupils, it now receives less funding. That is not right and it is not sustainable.
SEND funding has an impact on all areas of education. There has been a lot of talk about school funding, but of course increasing proportions of those budgets are spent on topping up gaps in SEND support. I welcomed the announcement at the end of last year that there would be more money over the next two financial years, but we need to do more. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister knows that and that she is making that case. Everyone in this Chamber has a duty to ensure that the Chancellor understands the storm brewing in SEND funding.
Nottinghamshire County Council has taken the right approach: it aims to be inclusive and to give the funding and autonomy to schools wherever possible, because they are best placed to understand their pupils and to give them a voice and a say in the care and support they receive, as well as to reduce costs and bureaucracy. It is therefore all the more frustrating that it and many other councils like it around the country are now being hit financially for taking the right educational decisions.
I urge the Government to ensure that this issue is treated as a priority. The Minister will be aware of stats showing that SEND spending, particularly in post-16 education—which is her own area of responsibility—is growing in huge numbers that will simply not be sustainable without more help. The spending review is hugely important, and I urge her and everybody in this Chamber to make the case to the Treasury. Over the coming months we must ensure funding for the long term and that we invest properly in SEND provision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for covering so many points in his introductory remarks.
I have just two simple requests for the Minister, which I have raised with the Minister for School Standards and with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) will not be surprised to hear what I have to say. My first request relates to the point made by the hon. Members for York Outer and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron): the £6,000 is a completely perverse incentive. It is unfair. It is effectively a tax on inclusive schools: they are trying to take pupils and help them, yet they are being hammered by that £6,000. If the Government could do something about that by losing that £6,000, that would be the fairest thing of all.
My other point is that much of the deficit for schools in Gloucestershire is now due to the fact that the additional needs element is not reaching those schools but getting stuck somewhere in the system. If the Government could ensure that the additional needs element reached the schools so that they were able to defray the expenditure in the most appropriate way, it would make a dramatic difference and stop some of the deficits that are beginning to rise.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this fantastic debate.
The Children and Families Act 2014 refers to identifying children and young people with SEN, assessing their needs and making provision for them, but if that were happening, we would not be here today. We are asking schools—we are talking about mainstream schools here, not special schools—to provide special learning programmes; extra help from a teacher or teaching assistant to work in smaller groups for the children concerned; observation both in class and at break time; help with class activities; encouragement to participate in questions and other activities; and help with their communication and physical and personal care.
I will not, because we are really short of time. There is no getting away from it: this is about funding. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer was right to talk about policy change, and I agree with that, but right now this is about the urgent need for funding. The support required cannot be achieved unless we provide that money.
The truth is that, if we do not get this right, the outcome will be a breakdown in the relationship between parents and teachers—we never want that; that is not the best way to support a child in education—and a number of children will leave school altogether. The Ofsted report shows that they simply disappear. We do not know where they are. These are children with vulnerable lives ahead of them. We have situations where the education of the whole class is unfortunately compromised, because teachers, however hard they try, cannot give their full attention to the whole group.
No, honestly, I am not going to give way. I have seen difficult situations and the real challenges that children, parents and teachers face. We have a decision to make, as a Government and as hon. Members. I believe we are failing children with special educational needs. We have a cohort of people who have their whole life ahead of them, and it is for us to ensure that they have a full life. If we get SEND provision wrong, they will have a lifetime of missed opportunities. If we get it right, they will have life chances and opportunity. It is urgent that we get the money where it is needed, right now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
It is no coincidence that I also speak on behalf of the city of York. The council’s estimated spend on the high needs budget is £1.15 million, yet the Government’s high needs funding is just £393,000, leaving a shortfall of £760,000. However, we know the need is much greater, as many children do not get diagnosed early enough and often wait years for diagnosis, and many children do not reach the levels for which funding is awarded.
Those shortfalls are experienced throughout the education system, from nursery school—nurseries now have to subsidise childcare costs—to primary and secondary school. I know, from a visit I made to a secondary school in York, that children are sometimes placed in isolation. That causes some of them emotional harm, but the school does not have the capacity to support them. Often, the stigma stays with them all their lives.
Some children are moved to other schools, but that does not address their special educational needs. I am sure if research was undertaken on off-rolling children, it would show that a high proportion have neurodiversity-related needs. Those children become more vulnerable, more at risk of exploitation and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Those children are failed.
If I may say it again in this debate, York schools are the worst funded in the country. We have the worst attainment gap in the country. We have the highest rise in class sizes. SEND is seriously underfunded. Children with SEND in York experience among the longest waiting times for diagnosis, and our SEND budget deficit is three quarters of a million pounds. I ask the Minister to pause for a moment to make the correlation between those statistics.
Next year, the overspend on the budget will be £1.3 million, and the following year it will be £1.9 million. Although the education, health and care plans have been extended to the age of 25, no additional funding has been put into the budget and there are no additional resources to support the 51% increase in demand. I ask the Minister to review the budget and ensure that schools are adequately supported to provide vital support for those young people right through their schooling and also in early years, through children’s centres and Sure Start schemes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate. I declare an interest: my wife is the Cheshire West and Chester Council cabinet member for children and young people.
As we have heard, all hon. Members hear from families who have great anxiety about what is going on. Too often there are delays in agreeing that an education, health and care plan is needed at all, and when those plans are finally put in place, they are too often not delivered in full because schools face funding pressures elsewhere. If a child is in only their fourth or fifth year of education and waits a year for a plan to be put in place, that means that 20% or 25% of their entire education up to that date is put on hold at an absolutely critical period of their development. All the while, parents try their hardest to resolve things, but because overstretched schools and councils can only do so much with the resources they have, no matter how hard they try, things cannot move any faster.
A year’s delay might not actually be the worst of it. A 15-year-old boy with autism was featured in The Observer last Sunday because he has had to fight for six years—more than half his educational life—to get his education properly funded. However, getting a plan is not necessarily the end of it. The Government’s own figures show that, last year, 2,060 children with EHCPs were found to have received no educational provision at all. That is more than 2,000 children getting no education. Is it any wonder that pupils are unnecessarily admitted to special schools or excluded when mainstream schools no longer have the capacity to meet their needs?
Exclusions among children with SEN continue to rise, with Department for Education figures showing that they are up to six times more likely to be excluded, accounting for half of all permanent exclusions. Is that why home schooling figures have gone up by 40%? Are schools perhaps suggesting that particular children might be better off at home in order to avoid an exclusion? In short, the system hopes to absolve itself of any responsibility by ignoring this rise in home schooling.
Home schooling is not the only issue; the courts are also involved. Many parents of children with SEN feel that the only way to ensure that their child receives the specialist education to which they are entitled is through legal action, with a staggering 89% of cases successful. Such a high appeal success rate across the whole country says to me that the system is broken and needs an overhaul, but the Government seem unwilling to even question why this is happening.
Education is a fundamental right for every child. Every day lost because of a failure to support a child with SEN is another day where that child loses the chance to fulfil their potential. They deserve better, and they deserve action.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with a group of primary school headteachers in Stockton. We talked about the challenges they face and how school is about not only learning but supporting young people through their challenges and their opportunities.
We also discussed how schools deliver quality SEN support. Those headteachers are finding it tough. They lament that 14.6% of the school population have special educational needs—a number that is often higher in areas like mine. We agreed that such support should be provided within a mainstream setting, so that all children can be educated together. However, instead of addressing problems that make integration difficult in mainstream schools, such as funding issues, the Government have announced plans to open 37 new special free schools. That goes directly against efforts to promote and encourage integration among children, casting some as different and moving them away from their peers, as the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke about.
Teachers want integration, and those headteachers in Stockton want more than that. They want the Government to do more to encourage parents to play a full and proper role in the general and even special needs education of their children. I promised those headteachers on Friday that I would raise this issue in the House in my next speech on education, and I am pleased to fulfil that promise today.
Some of the children who those headteachers receive into their schools do not have the most basic of skills, including being able to get dressed or go to the toilet, or simple language and numeracy skills. These children will probably need special educational needs support throughout their schooling, although the heads were at pains to tell me that some of these children come from more privileged backgrounds.
Teachers feel that the responsibility for picking up this personal and special education is being dumped on them—parents just pass it on and expect schools to pick up the pieces. I know that it would not be easy to implement, but those Stockton headteachers like the idea of a parents charter outlining their role in working with the school in the best interests of their children. I am interested in the Minister’s views on that.
Another area I have been involved in recently is kinship care—family members taking responsibility for children who are not their own, almost all of whom need special educational needs support in school. However, support for kinship carers is not sufficient, with many left isolated and knowing that the children in their care need extra support but not knowing how to get it.
I am pleased to serve on the cross-party kinship care taskforce set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I have heard many horror stories about the problems that children and their kinship carers face. When Ministers get the report—they might not include this particular Minister—I hope they will act on it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. As has been mentioned by my colleagues on the Select Committee on Education, we spent yesterday morning in the presence of the RIP:STARS, who describe themselves as children with disabilities for children with disabilities. Ben, who has also been quoted by my Committee colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), told us that he is not a “jigsaw” or “puzzle” to be solved—all they want is an education. In fact, their report concludes with a series of recommendations for schools, including that they should focus on inclusion; involve the child in the provision, not just the co-production of providers; meet holistic needs; personalise provision; and that provision should bear a resemblance to the world and life after school. The list goes on, but surely those are exactly the same principles that we should want to apply to mainstream education, for all our children.
It is becoming clear, however, that parents and children with SEND are being pushed out of mainstream schools, too often because there has not been an increase in personalised, inclusive, contextual learning that gives second chances—because that comes at a price. The Government’s response to date does not go far enough. Independent research commissioned by the Local Government Association predicts a £1.6 billion black hole in high needs funding for councils.
I say to the Minister this is not just about getting more money but about moving money. Tribunals find in favour of the parent and child nearly 90% of the time, costing authorities hundreds of thousands of pounds—wasted money that could have been moved upstream and spent earlier. Some 70% of all exclusions involve a child with SEND.
Schools that I spoke to in my survey last year came back to me yesterday with a series of comments, including:
“We can no longer afford to purchase necessary resources”.
I thank my hon. Friend and Committee colleague. The capacity of professionals to support SEND pupils in schools is at its absolute limit. A special educational needs co-ordinator may also be a class teacher and in charge of inclusion and, perhaps, safeguarding. Does he agree that that is too big a role to be able deliver full provision and support for SEND children?
My colleague makes an excellent point. I enjoy serving alongside her on the Committee. Punishing school budget cuts have resulted in the loss of teaching assistants, removing capacity from the classroom. In every other walk of life, specialist provision is viewed as additional support that is scalpel-like in its focus, or as enhanced provision, but SEND provision in school classrooms is viewed as low-hanging fruit to be cut, owing to the increasing demand on budgets. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Teaching assistants have gone. One school I represent has lost six and another has lost four. One of my schools told me:
“We can no longer afford to provide additional elements not covered by the statement…with the result that our more vulnerable pupils find it really difficult to cope at lunchtimes. My High Needs budget is actually ALL spent supporting pupils in my school with EHC plans and SEN hours as school has to provide the first £6,000 from its own budget.”
That needs to be looked at. Another school said:
“The numbers of SEND cohort have increased significantly in terms of social, emotional and mental health”,
which has been touched on. Health absolutely needs to be at the table; it too frequently is not. I urge the Minister to look at the issue and to work cross party and on the findings of the Committee’s ongoing SEND inquiry when we report in the summer.
I will make every effort to go faster, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate.
It was a real privilege to listen to the powerful evidence of the young people who spoke to the Education Committee yesterday morning. They forcefully and movingly shared their experiences of school, college and university. Representatives from RIP:STARS talked about the research they had carried out with Coventry University on EHCPs and their experiences of them. Young people who are supported by my AFK and who have experience of accessing further education and employment focused on their experiences of post-16 provision. And young people who are supported by the National Deaf Children’s Society and who have current and recent experience of secondary school spoke about their experiences of school.
I ask the Minister to view the footage of yesterday’s evidence gathering session and not to wait for our report, which is due to published just before the summer recess. The footage is moving and could be fundamentally life changing if we addressed the issues those young people raised in telling us about their experiences.
In Scotland, the Scottish National party believes that all young people and children are entitled to the support they need to reach their full learning potential—education to go out and lead forth. Scotland has a system that focuses on overcoming barriers to learning and getting it right for every child. About 16,000 school-aged children in Scotland have learning disabilities. Education authorities have statutory duties to ensure that pupils with additional support needs who are due to leave secondary school are supported in making that transition. I am not going to pretend that everything in Scotland is perfect—it is not—but we have the advantage of a Government who promote collaborative working among all those supporting children and young people at the heart of the system, and an Act that sets out the rights of young children and parents.
In addition, through the national implementation of their action plans, “Getting it right for every child” and “Delivering excellence and equity in Scottish education”, the Scottish Government are working to improve outcomes for children and young people with special needs. The Scottish Government have published an implementation framework for the delivery of the Scotland learning disability strategy, which outlines the vision for children who have learning disabilities. The Scottish Government also work closely with Dyslexia Scotland and others to produce resources for schools and to ensure that children and young people with dyslexia are able to realise their potential. Similarly, they support pupils with autism, and, working with Autism Network Scotland, have produced an autism toolbox that provides information to help the identification, support and planning of learning for pupils with autism, as well as helping teachers with their professional development.
The Scottish Government are investing to ensure that the resources are in place to deliver on their commitments to all pupils, including those with special educational needs. One of the challenges we face in Scotland is that a no-deal Brexit would have a catastrophic effect on staffing levels and EU grants, which are vital to our education system and help children and young adults.
I hope the Minister will look at the recent footage of every evidence gathering session held by the Education Committee. I think we can all agree that all children should receive the best possible education that not only prepares them for academic success but fits them to be the citizens of the future. No matter what our Government or party allegiance, we should all seek to give our children the best education we can.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important debate. Today we have here both the hon. Member for York Outer and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), or inner York—their constituency names reflect their Brexit politics, in a way. Who says nominative determinism is dead?
York has lost £9.9 million of education funding since 2015-16. Such losses are one reason MPs across the country are seeing their Friday surgeries full of parents who are stressed and worried about their children not getting adequate SEND—special educational needs and disabilities—provision. We have heard some great speeches today, from my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Dr Drew), for York Central, for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bury North (James Frith).
Interestingly, the Minister has already talked about this subject in the House, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) in an Opposition day debate. This is what the Minister said at the time, in relation to evidence on children getting SEN provision in our schools: “In some special schools 100% of the children attending are there only because their parents were able to fight through tribunal. She said”—she continued—“that is actually a class issue, because it is white, middle-class parents who are able to go to a tribunal and know how to work the system and where to get support.” She herself said: “What about all those children whose parents do not have the same cultural capital and do not know how to go out there and fight for them? They are not in these residential special schools, so where are they and what is happening to them?” That is the state of this Government and of our SEN provision, with the Minister herself admitting that the system is absolutely broken.
Children with special educational needs or disabilities are bearing the brunt of the Government’s continued cuts to our schools and our local government budgets. This Tory Government have cut more than £1.7 billion from school budgets since 2015. We recently had a three-hour Westminster Hall debate on a petition—I think you were in the Chair, Mr Davies—during which dozens of Members highlighted the cuts to their local schools. Local government is warning of a shortfall in SEND support of over half a billion pounds this year. These punishing cuts have consequences.
In 2017, over 4,000 children with SEND were left without a school place. In 2016, for the first time in 25 years, more children with SEND were educated outside the mainstream, some because they were subject to informal exclusions and some because they were being home-schooled. The stark fact is that this Government have not bothered to keep track of these children, so we do not know where they are or what support they are getting. Over 9,000 children were off-rolled from our school system last year, many of whom had disabilities and special educational needs.
We have a Prime Minister—this makes me angry—who has said that there is no link between police cuts and the rise in knife crime on our streets, and that there is no link between off-rolling in our schools, so not knowing where our children are, and the rise of knife crime in our society. Most people with common sense will think that is ridiculous. Our police forces are talking to MPs not about child sexual exploitation, but about child criminal exploitation. When we do not know where these children are, that provides a fertile breeding ground. The Government will not match Labour’s commitment to make sure that children have to stay on the school roll, so that we know where those children are. No wonder we have the problem of county lines, drug mules and all the other things that go with that.
The crisis in our education system, in recruitment and retention, and in funding cuts across the board has led to a situation in which the number of SEND children facing fixed, permanent or even illegal exclusions remains totally disproportionate compared with their peers, with three quarters of the pupils in pupil referral units having special educational needs, and children with SEND accounting for around half of all permanent exclusions in 2016.
I have a number of pupils in my constituency with SEN who have EHCPs. The schools are not sticking to those plans, making it dangerous for those pupils to be in school and making parents feel that they have to withdraw them. The schools do not have the resources and cannot follow the plans.
I taught in a school and I know that the plans cost money, but that money is not there. Schools are worried about employing cleaners and, according to The Times last weekend, we have headteachers cleaning the loos. I had a delegation from a special school for children with autism in Sheffield yesterday, and they are having to reduce the number of assistants and the ratios of children to people providing support are getting bigger. There is very little they can do.
At one point in their lives, more than 2 million children in England will have some kind of SEND, but shockingly only 3% of children in England have SEND statements or education and health care plans.
In Plymouth and across the country, schools are closing early on Fridays. I have heard parents of kids with SEND saying that the disruption to schedules for kids who require structure and support during school hours is especially hurtful. Does my hon. Friend agree that this type of funding cut is really affecting some kids and that we need to ensure that schools are funded properly to give SEND kids, especially those who value structure and support during school hours, the support they need?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Our hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle referred to a finite budget. There are limits to resources, but what are we doing? We are creating a lost generation. In 20 or 30 years’ time, we will say that this is the generation that went through the school system on this Government’s watch. It will be the lost generation: 10,000 children a year are off-rolled, and kids with special educational needs are not getting the assistance they need.
Local authorities have overspent their budgets over the past four years and, as has been highlighted, there is a catastrophic shortfall of more than half a billion pounds this year. The mantra from Ministers that more money than ever before—record investment—is going into education not only rings hollow, but shows a total disconnect between reality and rhetoric. As a further shocking indictment of the Government’s complete failure to provide adequate SEND support in schools, a UN report in 2016 concluded that the UK was guilty of
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
I came into politics because I was inspired by my MP, Alfred Morris, who introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 as a private Member’s Bill. That was the first legislation recognising the human rights of disabled people in any legislature on the planet, and Alf Morris became the world’s first Minister for the Disabled. He would be spinning in his grave if he could see what state we have come to in this country and how we are now treating pupils with SEN and disabilities.
The Government must get a grip and fully fund and implement suitable SEND support in schools. Labour would do things differently. We have already said that we would give—[Interruption.] I am hearing muttering from the Government Benches, but the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) needs to hear this message, because things do not have to be like this. We would fund local government services adequately. We pointed that out in our manifesto. We would also replace what has been taken in cuts to our schools. [Interruption.]
I am really disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because normally he makes such helpful contributions and this one is not that. The fact is that we now spend, as a nation, £50 billion a year on debt interest, which is more than the £43 billion schools budget, and that is in no small part because of the historic failings of the Labour Government.
I am sorry, but the argument made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for whom I normally have a lot of respect, would feel a little more truthful were it not for the fact that the Department for Education spends an awful lot of money on its own ideological pet projects. An example is the £4.6 million spent on Troops to Teachers, which has resulted in only 69 teachers.
We also have to say that there was not austerity up to 2015, because the education budget was protected. What is happening is actually ideological, because the Government do not want to see that amount of GDP spent on schools in our country. We are going back to the 1980s—we all see it.
The national education service that Labour proposes has at its heart the guiding principle that access to education should be a fundamental right for all, no matter who they are, where they are from or what their circumstances are, because a good education can make a difference. The hon. Member for York Outer pointed this out most eloquently. For too long, SEND provision has been seen as an add-on, as an extra. We are committed to a truly inclusive education system, based on choice, where children, parents and adult learners with SEND alike can attend mainstream or specialist provision and achieve their goals. It is simply not right that a child should lose out because of the circumstances into which they were born or because they have special needs. I and my party are determined to change that for good.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Davies. I will not rise to the speech by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). I am disappointed. He is a good man, but it is a shame that he said what he did, because this had been a good debate. We know that there are problems in the system, and we can argue about budgets, but I say to him that a lot of the problems that we face in the House today are due to party political posturing. We can have arguments about money and budgets, but today was not the time to have that argument. What we wanted to do today and what right hon. and hon. Members did do was raise real concerns about provision for children with special educational needs.
I could easily respond to what the hon. Gentleman said. I could give him back a party political rant if that is what he wants, but I do not believe that my job as a Minister and as a Member of Parliament is to do that. I am going to make some progress, but let me say that when I came into the House in 2005, the very first thing I did was to set up a drop-in day for parents of children with special needs, because under every Government, we never quite get things right. Humility is not in ample—
I will not for the moment; sorry. Humility is not in ample supply in this place, but we on the Front Benches on both sides should have some humility and accept the fact that Governments—Labour, Conservative and coalition Governments—do not always get it right. What we need to do, in a cross-party—
I will not give way for the moment, because I have not yet even thanked my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for securing the debate. What is important is that we try to get the system to work. I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on securing the debate. He knows that we have made significant reforms to the special educational needs system in recent years. There are real pressures on the budget—I accept that—and there always have been, but much can be done within the current budgets to make the system work better.
I agree with the Minister that this has been a good debate. At the time of Tony Blair’s Government, I was a council cabinet member for children and young people, and I saw the massive investment. I acknowledge that the three Governments since the Labour Government left office have built on that, but there remain major issues in relation to special educational needs. I think that the Minister is acknowledging that, and Tory Members are telling her that, so we now need some real action, not just talk.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to work together on this. In a previous debate that I covered for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), I said that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) was very welcome to work across the House to ensure that the system works.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer referred to a mental health crisis. This did not get much attention, but the number of pupils with SEN is rising quite rapidly. We did not get many contributions on the number of offenders who have dyslexic difficulties; a lot of people in prison have such problems. Another issue is the bullying of children with SEN. Coursework was also mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred to employers valuing the skills of people with special educational needs, and she was right. I have seen absolutely excellent work by employers in my role as the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships.
The hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith) made a very good point about flexibility. That is the trouble, is it not? We swing from one side right over to the other. Particularly for children with special educational needs, we need to be flexible in the way we assess them in schools. Additional flexibility, adequate adjustments—
I am sure that the Minister for School Standards will take that up. We continue to have discussions about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer talked about parents having to privately fund the diagnosis of children. We have talked about the battles that parents face. I repeat what I said in a previous debate on that matter: parents with sharp elbows battle through the system better, but even those with sharp elbows have a difficult fight. The hon. Member for Bury North raised the fact that that money is wasted, and it should be on the frontline. We still have a lot to do.
I will come on to the issue of teacher training. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) raised the important issue of the need to help mainstream schools include children with SEN, and I will say a bit more about that in a minute. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) mentioned FE briefly, but, as the Minister for FE, it caught my ear. Further education colleges do a fantastic job with young people with special educational needs, who often have not succeeded at school or had their needs met. I was recently at a college where they have 400 children with special educational needs, one of whom would not come into the college at all, but stood outside. That child is now thriving, doing well in his qualifications and is about to go on an apprenticeship—absolutely brilliant work.
The Minister is absolutely right about FE colleges, but in Cornwall we have found that they have had to reduce the days for young people with special educational needs from five to three, which has not only caused real difficulties for the families, but created discrimination and division between children who are fully able and those with special educational needs. Will she look at that issue in her role as Minister for FE?
I am happy to look at that. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) talked about the evidence given by one person who said, “I am not a person with special educational needs; I am a normal person.” It has to be normal, and we have to adapt the system to make every child and young person in an FE college feel normal.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the teachers do a fantastic job, in circumstances which are—certainly in further education—quite difficult. He also mentioned funding. He never hesitates to mention the particular issues facing Bexleyheath and Crayford. Through the Children and Families Act 2014—I sat on the Committee considering the Bill—we made big changes to strengthen SEND, including £391 million given to local areas to support implementation, £252 million of which was provided directly to local authorities.
We have approved 125 new special schools spread across the country, including 37 extra ones. A number of hon. Members have also raised the need to have inclusion, as well, so we have provided an extra £100 million of capital funding to create more places in mainstream schools, colleges and special schools for children with SEN, bringing the total capital investment since 2018 to £365 million. The line between inclusion and special schools is very wavy. We must be guided by which setting best suits the needs of the child, though there is sometimes a discrepancy with parents, who want one or the other.
I have two quick points. One issue with the changes in the 2014 Act was that they raised the expectation of parents about raising the funding that went with it, and it continued provision through to the age of 25, without providing that additional funding for 18 to 25-year-olds. That has caused some difficulties. As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, we cannot talk about inclusion without talking about the need to change the accountability measures and the ways that schools are judged, because I think that drives some of the off-rolling and exclusions that we see.
I will say a little more about that. There are perverse incentives. The hon. Lady talked about an audit of the spend, which I think is an important issue. I should also mention—I think it was mentioned earlier—the £4.6 million that is going into parent-carer forums and the £20 million going into advice, information and support for children and young people with SEND, and their parents, which lasts until 2020.
We are aware of those incentives in the current system—that £6,000—as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). We intend to gather more information about the way the funding system operates in a call for evidence that we will launch shortly. I am sure that the Education Committee will be involved in that.
I must not forget that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer secured this debate, so I will mention funding in York. We have announced £250 million additional funding for higher needs across England over the next financial year. Yorkshire will receive £785,000 on top of the increases already promised, bringing City of York Council’s higher needs funding to over £90 million next year. However, we recognise that budgets are facing pressures. The Secretary of State is very aware of that.
On educational psychologists, our plans include ensuring a sufficient supply of educational psychologists, trained and working within the system. We said that we would train more to meet increasing demand. Today I am pleased to announce funding of over £30 million to make that happen.
On teachers, briefly, we talked about the need for teachers to be able to recognise and help children with special educational needs. We have developed a range of specialist resources for initial teacher training, including on autism and dyslexia. We are reviewing SEN provision in initial teacher training to inform case studies of good practice. We are taking a range of measures to make that better, which I would go through, but time does not allow.
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date. As a Minister, I could just say, “Shortly”, which is what Ministers say, but I know that right hon. and hon. Members are keen to see that review—so, soon.
The Government are doing much work, but we know that there are gaps in provision. Needs are not met and families are having battles—those that can—that they should not have to fight. Everyone in this debate wants to make education work for those very special children and their quite extraordinary parents, so that every child gets the opportunities that I have seen some get. I mentioned apprenticeships, and through the apprenticeship diversity champions network I see employers recognise the amazing skills that young people have even without qualifications. That must be no longer be an exception but the normal course of events.
We need a seamless education and training system which is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is determined to achieve. The debate has raised exactly the issues that need to be resolved in order to meet the needs of those children and young people with special educational needs.
I thank the Minister for her response and Members in all parts of the Chamber for their contributions. It has been a very good debate, especially among Back Benchers. I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, and I hope that she has listened to the contributions from across the Chamber, because very little disagreement has been expressed in speeches and interventions across the parties. As has been said, ultimately the issue is a ticking time bomb, and of real concern to many constituents who knock on our doors and come to our surgeries. We cannot allow the life chances of some of those children and students to be detrimentally affected by it because, ultimately, we are failing them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered SEN support in schools.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reduced insect population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I am glad to see so many hon. Members present. I will give them plenty of time to intervene, but I hope that they will let me make a bit of progress first. I secured this important debate because the declining insect population is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the human effect on our environment. I wanted to call the debate “Insect Armageddon” or “Insectageddon”, but unfortunately I am little ahead of the House authorities on such matters. That is what we are experiencing, however, and we should be under no illusion about that. Insects are the canary in the coalmine of animal life on the planet: if insects go, all other species will follow.
If we are fighting a war against climate change—we should be under no illusion that we are experiencing a climate emergency—insects are on the frontline of the battlefield and humans are just another species in the war. We are the most intelligent soldiers fighting the war, however, and we cannot expect insects to know that their fields are being built on or that their farmer is using nitrates. We know that our actions are causing the disruption to their ecosystem.
I secured the debate due to the absolutely shocking evidence I heard in the Environmental Audit Committee evidence session on 12 February. I want to put on the record my thanks to Professor Georgina Mace, Dr Mark Mulligan, Professor Peter Cox and Matt Shardlow, who gave the evidence that inspired this debate. I also thank the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection & Birds, Friends of the Earth and Buglife, which have informed what I will say.
There is a massive depletion of insects, in relation to biomass and abundance. Some studies also show a loss of variety. Most people born by 1980 will perceive that, because 25 or 30 years ago, on a long summer car journey, the windscreen would be full of winged insects. That is now minimal. Why do we need abundance, biomass and a variety of insects to ensure a healthy planet? We need abundance and biomass to support the production of food and water, and to support nutrient cycles and oxygen production. We need variety because that ensures that if a single insect species becomes extinct, we will retain sufficient diversity. New varieties may be able to cope with climate change and other challenges that humans and the planet provide. Studies have most clearly documented the loss of abundance and biomass, which has mostly been caused by land use change for agriculture, the intensification of agriculture, and the application of pesticides, herbicides and novel chemicals in the environment.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured the debate. Does he agree that one way to encourage greater insect populations is to have living streets, such as the one that we are talking about in Whitefriargate in Hull? That whole street will be turned into a living street full of plants and, hopefully, insects.
This is such an important issue. My hon. Friend talked about agriculture, and the growth of the agrochemicals industry is obviously a main cause. Does he agree that integrated pest management and a more agro-ecological approach to farming is the way we need to go if we are to protect our pollinators and other insects?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this hugely important debate on one of the biggest issues we face. The Agriculture Bill, which is going through the House, provides an opportunity to take some action on the issue. Will he join me in urging all hon. Members to support new clauses 10 and 11, which would begin to address it by limiting the application of pesticides in agriculture and beyond?
I echo other hon. Members in saying how important the debate is and in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on securing it. He has indicated that the crisis we face is not happening by accident; it is being caused by policies that we can change. Does he therefore share my concern that the UK missed its deadline for submitting its sixth national report for the convention on biological diversity conference, which suggests that it is not terribly serious about it? The UK is also on track to miss 14 of the 19 targets in the convention, which suggests that the Government have a lot to do.
It is great that so many colleagues from the Environmental Audit Committee are present. These are exactly the issues that the Committee takes up with Ministers, and it is good that they are getting an airing in the debate. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady.
I will move on to pollination. The biggest impact of the loss is that we will lose pollinators, and if we cannot sustain natural pollination, there will be a loss of crops. Our world is heading towards a population of 9 billion people. If that rising population is set against the impact of insect loss—let us not mince our words—it puts us on a road to cyclical starvation. We will lose the production of some crops, particularly those that are best for people’s health and wellbeing. Crops pollinated by insects are mainly fruit and vegetables; crops such as wheat and maize do not need insect pollinators, so they are not affected as much. It is fruit and vegetables—the fresh food that people need to be eating—that will be lost due to lack of pollination.
We will have to find a way to compensate for the loss of natural pollinators. We already have commercial honey bee colonies, which are produced especially to provide that pollination service, but even those could be affected.
The debate is incredibly timely. In Plymouth we have planted wildflower meadows and bee corridors across the city. They save money, because there is no need to cut back grass, and provide an essential habitat for pollinators, spiders and ground-based insects. Does my hon. Friend support that model being rolled out across the country?
This is a crucial debate. Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of Professor Jane Hill, who has been mapping the northward progress of butterflies as the climate changes? They are such a sensitive indicator of the pace of climate change in our country.
On the point about pollinator corridors, I withdrew my private Member’s Bill on pollinators last year, because the Government agreed to fund Buglife and Matt Shardlow—the hon. Gentleman has mentioned them already—to complete their mapping of those corridors across the country, with a view to using the environment Bill to look at planning regulations to force local authorities to plan for them in new developments, which would be welcome. Does he agree that the charities already doing that work have a huge role to play, and that the Government should support them with funding to continue? There does not need to be a massive revolution in policy.
The hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to hear that I absolutely agree, and I would like that to be legislated for in the environment Bill, particularly as he lost his piece of legislation on that proviso.
I will move on to ecosystem services. On top of the loss of invertebrates, the loss of species generally means that we do not have a lot of other services, such as natural pest control, natural decomposition of pollutants and natural nutrient cycling. Without those, we will increasingly have to intervene in ecosystems to provide them. A good example is that trees draw carbon down from the atmosphere really well, and have done forever, but because we have lost the part of the ecosystem that does that, we are now talking about engineering artificial means of carbon drawdown.
I am of an age to remember the windshield being covered in insects, and the number plate, which was particularly hard to clean. Does the hon. Gentleman think that initiatives such as the healthy bees plan and the National Bee Unit should be extended to protect other species of insects—or, as we say in Scotland, beasties?
It is always good to have an intervention about beasties. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That harks back to my point about abundance and variety. We cannot protect only the bees, because they will not survive on their own without the abundance and variety of insects.
If we projected existing trends downwards, we would end up solving problems caused by the loss of natural systems one by one, which would be a much less efficient way to solve the problems of ecosystems than treating the root cause of the problems. If we look at the trends over the past 30 years, we see that that means not solving the problems but exacerbating them. The most shocking evidence that the Environmental Audit Committee heard came from Matt Shardlow, who said:
“In Germany, what they are looking at is nature reserves and a long-term decline, a 76% decline in the abundance of flying things on those nature reserves”.
Let that just sink in—a 76% decline in flying insects in nature reserves, not urban environments.
There is so much that English research does not yet know, but researchers looking at the swallowtail butterfly—again, this is the work of Professor Hill—found that as fenland habitats decreased in size, slowly the swallowtail became extinct, but before it became extinct it shrunk in size, because there was no point in it flying away from where it was as it would die anyway, because of urban encroachment. Our habitats are becoming fragile and we need to reverse that trend.
The UK does not have the sort of resilience that is needed to assist insects in weathering the storm of climate change. In a global assessment, the UK came 189th out of 218 countries for “biodiversity intactness”.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this absolutely essential debate. As a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, does he agree that the reduction of insect numbers is especially worrying for the economy, that the impact on the economy will lead to a lack of wild pollinators, and that there will be a knock-on effect from that?
I praise my hon. Friend to the rafters for securing this debate, because it is quite clear to many people that it would be entirely possible for this country and this planet to save ourselves from climate change, yet destroy ourselves in myriad other ways that breach the other eight planetary boundaries. Picking up on that, does he agree that it is the world’s poorest—both internationally and domestically—who will be disproportionately impacted by the systemic climate shocks that these breakdowns in biodiversity will have on our economies?
Absolutely. The majority of the world’s poor live towards the middle of the planet, and with climate change those populations will have to move north and south to get further away from the equator, which will mean huge shocks to countries if we do nothing or if we do not do enough. That will have the biggest impact on the world’s poor and will increase desertification of the planet.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. I declare an interest, as a farmer, landowner and member of the Ulster Farmers Union. I will make the very clear point that we, as farmers and landowners, have a critical role to play in this process, because on the land that we control, farm and look after as stewards we can improve the habitat, which we do, for example with more hedgerows. On my farm, for instance, I have seen an increase in the number of insects, including butterflies, and small birds, and that has happened because I have retained the habitat, including the hedgerows. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore feel that farmers, landowners and others who steward the land have a great responsibility, and that it is time for the Government to work alongside the Ulster Farmers Union, the National Farmers Union and landowners to make the land suitable for insects?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this really important debate. There is one thing that I want to raise with him. Does he accept that there is a balance—this is the real problem here—between feeding a growing global population and protecting and enhancing the environment and biodiversity, which is also so important? If so, does he agree that the way to bridge that gap will be through new technology?
Technology certainly has a place and we need more resilient crops, so we need to move away from the use of chemicals and actually breed that resilience into the crops, which is where technology and research come in. I think there would be a race to the bottom if we said that we could produce enough food only if we increased the chemicalisation of farming.
I will now move on to my recommendations for the Minister—I am sure that she is waiting with bated breath to hear my ideas on how to improve insect populations. I have to say that the Government have belatedly acknowledged the issue and taken some action. I commend the Minister for the following four actions—I am sure that she will be pleased to hear me say that. The Government are developing a national B-Lines pollinator network to reconnect wildlife and they have announced £60,000 of funding for England. They have also introduced a national pollinator monitoring scheme and are moving towards paying land managers for providing public goods, such as biodiversity and pollination services. They are also banning three bee-harming and water-polluting insecticides.
However, the forthcoming environment Bill and the remaining stages of the Agriculture Bill provide unparalleled opportunities to start taking action on preventing the insect Armageddon. Today, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) mentioned, the Minister could commit to accepting new clause 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), which would reduce pesticide use. The Agriculture Bill also provides an opportunity for farmers to be incentivised to deliver nature-friendly farming that will increase insect and wildlife populations, such as providing food for farmland birds and planting wildflower margins. These incentives should be delivered as part of the “public money for public goods” section of the Bill.
The Environmental Audit Committee is still undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft environment Bill, but it would be fair to say that the proposals for the new watchdog are weak. There must be a higher level of independence for the new watchdog and stronger powers, including the ability to impose heavy fines. We need to enshrine environmental principles in UK law, to make sure that when we make new laws we consider the impact they will have on nature. The Bill should set in stone ambitious and measurable targets for nature’s recovery, which are not just laid out in plans but enshrined in law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to stop this reduction in insect numbers and stop the loss of wild pollinators, which is so important, we need to make use of EU funding streams, and that a bad-deal or no-deal Brexit, which we are at risk of, could have a huge impact on this issue, affecting the future for insects?
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. He referred earlier to natural habitats and trees, so does he agree that, with habitat fragmentation posing such a long-term threat to our wildlife, including our insect population, it has never been more essential that we support the work of organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the Community Forest Trust, particularly as they continue to plan and grow the new northern forest?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great supporter of the new northern forest. We need to commend the work of the Woodland Trust, and the work of wildlife trusts and other organisations that are protecting our natural ecosystems.
I will talk briefly about climate more generally. As well as an insect Armageddon, we have a climate emergency, although the Government have not yet acknowledged that. Government decisions on spending and taxation would be exempted from environmental principles, while Ministers are required only to “have regard” to them elsewhere. Legally binding, time-bound targets are also missing from the draft legislation. Our future is tied to the future of the planet and economic policies are not independent of the future survival of life on the planet. The environment Bill must acknowledge and enshrine that, and I hope to see that happen in Committee.
There is also more detailed work that the Government could lead to support insect life. They could establish statutory nature recovery network maps with local authority sign-off, which would support the B-Lines network that they have already announced; introduce legally binding targets for biodiversity recovery, including, as separate measures, targets for pollinators and freshwater invertebrate life; design new agri-environment schemes that would deliver safe pollinator habitats and a national network of flower-rich habitats; legislate to reduce the pollution of water courses with insecticides, flea treatments and pharmaceuticals that are toxic for insects; improve the protection of rare and endangered species in the planning system; introduce measures to reduce light pollution; find ways of directing significant new funds, for instance through the environment Bill, to save biodiversity, such as reinstating the aggregates levy sustainability fund, or introducing payments for ecosystem services, which should be a central feature of thinking by the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; increase investment in the science and research that is needed to develop sustainable agriculture; reduce pesticide dependence; and halt and reverse the decline of species. I also believe that it is time to tweak the Natural Environment Research Council’s responsibilities, to ensure that research supports either the climate or biodiversity.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of the environment-both the opportunities we have to get it right and the risks of getting it wrong. However, does he agree that the opportunity inherent in replacing the disastrous common agricultural policy—it effectively pays £1 billion to people simply for owning land, no matter what they do with it—with a system in which that money is conditional upon delivering public goods is even bigger? That is a massive part of the solution, because all the initiatives that the hon. Gentleman has described and some of those that other Members have described, would be rewarded through that new system of payments. Of all the things that have been discussed today, that is potentially the biggest boon for our biodiversity. Does he agree?
I have supported CAP reform ever since Michael Foster resigned from the Labour Government about 15 years ago, and I still support it. However, we need to be mindful of the fact that it is not just the UK that needs to reform those practices: reform is needed across Europe, and more broadly.
After today, the Government cannot say that they were not warned about the insect Armageddon, or did not have the legislative opportunity to help ensure that the UK is not on the back foot when it comes to avoiding this potential disaster for our country.
Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) on having secured this debate, in which we have heard a number of interventions from other hon. Members. One might muse that time is running out for insects, but I assure Members that the Government understand that insects are crucial to our prosperity and wellbeing. The Royal Entomological Society estimates that there are over 24,000 species of insect—classified as six-legged animals with segmented bodies—in Britain. We know that they are vital to the food chain; they support many of our mammals and birds; and they play a fundamental role in much pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control and decomposition. The value of insect pollination to UK agriculture is estimated at more than £500 million a year.
As many hon. Members have observed, recent scientific papers and media reports have highlighted declines in insect populations and projected extinctions across the globe. We acknowledge that there have been long-term declines in the UK and globally, and there is no dispute about the seriousness of the issue, nor the need to take action. That is why, in the 25-year environment plan, we committed to improving the status of insects. I was also struck by Professor Sir Bob Watson’s comments in the media last week. He made it clear that we need concerted global action, but that extinction of insects within decades is probably unlikely, so we sometimes need to be mindful of the language we use to describe the evidence.
The Government report annually on how well different groups of insect species are doing, in partnership with academics and volunteer recording societies. That includes the UK-wide Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership, which is partly funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government’s indicators of the abundance of UK butterflies show long-term decline since 1976, but no significant change since 2012, and our indicator of pollinating insects in the UK tells a similar story. Overall distribution has declined since 1980, but has stabilised in recent years, although some individual species continue to decline. We are keeping those trends under review as encouraging, but not yet definitive, signs of progress.
I have so little time to respond to all the questions that I have already been asked, so I will do my best to answer the points that were made.
Our academic partnerships are helping us to deliver the most appropriate approaches to key factors affecting insect populations, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, pests and disease, climate change and pesticide use; to understand the importance of other emerging potential threats, such as light or radiation; and to better define and predict the impact of climate change. I am conscious of hon. Members’ comments about how tackling climate change will also help biodiversity in insects.
We know that where we put habitat back, insects respond positively. For that reason, we are taking action to improve, extend and connect insect habitats. Over 1 million hectares of our best habitats for wildlife are protected as sites of special scientific interest, and we spend more than £50 million through agri-environment schemes to help bring more of those sites into favourable condition. Natural England reports that since 2011, over 130,000 hectares of land have been set aside to create new wildlife-rich habitats, largely through agri-environment schemes. In 2015, the Government introduced wildlife packages to those schemes, to make it easier for farmers to provide flowers to support pollinating insects and other insects on farms. There has been real progress for some species that landowners, NGOs and Government have collaborated to conserve, including supporting the re-introduction of lost species such as the short-haired bumblebee and chequered skipper butterfly. The environmental land management system that we are introducing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) referred, will build on that by rewarding farmers and land managers for delivering environmental outcomes, such as protection of insect habitats.
In 2014, the Government published the national pollinator strategy, following a scientific review of the status of pollinating insects. That 10-year strategy sets out how Government, conservation groups, farmers, beekeepers and researchers can work together to improve the status of our pollinating insect species. Last week, we published an update to that review of the evidence base, which will inform our planned refresh of the pollinator strategy and, in turn, much of our action for other insect species.
In our 25-year environment plan, we committed to producing a new strategy for nature. That will take forward any new post-2020 global agreements on biodiversity, and bring together our biodiversity and pollinator strategies. I am conscious of the report to which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred, but the Aichi 2020 targets are quite nebulous, and a lot comes down to judgment. I hope that when we come to the Conference of the Parties for the convention on biological diversity in Beijing next year, we will have more rigorous measures and indicators for targets for the global recovery of the environment, in particular biodiversity.
I know that there is concern about the impact of pesticides, including on insects. The Government carry out a thorough assessment of pesticide safety using the best scientific evidence before authorising their use, drawing advice from the Health and Safety Executive and the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. Pesticides that carry unacceptable risks to pollinators are not authorised, as was the case with the science-led restrictions on neonicotinoids: outdoor use of three neonicotinoids was withdrawn from 19 December 2018.
We also need to take action against invasive species. Such action is largely focused on the Asian hornet: last year, the National Bee Unit located and destroyed four Asian hornet nests to tackle that threat to our native species, and surveillance continues. Our inspectors carry out about 6,000 apiary visits per year in England and Wales further to protect our honey bees. Advice and inspections help us to manage pests such as varroa, keep endemic diseases such as foulbrood at low levels, and keep other exotic pests such as the small hive beetle absent from the UK. The Bees’ Needs Week campaign, which happens every year in July, brings together expert partners to raise awareness of actions that all of us can take, whether we have gardens, window boxes, allotments or community gardens.
We have set out in the 25-year environment plan our step change in ambition for wildlife, in order to reverse declines. We have committed to improving protected sites and restoring new wildlife-rich habitats outside the protected site network. We are investing in peatland and woodland restoration as a contribution to climate change mitigation, which will also provide important habitats for insects and other wildlife; Members know about our investment in the northern forest. The nature recovery network will expand and connect our existing wildlife habitats by developing partnerships that can effect changes to land management at a catchment or landscape scale.
We are consulting on conservation covenants, which will be voluntary but legally binding agreements that would enable landowners to leave a permanent conservation legacy on their land. Such public commitments to taking positive actions to preserve and improve treasured features on their land, such as trees, woodland or flower-rich meadows, would be binding on future owners of that land and overseen by responsible bodies to ensure that land management obligations were delivered. I have already referred to the new environmental land management system, which will be the cornerstone of the country’s agricultural policy after we leave the EU. It is important that farmers are able to protect their crops, but also that people are protected from the risks that pesticides present, both to them and to the environment. It is therefore right to minimise the use of pesticides and to make the greatest possible use of other techniques, including non-chemical alternatives to protect crops.
I was surprised that the hon. Member for Leeds North West seemed to suggest that gene editing or GM could be used to modify crops. That is still a debate that matters, but it is important to highlight to hon. Members that we will continue to develop and refine our approach to pest control, with integrated pest management at its heart, minimising the need for pesticides. That approach combines different management strategies and practices to target and minimise the use of pesticides. The voluntary initiative scheme promotes and records IPM practices, and the uptake of that scheme is encouraging. It is important that we are able to protect crops, and such progress shows that the scheme works.
Regarding the introduction of a new environment Bill, I will give evidence to several hon. Members in about two hours’ time, so I am surprised that the hon. Member for Leeds North West has already declared what he thinks should happen with respect to scrutiny.
I am afraid I will not. The Government are open to this, and believe that what we have put forward is important. The policy paper that we published alongside the plan is an important indication of what else we want to achieve in that Bill.
Insect decline is a global problem that needs a global solution, which is why we will continue to play a leading role in the development of an ambitious strategy as we proceed. It is critical that we act now on the improving evidence base, internationally and at home, to ensure that we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered wildlife crime.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell? I also thank all those outside the Chamber who have engaged with this debate on social media through the excellent House of Commons digital engagement team. With nearly 4,000 comments, it is clear that there is a real strength of feeling on the issue.
The term “wildlife crime” covers a variety of different offences, but the common thread is simple: cruelty to and the mistreatment of animals and birds. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has told me about the plight of hen harriers, which are being hunted to extinction. In 2018 the RSPB satellite-tagged more than 30 hen harriers in the UK, but in just six months half of them had died. Eleven disappeared in suspicious circumstances near shooting moors. It is unclear whether those birds were deliberately targeted by the owners of shooting moors in order to protect the grouse, pheasant or partridge for the shooting season, or whether they were collateral damage during a shoot, but a suspicious sign is that the tags disappear and the scene of the crime is cleaned up. Whoever is shooting the birds knows they have done wrong.
The RSPB identifies weaknesses in the law. Of 68 confirmed kills of birds of prey in 2017, just four prosecutions were brought, with only one conviction. The RSPB is calling for stronger sentences and points to the dramatic decrease in egg collecting offences after sentences were toughened. Such offences went from an average of 167 a year in 2010-15, to just 10 in 2017.
The National Farmers Union has expressed concerns to me about hare coursing, which it tells me is having a severe impact on farm businesses and rural communities, not to mention the hares themselves.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate, and in particular that he has raised the issue of hare coursing. The feedback I am getting is that hare coursing is becoming more violent and aggressive and that higher sums are being wagered. If that is the case, does he agree that the response needs to be toughened up?
Not only do I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect—I cannot point to any evidence with me right now—that there is an element of organised crime behind some of that hare coursing. That would be damaging to farmers and rural communities, which perhaps have not been exposed to that level of organised crime in the past.
The NFU highlights the lack of resources for tackling wildlife crime, but crucially it has identified how the law can be toughened by extending criminal behaviour orders across a wider area than just the county in which the offence took place and by amending the Game Act 1831 to give police and magistrates the powers to seize dogs and reclaim associated kennelling costs from offenders.
Nowhere is the need for tougher laws more apparent than in the case of foxhunting. Local monitors have witnessed at least six foxes being killed by hunts in my own county of Cheshire this season. There were at least 10 additional reports of foxes being chased in the county and multiple reports of badger setts being blocked in the vicinity of hunts in Cheshire. Over the Christmas period, I and hon. Friends from the county were contacted by many constituents who shared horrific images and videos of foxes being slaughtered in hunts. It was those images and reports that led my hon. Friends and me to seek this debate in the House.
Laws were introduced for Scotland in 2002, and then for England and Wales in 2005 under the Hunting Act 2004, which was passed by the Labour Government and banned the use of dogs to hunt foxes and wild mammals in England and Wales. Although those were welcome and hard-fought pieces of legislation, over- whelming evidence suggests that they are regularly being ignored or exploited by hunts. The Hunting Act bans the hunting of wild mammals—notably foxes, deer, hares and mink—with dogs in England and Wales. However, the Act does not cover the use of dogs in the process of flushing out a wild animal, nor does it affect trail hunting, where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent. The Government’s lack of political inclination to enforce or strengthen the laws lies at the heart of the issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for his comments about the support of the NFU in trying to deal with some of these appalling crimes. Does he agree that part of the challenge faced by many local police services across the country is the effect of austerity? Several hundred officer posts have been cut from Thames Valley police, which covers my area, in the past nine years due to austerity. That has had a serious and damaging effect on a number of aspects of police activity.
I accept that, and the particular consequence is that issues such as wildlife crime, which often requires specifically trained officers, are the first to fall by the wayside. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will refer to that later.
The Prime Minister has openly declared her support for foxhunting, and the Conservative manifesto committed to granting a free vote on the issue, although I welcome the Government confirming that they would not bring forward such a vote during this Session of Parliament. The Hunting Act continues to be abused across the board. There is a sense of a lack of political will from Ministers, which means the issue is constantly swept under the carpet. Responsibility is put on the shoulders of crumbling police forces, which are struggling, as my hon. Friend said. They have had £2.7 billion of real-terms cuts in direct Government funding since 2010.
The League Against Cruel Sports has collated at least 282 reports of suspected illegal hunting activity across the UK since the beginning of the foxhunting season on 1 November 2018, and 42 separate reports of foxes being killed. That indicates the scale of continued illegal hunting, although it is clear, when we take into account unreported cases and hunts that are not monitored, that the figures represent merely the tip of the iceberg.
The Hunting Act clearly needs to be strengthened. The evidence of abuse is clear and the required adjustments are straightforward. Weaknesses within the law, as identified by the RSPB and the NFU, are preventing blatant law-breaking by registered hunts from being effectively tackled. All that is needed is for the Government to have the will to act.
Fundamentally, the Hunting Act has no teeth. The deterrence value of penalties under the Hunting Act is significantly lacking. Only fines are available. Ministry of Justice data shows that the average fine for offences under the Hunting Act over the past 10 years was a measly £267, which is a price many hunters are willing to risk. It is certainly one they can afford. Custodial sentences need to be introduced to bring the law at least into line with penalties for other crimes against wild animals, such as badger baiting.
One of the main weaknesses is that the offence is a summary offence only, and an absolute offence. There is no offence, for example, of attempting to kill a fox with a hunt, and prosecutors would have to prove an intent to kill a fox. A hunt can therefore chase a fox across countryside with unmuzzled dogs following its scent. If the fox is killed unintentionally—whatever that might mean in this context—a conviction becomes difficult to obtain, as if chasing a fox with a pack of dogs does not indicate intent to kill it. Let us face it: the dogs do not know any better.
Even if there is video evidence showing the culprit with the dead fox, as happened in Cheshire, that is not sufficient to gain a prosecution, let alone a conviction. Cheshire police were criticised earlier this year when their press office put out a statement suggesting that we cannot believe everything we see on social media. Those press officers were right, but that does not mean we cannot believe anything we see on social media.
Another excuse is trail hunting, which allows for foxes to be accidentally killed by dogs on hunts. It is especially pernicious when the trail is laid using the urine of captive foxes. Why are the dogs not trained to follow a different scent? A gaping hole in the legislation allows hunts to claim that any chasing and killing were merely coincidental and accidental. For those who do not know, trail hunting involves people on foot or horseback following a scent along a pre-determined route with hounds or beagles. The concept of trail hunting is to effectively replicate a hunt without hurting a fox. It has been described by a judge in one case as a “cynical subterfuge”. In that case, the judge dismissed an appeal by two hunt employees who were part of the Harborough-based Fernie hunt and were convicted of breaching hunting laws. They were found guilty of hunting a live fox and digging into an active badger sett.
There is no system to record wildlife crimes in the UK and identify the size and scale of the activity. A recent Wildlife and Countryside Link report noted that 1,283 wildlife crime incidents were recorded by non-governmental organisations in 2017. Shockingly, only nine individuals and businesses were prosecuted.
Many wildlife crimes are not recordable or notifiable offences. That means that vital information about crimes that have been reported and investigated is not being collected by police forces across England and Wales. Valuable information about trends in crime and intelligence, which would lead to the allocation of resources, is therefore lost. Without proper information, the Government are also under less pressure to actually do something about such crimes.
The practice of stopping up foxholes and badger setts, and using terriers to chase foxes out of their dens, continues. That surely demonstrates intent. Badgers are killed in the process, too. One Cheshire hunt monitor told me of such activities this year:
“On one occasion this hunt season we checked a large badger sett, it was fine and very active. The next day we discovered the hunt was due in the area…we went to check the sett on the hunt day and it had quad bike tracks leading straight to it and to several other setts in the immediate area, all entrances were filled in, we could see spade marks and boot prints. The hunt rode straight up to the badger sett that day and stopped, they were clearly surprised to see us, we then had to unblock 41 sett entrances or the badgers would have suffocated. We went back over subsequent days to monitor activity and we used thermal imaging technology to check the badgers were still alive. This sett is constantly targeted.”
David Keane, the police and crime commissioner for Cheshire, undertook a review of the laws relating to hunting and of his force’s implementation of those laws. He, too, found that
“the current legislation in the way it is drafted presents challenges to investigators and prosecutors”,
and that it causes confusion to the public and others.
Issues have been raised with Mr Keane regarding how legislation could be amended to assist. Following his review, he has made three proposals. The first is that recklessness should be applicable, beyond the current requirement to prove intent—a requirement that is not mirrored in all areas of criminal law. The second is for the introduction of an authorised list of scents, excluding fox or other wild mammal urine, for use in trail hunting. Thirdly, he has spoken of the need for a clearer definition of the role of, or restriction associated with, terrier men: those who follow the hunt around and assist.
In the past week, ahead of the debate, I have received countless emails from concerned citizens, appalled at the continued killing of wild animals for pleasure and the seeming inability of the law to bring people to account. Clearly, the laws on foxhunting are being deliberately flouted, by people who either believe that they are above the law, or are not deterred by the threat of the sanctions available under it. I fail to understand how someone can get pleasure from killing animals, and can conclude only that such people are in some way disturbed.
At the very least, the law on hunting with dogs needs to be changed to include recklessness as an offence. We might look at limits on the number of dogs allowed, and there is support across the House for increasing to five years the penalty for convictions for animal cruelty. That might help to deal with the bagging of foxes and the issue of hounds being given fox cubs for training purposes.
If those solutions are not adopted, however, we might have to consider another: banning hunting with dogs altogether. Hunts have had their chance to demonstrate that they are responsible, but they are failing to take it, possibly deliberately. The police are struggling nationally with manpower, and wildlife crime falls well below other priorities. Police are not always trained in the finer points of the detail of wildlife protection laws. To make it easier, we need to give them the tools to do their job, and that means much tougher laws to protect our wildlife.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his splendid speech, and on attracting so many colleagues to support his point of view. We could not have anyone better to chair proceedings than yourself, Mr Rosindell, given your track record on the issue.
In the early years, when I was first elected to Parliament, only four or five colleagues on the Conservative Benches were against foxhunting—I am delighted that two of them are present this afternoon. A wonderful lady called Lorraine Platt, who founded the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, changed all that, and I think that now in excess of 60 Conservative Members of Parliament would be very much against foxhunting.
Throughout my parliamentary life, I have done everything I can to improve the welfare of animals and the environment in which we live. In so many ways, the quality of a nation should be judged by how it treats animals. To give a taster, I got on to the statute book the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, to protect horses, ponies and donkeys from being cruelly tethered. Together with Ann Widdecombe, in 2002 I introduced the Endangered Species (Illegal Trade) Bill. We led campaigns against live animal exports, the badger cull, animal experimentation, dog meat, the fur trade, netting and the killing of songbirds throughout the Mediterranean.
Legislation is all very well, but it is the enforcement that I am particularly concerned about. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) mentioned hare coursing. I was appalled that in Essex more than 500 cases of illegal hare coursing were reported in 2017. However, I am glad that, with consistent action from rural police forces across the country that are taking the crime seriously, there has been an impressive reduction in offences.
In Lincolnshire there has been a significant reduction in that terrible crime, as a result of the great work done by Lincolnshire police. One of the difficulties that they face is that once the crime has been committed and successfully prosecuted, the sentences that people receive may be a fine of just £250, which is not a sufficiently significant deterrent.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am glad that our two police forces are making some progress, but it is the implementation of the law, and punishments, that we are particularly concerned about.
I represent a little urban area; we do not have any foxhunts in Southend West. However, I drive along at night and see the odd fox or badger that sadly has been flattened by a car. I am very concerned about how people seem to have got around the 2004 Act. I would very much welcome an increase in penalties and more custodial sentences for illegal hunting. Average fines of £250 are a paltry punishment, frankly, for such cruelty, whatever a person thinks about foxes. Those Members who have kept chickens will know that it is not a lot of fun to find that they have been killed and played with—indeed, it can be very upsetting because they are pets. However, it beggars belief that anyone would set dogs on foxes and think that it is acceptable to have them physically torn apart. I think that most civilised people, and I would hope most Members of Parliament, would find that repugnant.
The law needs strengthening to stop deceitful trail hunting, and to protect our wildlife from the cruel sport of hunting with dogs. Nobody should be above the law, and those who continue in the inhumane killing of foxes and stags under the cover of trail hunting should be prosecuted.
My hon. Friend and I both bear the scars of the legislation, and I do not think that anybody would claim that it was anything other than imperfect. However, does he agree that the one measure that would help most in this context, rather than reopening the entire argument, would be to make it unlawful to use animal scent for trails? That would be relatively easy to enforce, and it would create a clear divide between drag hunting, which is lawful and proper, and trail hunting, which is effectively unlawful and a disguise for the hunting of foxes.
My right hon. Friend has succeeded in shortening my speech, because that is exactly what I was about to say. I entirely agree with that point.
Nobody should be above the law, and those who continue in the inhumane killing of foxes and stags under the cover of trail hunting should be prosecuted. We will never end wildlife crime in this country unless our laws are robust enough to deal with those who willingly allow such unnecessary cruelty.
Although there are rumours every time we have an election, I am confident that foxhunting will never become legal again in this country. I have no doubt about that, and think that any such rumours are absolute nonsense. However, I do not feel that the law is acting in the way that most people would want it to. It seems to me that people have got around it in all sorts of ways. I look to the Minister, who has taken over from my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was particularly wonderful on such issues, to give a positive response to all the points that parliamentary colleagues will make on this very important issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I fully support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). There is a key role for central Government in tackling wildlife crime. That is why the Labour Government, of which I was a proud member, established the National Wildlife Crime Unit in 2006. It has a central role in examining a range of issues on enforcement, guidance and support, such as badger persecution, the illegal ivory trade, poaching, enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004 and hare coursing.
My first question to the Minister is whether she has yet made a decision on what is happening to central funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit post 2020. What assurances can she and the Home Office give for that funding? North Wales police has an excellent wildlife crime unit. Like the national unit, it tackles a range of issues on the ground, such as livestock theft, livestock crime, environmental crime and enforcement of fox hunting legislation.
I particularly want to raise the issue of sheep worrying, which is of tremendous concern to farmers in my constituency. I hope to put some points on the Minister’s radar for her to respond to in her summing up. Attacks by dogs on sheep in the constituencies of my area of Wales have risen by a massive 113% over the past year, and they cost farmers in Wales and across the country £1.2 million—a tremendous amount of money. It is an absolute disgrace that dogs attack sheep because of, in many cases, irresponsible owners.
The 2017 report of the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare made a number of recommendations on what the Government could do to give guidance to dog owners and to better enforce and modernise the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953. Will the Minister respond this afternoon to some of the issues raised in that report? Her noble Friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has responsibility for the issue in the Lords, said at the time that he believed the report was a useful contribution and that he was working with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to take into account the all-party parliamentary group recommendations, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith).
We recommended that the Home Office should collect statistics on sheep attacks by dogs across the country to see the scale of the problem—a point already made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. Has that been done, or is it planned? The Ministry of Justice was charged by the report to look at sentencing under the 1953 Act, and the Agriculture Minister agreed to look at that in principle. Currently, there is a £1,000 fine, which was set in 1953. That is slightly out of date, in considering the ownership of a dog that attacks sheep and causes tremendous damage. There is no power in the Act for an owner to be banned from owning another dog in the future, following a conviction for worrying sheep. No action can be taken to seize a dog if the same dog is responsible for multiple attacks. The Sentencing Council was supposed to review the legislation. Can the Minister tell us whether it has? This is an issue of major concern, and North Wales police has again raised it only this week with the National Farmers Union in Wales and the National Farmers Union.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that in some cases—perhaps the majoritythe irresponsible owner is irresponsible through ignorance? It is an urban owner who takes a dog into the countryside and perhaps does not realise that the dog needs to be on the lead when in the proximity of sheep.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valuable point. It is important to have a structure in place to raise awareness of the irresponsibility of letting dogs run wild. It is a wildlife crime. It will destroy flocks of sheep. Farmers in my constituency have had sheep and lambs killed overnight. It is distressing. It costs money. It cannot be insured against in a proper and effective way. It is an issue that North Wales police and the farmers are working on in tandem through its wildlife crime unit, to make sure that action is taken.
My plea to the Minister is simple. Will she give an update on the review of the 1953 Act? Will she give an update on whether the Home Office records statistics? Will she ensure that the promises made by her noble Friend Lord Gardiner in response to the report are kept, because this is vital? Finally, I welcome everything that my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester said about the enforcement of the Hunting Act, which I was proud to vote for.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). I agree with everything he said. I want to widen the debate to an international stage.
I hold a programme in my constituency called “Conversations in the street”, where I go around the villages and people tell me what is on their mind. One lady came up to me and said, “I want to discuss elephants with you.” I posted the issues that were raised on my Twitter account, and what was said about that topic on my Twitter feed was utterly pathetic. The lady had genuinely raised a question about what we were doing to protect elephants and wanted an answer. Our attitude towards elephants and elephant crime is shaming for our generation. Illegal trafficking of both live and dead animals is the fourth largest illegal international trade, after those in drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, and it is worth about £15 billion a year.
The Government have done a tremendous amount to ban the sale of ivory, which I very much welcome, and to protect elephants, but there is a growing threat from the illegal trade in live animals. That trade occurs for a number of reasons, but principally to try to improve tourism and to make entertainment better. The UK has been working through a number of organisations to prevent the trade—many aspects of it are illegal—but it presents a growing threat, particularly to the Asian elephant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) mentioned birds in the Mediterranean. I highlight the enormous difficulty we have in trying to control the killing of birds, particularly in Malta. We ought to concentrate on the annual spring hunt in Malta—it is still legal—which leads to the deaths of an enormous number of birds. We ought to do all we can to stamp that out.
We had a very successful international conference in the UK on this subject in 2014 and another, I think, in 2018. I commend the Government for their stance. Members have spoken about the crimes that take place in the UK, but we should not forget the global nature of such crimes. If we are protecting animals—our hearts go out to everyone who protects animals—we need to look at that from an international perspective. I hope the hon. Member for City of Chester will accept my remarks in the spirit that I give them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, in this important debate. I apologise for the fact that I am full of some sort of bug, so please excuse my voice. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—a wonderful city—for bringing the debate forward.
I am very lucky to have grown up in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, which is a mixture of towns and villages surrounded by beautiful countryside. We greatly value our farming community in the area, with regular farmers markets, many excellent walks and, I bet, some of the very best farm shops in the country. However, representing a constituency that is surrounded by such glorious countryside means that, like my hon. Friend, I am regularly contacted by constituents who have concerns about wildlife crime.
Over the winter period, that concern seemed to intensify. Constituents were upset and infuriated that video footage taken each week seemed to show that foxes are being hunted and regularly killed by dogs. My constituents’ anger came from the fact that despite it being against the law to hunt with dogs, the loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 make it almost impossible to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I have raised this matter in the Chamber, and we desperately need the Act to be strengthened to ensure that the will of Parliament, and that of the overwhelming majority of the public, is respected. The Government should do the right thing and strengthen the Act by adding a recklessness clause, in order to end the ridiculous situation where hunt participants can avoid prosecution simply by claiming that the chasing and killing of a fox by their dogs was an accident.
Fifteen years on from the Hunting Act, foxes are still being ripped apart by packs of dogs and killed brazenly by hunt participants, who know that they can escape prosecution. I find it a strange hobby to dress up like a toy soldier to chase a much smaller and vulnerable animal, and I also find it strange that policymakers appear to take such a contrasting approach to this so-called sport, compared with other examples of animal cruelty.
It is clear that along with changes to the Hunting Act, we need to see stronger deterrents put in place. It is worth pointing out that the average fine for offences over the last 10 years has been just £267. Killing a fox carries a maximum penalty of £5,000, yet killing a badger can carry a six-month custodial sentence. Following a successful prosecution under the Hunting Act 2004, those responsible should face forfeiture of their dogs. As a dog owner myself, I have huge concerns about the way that those dogs are treated.
I have sat in the home of friends of mine when the sound of a horn has blared and, all of a sudden, their property has had a swarm of huntsmen and dogs tearing through it. That was quite an unnerving experience on a Sunday afternoon, and my friends’ animals and children were left terrified. Again, there seems to be an attitude of being above the law among people who partake in this so-called sport. I would like to see more clarity on the role of terrier men, who can operate independently but still frequently follow hunts. Their only known function is to block badger setts and escape holes to prevent foxes from escaping underground, and to use dogs to flush out any creature that tries to hide.
I am sure that it is blatantly obvious that I am not from a background where this kind of tradition ever took place. I am proud to be a member of the Labour party—an organisation that has consistently placed the welfare of animals high on the policy agenda and has committed to strengthening the Hunting Act.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on raising this issue today. I agree with many things that he said; as he will know, there are some things with which I am not in total agreement.
It is no secret that I am an avid country sports enthusiast, and I am also very keen on conservation and animal protection, which is important to me. There is no reason that those two pursuits cannot be married together; I believe they can. As proof, we very clearly retained the habitat for such purposes on the land that I own and have access to. In recent times—having planted 3,500 trees, dug out two ponds and retained the hedgerows—we have seen an increase in insect life, birdlife and bee life, and in the number of songbirds and birds of prey, to which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred. All those are protected.
There are many people who enthuse about conservation. I say gently that others who have the opportunity should practise it in a very real way, which I like to think I do. The hon. Gentleman, who spoke before me, would probably say the same things that I am saying. I believe that one cannot be involved in country sports without knowing the importance of conserving the wonderful countryside, which is why I was delighted that the Police Service of in Northern Ireland appointed an officer who is designated solely to wildlife crime. It just so happens that that wee girl was a flower girl at my wedding 32 years ago, so I have an interest in her progression through the PSNI.
We have the issues of badger baiting and dogfighting, which I absolutely condemn, and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) referred to attacks on livestock and sheep—they are all very important issues. The wildlife liaison officer is the central point of contact in the PSNI for police officers and staff who require advice, support and assistance in relation to all animal welfare or wildlife crime, with particular links to suspected breaches of the legislation or associated queries. The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 was amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, and the police liaison officer offers advice, support and assistance to the police service across the whole of Northern Ireland. She does a really incredible job—she is one of my constituents and also a good friend of mine.
In the very short time I have, I want to discuss what the hon. Member for Henley referred to: it is important to look at wildlife crime elsewhere in the world. I have done the bit back home, where it is very important that we can actively discourage and legislate against those who blatantly break the law. It is said that across the world
“illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking”.
It is worth some £17 billion a year. The money generated from the global trade in wildlife has been linked to funding terrorist activities: the people who are involved operate as cartels, with multiple organised crime groups working to a common purpose. The exploitation of wildlife is a low-risk yet high-reward form of crime. The 2016 “World Wildlife Crime Report” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows the extensive involvement of transnational organised crime groups. The Minister does not have responsibility for that, but I would like some direction from Government on what they are doing about it.
It is clear that there is a real need for focused, targeted and strategised UK-wide policing of wildlife crime, and for officers to understand the importance of this. I know that the police in the UK and the PSNI in Northern Ireland do a wonderful job, but it must be co-ordinated. I believe that we could do this better if we took a UK-wide approach, and that the Department must take the lead in putting this strategy into place. We always get a good response from the Minister, and I look forward to it today.
Like a few others present in the Chamber, I bear the scars of the 700 hours it took, in one capacity or another, to pass the Hunting Act 2004, which was introduced by the Labour Government and described by the League Against Cruel Sports as the most successful wild mammal legislation in England and Wales. It seems that a lot has changed since then, as the organisation has discovered what it considers to be the Act’s flaws, and I want to touch on that briefly.
There was a reason the Hunting Act 2004 ended up as it did: the Labour Government and the Ministers responsible for it recognised that it was not as simple as it seemed. Considerations relating to management control and humane control—wildlife management considerations—needed to be incorporated into the Act. The Labour Government completely understood that the idea that the legislation was ever going to be a blanket ban on the killing and control of foxes was unfeasible. Now, 15 years on, we are talking about what seem to the outside world to be various anomalies. I refer hon. Members back to the reasons we ended up in that place the first time—because of the complex way in which rural Britain interacts with wild, unhusbanded animals.
As a former employee of the Countryside Alliance and its current chairman, I should declare an interest and say that I am not here to try to justify the unjustifiable, or to try to promote or excuse lawlessness in any way. I absolutely share the concerns of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about things such as illegal hare coursing and how that can be dealt with. I am realistic and hope that the organisation I have been involved with for many years is very keen to play a positive role in dealing with these issues in a proportionate and evidence-based way.
I want to touch on a few things that were mentioned earlier. On the question of raptors, I hope I can persuade Opposition Members that, as the Labour party has indeed recognised over many years, shooting plays a really important part in the upland management of the UK. That applies not only to biodiversity—that is not contested in any way—but to economic benefits and the benefits of the production of good quality, healthy food in the food chain. Before we write off everybody involved in upland management as a raptor persecutor, we must note that the vast majority recognise that that is a crime that needs to stop and they will co-operate with anybody who wishes to address that problem.
I should point out one of the complexities. The problems are just as apparent in areas that are not managed for shooting, such as the Isle of Man and the Isle of Skye—where huge attempts have been made to get hen harriers to breed again—as on managed uplands on the mainland where shooting does occur. We should treat with caution the assumption that the problem happens only on managed grouse moors.
Finally, as far as hunting is concerned, I could go on for a great deal more than the 42 seconds I have left, but I will simply say this. The idea that all the so-called problems can be cured simply by adjusting the hunting techniques, which was recommended by the Labour party and the League Against Cruel Sports when the Hunting Act went through, is a naive approach to an exaggerated problem. Trail hunting takes place on more than 25,000 occasions a year. The evidence, which might be good evidence, suggesting that there is a widespread problem exaggerates the problem. Whether it is raptor control or hunting, the best approach is a co-operative one involving the governing bodies of the organisations in question.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his insightful and sometimes passionate speech. Like others, I want to set out my opposition to foxhunting. The general election might not have decided which way the public felt, but when the Prime Minister announced she was pro-foxhunting my postbag was inundated with correspondence from people who were against bringing back foxhunting. I hope and pray that this country will never again see the foxhunting of the past.
Foxhunting and hare coursing have been covered very well in the debate. I want to focus my attention on the illegal theft of bird eggs. Although the introduction in 2000 of custodial sentences for the offences of egg theft and possession appear to have had a positive effect on reducing egg-collecting activity in the UK, there is no indication that the sentences have had an impact on the illegal egg trade. Why am I talking about the egg trade? Many egg collectors and egg thieves are attracted to endangered species, particularly endangered birds. Collecting bird eggs has been illegal in the UK since the Protection of Birds Act 1954 was passed, making it illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds. The law was further bolstered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which provides stipulations for the protection of wild birds and their eggs and nests. Magistrates are able to hand down a range of punishments, from fines to six months in prison per egg.
A variety of motivations lie behind egg theft. Recent arrests have shown that many collectors find themselves addicted to the process of tracking birds and capturing their eggs. The individuals who take part in those horrendous activities take pride in their ability to steal eggs from nests that lie in purposely secluded and difficult to reach areas. That is a blatant violation of the various Acts in place to protect the birds and it also eradicates the lives of very rare birds.
In one sickening case in 2011, someone stole seven golden eagle eggs that were so close to hatching that he likely removed a live chick from the shell just to have something nice to look at. After admitting to 10 charges of theft and illegal possession of bird eggs, he was given only a six-month sentence—a slap on the wrist for someone who clearly has a problem. Weak penalties for wildlife crime mean that offenders have little to fear. Those who collect the eggs face very short prison sentences, so there is no incentive for them to cease collecting.
The situation is made worse by an illegal bird egg trade available on eBay. A search for “bird egg collection” provides potential buyers with the option to purchase a red grouse egg. The RSPB has given the bird an amber status, which denotes an unfavourable conservation status as well as a decline in UK breeding populations. What is more, the red grouse species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
In recent weeks the Government have done very good work on social media, self-harm and suicide, but where there is a violation of the law it is up to them to say to eBay, “Why are you listing these eggs? Why are you encouraging a decline in our rare bird species?” It is up to the Government to talk to eBay, Gumtree and the other sites that sell bird eggs and fuel the trade. Very few people talk about it, but we must protect the valuable bird species in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), on his excellent introduction. Like him, I have been contacted by many constituents concerned about the same incidents where foxes have been slaughtered in hunts. That has led me to question how well the Hunting Act is working because, despite outlawing that horrific practice, the images tell me there are people out there openly flouting the law, making a mockery of the police, Parliament and the vast majority of people in this country who rightly recoil from such barbaric practices. As we have heard, there are very real concerns that across the country foxes are being targeted and killed by illegal hunts, and grave concerns that the various exemptions within the Act are being used to legitimise the indiscriminate killing of foxes.
The Library briefing paper tells us that the successful conviction rate for offences under the Hunting Act over the previous five years is about 50% as opposed to a rate of about 80% for all criminal offences. That tells me that the Act is not working in the way that it should, and those figures are just for actual prosecutions.
Many constituents ask me why the widely available images that we have all seen do not result in more prosecutions. If the Government’s position is that the law should be observed, whatever that law is, they should ask themselves some serious questions about whether the Act is working in practice. They should ask whether the police and Crown Prosecution Service have the knowledge base and resources to deal successfully with the Act as it is, and what changes might be made to increase the number of successful prosecutions. If their view is, “We don’t like the Hunting Act. We don’t really believe in what it is trying to do, but we are content to allow things to trundle along as they are with a half-hearted adherence to the law because we are scared of a public backlash,” they should be honest and say so.
It is clear that there is little confidence in the law as it stands and the capacity of the state to enforce it, so we need a thorough review of the Hunting Act and how it works. Once that is done, let us have a debate and a vote in Parliament on what should happen next. If we did that, hunting with dogs, which has no place in a modem society, would be outlawed. Let us ensure it is banned: no ifs, no buts, no exceptions under the legislation, and no more excuses.
As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said, there needs to be a review of the high threshold. Perhaps using the word “recklessness” would give people more confidence in a law that the majority in this country want to adhere to. I appreciate that a review might take time, but I hope the Minister will respond positively when she winds up the debate.
In the meantime, I have some practical suggestions. The first concerns knowledge of the law by the police and Crown Prosecution Service. It is clear that some people are not experts in what is a specialist area.
Secondly, and this is perhaps the single most important action that can be taken to restore trust and confidence, the police must be seen to investigate and take action on any potential criminal offences that occur during the hunts. I am talking mainly about wider public order offences. We have seen lots of examples of threatening and intimidating behaviour, firearms being let off and vehicles being rammed into monitors and so on, giving the impression that some people are above the law and some are not. Everyone should be equal before law. At the moment some people seem to be able to get away with actions that in any other context would see them up before the magistrate, and that adds to the impression, sad though it is, that the authorities are not being even-handed in their approach.
To conclude the Hunting Act is not working. Let us reform it so that the cruel and vindictive practice of hunting with dogs is outlawed once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I commend you for your ability to get eight Back-Bench contributions into a 90-minute debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on bringing forward the debate. This is clearly a popular subject, given the attendance and the number of speeches—that says a lot, given all that is going on in the main Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman began by highlighting the serious crime of killing birds of prey, and the fact that the RSPB wants tougher sentences. I think that most of us present would concur. His main focus was on foxhunting, the weaknesses in the current legislation and what he perceives as lack of political will from the UK Government to tackle those weaknesses. I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that in Scotland the SNP Government have recognised the weaknesses in the law there, which will be tackled. A new measure will flush out weaknesses—such as the fact that dogs can be used to flush out foxes. That is certainly something that the UK Government should co-operate on.
The hon. Gentleman noted that the average fine is only £267. I think it is fair to say, without stereotyping, that many people involved in such hunts would see that expenditure as merely the cost of doing business and a drop in the ocean. He highlighted issues with trail hunting and so-called accidental kills. That reminds us that there are still many hunt groups that somehow see their barbaric hunting as their right and tradition, with respect to both foxes and badgers. That is something we need to stamp out. He recommended improvements in legislation, including an offence of recklessness, and the addition to the law of further exclusions, such as on the use of animal scents. It would be good to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) has done over the years on animal rights and protections. If I picked him up correctly, he was extolling the virtues of the fact that 60 Tories are now, he believes, against foxhunting. Sadly, that shows how out of date his party still is, because it is less than a fifth of it. It shows that there is a long way to go. I know that he is fighting the fight, and I urge him to keep doing that and to educate his colleagues.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) paid tribute to the North Wales police wildlife crime unit and highlighted the serious issue of sheep worrying, which is something I am aware of; it is certainly an issue for farmers in my area. I was interested in his call for statistics to improve the Government’s understanding, and for a review of sentencing. Once again, I will be interested in what the Minister says. Police Scotland is working with the National Farmers Union of Scotland to raise awareness of the issue among dog owners. A recent case highlighted the fact that, in addition to the sad fact of the killing of sheep, the farmer, who lost a lot of livestock, was not adequately compensated. The farmer’s livelihood was therefore put at risk too.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) widened the debate by talking about elephants, noting that the trade in wildlife is the fourth largest trade in the world, which is a real eye-opener. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) bravely battled an infection to put forward her points against foxhunting and, like the hon. Member for City of Chester, highlighted a point raised by her constituents about video footage apparently showing foxhunting carrying on unabated, although it is against the law, while that footage is not used for prosecutions or follow-up investigations. That certainly needs to be looked at. The “toy soldier” jibe about the way people dress up for hunts perhaps sums up their absurdity in this day and age.
I was privileged to hear a rare contribution by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who seldom ventures into Westminster Hall. It was good to hear him say that he does what he preaches in relation to outdoor conservation. He has been actively involved in that work and I pay tribute to that. He also highlighted the global nature of wildlife crime and trade.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) talked about the need to protect raptors, and about the prosecution of crimes. He was the only Member today to argue that there is a need for upland management and shooting. I suppose many people might not share that view, but it is good to hear someone put it forward as a matter that needs to be looked at.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) introduced a new subject to the debate: egg theft and the egg trade. He pointed out that unfortunately the people involved are naturally drawn to endangered species as they build their collections, creating a vicious cycle that could wipe them out, and that makes them even more attractive to other people involved in this illicit trade. That is another crime that should be stamped out.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) also highlighted concerns about foxhunting and his lack of confidence in the law as it stands. His point that all should be equal under the law is pertinent, and the Minister should address the matter of how the law works in the UK.
Scotland’s wildlife is precious and a huge part of our national identity. It is also a valuable resource, because it attracts visitors and tourists who come to see dolphins or birds, for example. Not only is it humane to protect wildlife; it also makes economic sense. For that reason, the Scottish Government have been active in ensuring that Scotland’s iconic and world-renowned great outdoors is protected, and they have undertaken species management where required. Wildlife crime is being tackled in Scotland through robust legislation, the management of species reintroductions, including the return of beavers, and work with a range of partners to minimise the risks and impacts of invasive non-native species. In their programme for government, the Scottish Government committed to establishing an animal welfare commission to provide expert advice on the welfare of domesticated and wild animals in Scotland, and work is now under way to establish that.
We all have a responsibility to protect our natural environment and the wildlife that lives in it. The SNP supports any reasonable measures to ensure that bird habitats are not poisoned by man-made chemicals and that firearms and ammunition are used and stored responsibly and legally. The Scottish Government are determined to crack down on those who commit crime against wildlife. As part of that commitment they have recruited special police constables across three divisions between the highlands, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire. The additional officers will be a valuable resource in tackling rural and wildlife crime.
In a similar vein, I pay tribute to the work of Graeme Gordon, a dedicated rural police officer who is a wildlife crime officer and Rural Watch Scotland administrator in my area of Ayrshire. I can vouch for his dedication to his job. He does a tremendous amount of liaison work with NFUS and the rural community. His work varies from investigating crimes to giving people a heads-up on issues and providing valuable advice. He also provides valuable updates to elected Members, including me. It is to Police Scotland’s credit that the post is maintained while austerity is imposed on Scotland and the UK Government steadfastly refuse to backdate the £175 million in VAT owed to Police Scotland and the Scottish fire and rescue service. That is in stark contrast to the cuts to the police that, as other hon. Members have said, the UK Government have been making. It is no coincidence that crime increases when there are cuts to the police service. Another initiative in Scotland in recent years is the investment of more than £6 million in new forensic capability, including DNA24, robotics and powerful software to obtain DNA profiles successfully, in support of the Scottish justice system.
Clearly, we would all love wildlife crime to be eradicated. I long for the day when there is an end to fly-tipping and littering, not only because it creates eyesores, but because it endangers wildlife. I cannot for the life of me understand those who seem to go to extreme efforts to get rid of rubbish that could be uplifted, or that they could deposit at nearby council facilities. They work harder to fly-tip in the countryside than they would in driving their rubbish down the road. Similarly, I go out on walks with my wife, Cyndi, and our black Labrador, Coby, and we get frustrated when we see people who profess to enjoy the great outdoors but who cannot be bothered to take their juice cans, bottles or crisp packets home with them. I cannot understand that. We have a long way to go to eradicate wildlife crime completely, and I look forward to that day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this important debate. He spoke passionately, and I know that he feels passionately about this issue. I am aware that there is great strength of feeling in Cheshire about it.
We have heard excellent contributions from Members across the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) spoke about the excellent report that the all-party group for animal welfare has produced on sheep worrying. I hope that the Minister will take note of its important recommendations. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the international trade and the importance of working globally. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the issue of bird eggs, which is very important as their theft causes huge damage. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the importance of conservation and raised his particular concerns. It was interesting to hear the response from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who talked about the approach to these issues being taken in Scotland.
People from across the country frequently contact me to tell me their concerns about the appalling wildlife crime in Britain today. Many have been mentioned already, including hunting with dogs, which is clearly a huge concern, hare coursing, badger baiting and raptor persecution. Last year, when I was serving on the Public Bill Committee for the Ivory Act 2018, we heard that the National Wildlife Crime Unit has only 12 members of staff to cover the entirety of its operations across the UK, and that includes administrative staff as well as enforcement officers. That level of resourcing is a great cause of concern. How can we expect wildlife crime to be tackled in our country if we do not put in place the means by which we can stamp it out? The unit’s financial future has been uncertain for many years, so will the Minister commit to guaranteeing funding for it beyond 2020?
I remind the Minister that, on Second Reading of the Ivory Bill in June last year, the Secretary of State said that, by October 2018
“we will be looking not just to ensure that we can continue to staff and support the officers who work in this field adequately, but to ensure that we go even further.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 98.]
Nine months later, we are still no clearer on the funding issue. There cannot be a repeat of the threat to the unit’s future, as happened in 2016, so we need clarity.
The six national wildlife crime priorities in Britain include poaching, the illegal wildlife trade and the persecution of badgers, bats and raptors. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned the persecution of raptors, and a new scientific study shows that hen harriers are disappearing on English grouse moors due to illegal killing. Natural England says that the analysis confirms
“what has long been suspected—that illegal persecution is having a major impact on the conservation status of this bird”.
I take the point, made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) that raptor persecution is not limited to grouse moors. It is important that wildlife crime is dealt with adequately, wherever it takes place. Labour has committed to carrying out a review in government of the environmental and wildlife impact of grouse shooting. What is the Government’s position on that, now that we have seen the new analysis?
We have heard that, unfortunately, no database is kept of reported wildlife crime in England and Wales, although the RSPB keeps a record of bird crimes. Crimes are recorded in Scotland, and figures released last week show that the number of wildlife crimes north of the border has fallen by 11% to the lowest recorded level in five years. At the same time, Scotland has a conviction rate of 96% for those found to have committed wildlife offences, which is the highest rate since 2012.
I believe that even those figures are likely to be wildly unrepresentative of the true number of wildlife crimes committed across Britain. We know that such crimes often take place in remote, rural areas and are likely to go undetected. There is simply not enough specialist knowledge and training in our overstretched police forces, which pushes the burden of covering all UK wildlife crime on to the overstretched few staff at the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked extensively about the concerns about the Hunting Act 2004. The fact that so many hon. Members focused on it shows that there are serious concerns about it, which the Minister must take very seriously.
On the National Wildlife Crime Unit, does my hon. Friend agree that, unless something is done about wild birds and birds of prey, their very existence may be threatened? Some species may become extinct if nothing is done.
We have just heard the new figures for hen harriers. It is incredibly important that these issues are taken seriously, recorded properly and acted upon if we are to stop that kind of wildlife crime.
I want to reiterate the commitment that Labour made on Boxing day: in government, we will strengthen the Hunting Act by closing the loopholes through a number of key measures. We will consult on reviewing sentencing to ensure that effective deterrence includes the use of custodial sentencing, in line with other wildlife crimes; strengthening the criteria for issuing research licences; removing the exemption on the use of dogs below ground to protect birds for shooting, as it risks appalling fights between dogs and wild mammals; and introducing a recklessness clause—hon. Members have talked about that today—to prevent trail hunting from being used as a cover for the illegal hunting of wild animals.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. When the Labour party consulted on the animal welfare plan last year, that was one of the main issues that came up over and over again.
Labour’s Hunting Act was a key milestone in banning that blood sport, but we have heard today about new practices that have developed to exploit loopholes in the legislation. We want to call time on those who defy the law and tighten up the Hunting Act to ensure that it does what it was intended to do. As we have heard, a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found that only one rural resident in six believes that hunting with dogs reflects countryside values. More than nine in 10 think that countryside values are really about observing nature.
The Law Commission’s 2015 report on wildlife law states that the legislation governing the control, exploitation, welfare and conservation of wild animals has turned into a complex patchwork of overlapping and sometimes conflicting provisions. It has recommended reforming wildlife law in England and Wales to reduce its complexity. In 2015 it produced an excellent report and a draft Bill that deals with many of the issues we have discussed today. I want to ask the Minister why the Government have not taken the recommendations of the extensive piece of work that they commissioned any further.
I urge the Minister seriously to consider drafting a database of wildlife crime for England and Wales so that we can have a much better idea of the scale of the problem, set out the plans for the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, as its funding is due to run out in 2020, and really listen to the concerns that Members have expressed today so that wildlife crime in this country can be tackled once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I know that you are passionate about animals and wildlife, so I am sure that you have enjoyed the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this important debate on wildlife crime. I know that he is particularly concerned about the events that took place over Christmas in his constituency and nearby. Following his parliamentary question in January, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials contacted the Cheshire Constabulary, which has confirmed that an investigation into the five fox deaths is ongoing. We will be informed when or if the Cheshire constabulary decides to refer a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. As he will appreciate, I cannot comment further on that specific matter, but I assure him that I am confident that the police will ascertain whether a crime has been committed and, if so, will take appropriate action.
The Government recognise the importance of tackling all wildlife crimes, which is why DEFRA, together with the Home Office, directly funds the National Wildlife Crime Unit to support its work to investigate these crimes. The National Police Chiefs Council, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Government also contribute to that funding. The National Wildlife Crime Unit is ably led by Chief Inspector Louise Hubble, who I have met. It helps prevent and detect wildlife crime by obtaining and disseminating intelligence, undertaking analysis that highlights local or national threats, and directly assisting law enforcers in their investigations.
Across the UK, more than 500 specially trained wildlife officers across most forces support investigations in their local areas. DEFRA provided additional funding for the unit to carry out a project on internet-related wildlife crime. The unit has subsequently identified wildlife-related online criminality as a thematic threat area. I will bring to its attention the points made by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans).
The unit’s funding structure will continue until the end of the comprehensive spending review cycle. Decisions on funding beyond 2020 will be taken at the next review, which is due to start this summer, as right hon. and hon. Members will know. I cannot say any more at this stage, but as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) noted, my right. hon Friend the Secretary of State is very committed to this important unit. I am pleased that wildlife crime seems to be an increasing priority for many of our police and crime commissioners across England and Wales.
There are six UK wildlife crime priorities: badger persecution, bat persecution, the illegal trade in species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, freshwater pearl mussels, poaching and raptor persecution. Wildlife crime priorities are set by the UK wildlife crime tasking and co-ordination group, which is chaired by the chief constable wildlife crime lead. Priority areas are those that either are assessed as posing the greatest threat to the conservation status of a species or show a high volume of crime and require a UK-wide tactical response. Each priority has an implementation plan—with plan owners identified—to prevent wildlife crime, improve intelligence gathering and strengthen enforcement of the law.
Raptor persecution is one of the UK’s wildlife crime priorities. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and there are strong penalties for those committing offences. In the five years up to 2017—the latest year for which data is available—there were 107 prosecutions for crimes against wild birds and 75 convictions. The police are leading efforts to prevent the persecution of birds of prey. I praise the work done by North Yorkshire police, particularly on Operation Owl, and I commend police and crime commissioner Julie Milligan in particular. She has been fundamental not only in that work, but in chairing the rural group of police and crime commissioners. She has also made hare coursing a key priority for work across a number of forces.
In addition to activity to disrupt and deter criminality, officers of the North Yorkshire police have worked to raise awareness about raptor persecution among local landowners and members of the public. Only through working in partnership with those living and working in rural communities can raptor persecution be combated. Despite instances of poisoning and killing of birds of prey, populations of many species, such as the peregrine, red kite and buzzard, have increased. I fully recognise, however, that some species continue to cause concern.
The Government take the decline in the hen harrier population in England particularly seriously, and we are committed to securing the future of that iconic species. That is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan, which sets out what will be done to increase hen harrier numbers in England, including the trialling of brood management. In the recent judicial review of the lawfulness of Natural England’s decision to grant a licence for trials of hen harrier brood management, the claimants’ claims were dismissed. The proposed brood management scheme will continue. It seeks to manage the conflict between the conservation of hen harriers and the grouse shooting industry. That decision means the important work to protect and conserve the hen harrier can continue.
The hon. Member for Workington referred to an article that was published in a journal yesterday; I take that issue very seriously and will be seeking to meet the chair of the raptor persecution group, Superintendent Lyall, to go through it in detail. Although it is not for the Government to tell the police or the Crown Prosecution Service who they should be investigating and charging, we should take a proactive approach, particularly to stamp out the persecution of birds of prey.
The Government also support work to combat hare coursing, which is pursued under the poaching national wildlife crime priority. Police action against hare coursing is supported by the poaching priority delivery group, which brings together law enforcement and NGOs to improve intelligence gathering, enforcement and prevention of those crimes.
The Government recognise the distress that hare coursing causes for rural communities. I know that it is a priority of my own police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore. Concerns are about not just the activity itself, but, increasingly, the associated violence between those involved or damage to property suffered by those whose land is blighted by the activity. There is also increasing concern about the involvement of organised crime in that particular venture. That is why I welcome the ongoing work done by police forces under Operation Galileo, which contributed to a 30% reduction in hare coursing incidents in Lincolnshire last year. I also commend the work of the six forces across the east of England, which come together to share intelligence so that they can try to stamp out that particularly heinous activity. The Hunting Act 2004 bans all hare coursing in England and Wales. Anyone found guilty of hare coursing or illegal hunting under that Act can receive an unlimited fine.
That brings me to hunting and the concerns raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester. The 2004 Act has been in force since 2005 and has fundamentally changed hunting with dogs in this country. Before that Act, between 21,000 and 25,000 foxes were killed each year by organised hunts, which accounted for only 5% to 6% of all annual fox deaths annually. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, further culling of foxes is often undertaken for predator control.
The introduction of the 2004 Act made it an offence to hunt wild mammals with dogs or to knowingly allow land to be used for fox hunting. Since the Act came into effect, many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. Clearly, trail hunting is a huge improvement on live fox hunting, while still allowing hunting groups to undertake an activity important to them and much of the rural community.
I recognise it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the huntsman and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. The Act has been used successfully to prosecute those who break the law. Between 2005 and 2017, a total of 778 individuals were prosecuted under the Act and 469 individuals were found guilty. The Government have no plans to amend the 2004 Act, but I have heard what hon. Members have said on that, and I will address sentencing guidelines. I recognise that the Labour party has changed its stance since the Act was introduced, but at the time, Parliament decided that the offence would not carry a custodial punishment. The Act allows for fines of up to £5,000. Sentencing is a matter for judges and sentencing guidelines. We would look to the independent Sentencing Council to consider that particular matter—based on correspondence that I have had with it, it absolutely and strongly defends its independence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to the illegal wildlife trade. I am proud of the Government’s record on making changes, including the groundbreaking Ivory Act 2018. The Government recognise that wildlife criminals do not respect international borders, which is why the UK is committed to its global leadership in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. As has been said, we started a series of groundbreaking London conferences in 2014, the first of which secured ambitious agreements from more than 40 Governments to take urgent co-ordinated action. It was hailed as a turning point in global efforts to tackle those damaging activities, in particular in generating a response from China on its role in tackling the heinous trade. In October 2018 the conference returned to London.
The United Kingdom Government are investing more than £36 million between 2014 and 2021 to take action to counter the illegal wildlife trade, including work to reduce demand, to strengthen enforcement, to ensure effective legal frameworks and to develop sustainable livelihoods. A good example of that is building on the successful ranger training deployments that we have already done in Gabon and Malawi. The UK is committing a further £900,000 of new funding to develop a British military counter-poaching taskforce. Its members will train park rangers to use more effective and safer counter-poaching techniques as they seek to disrupt such criminality.
I assure hon. Members of our expertise and of the way in which we work with other countries. For example, I have made several trips to African countries, and at the 2018 conference, with a particular focus on birds, for the first time we brought in people from the Americas. I am pleased that we will support one of those regional conferences this year, with that particular focus.
One of my hon. Friends referred to bird trapping in Cyprus. The Government take our responsibility to combat wildlife crime in Britain’s overseas territories seriously, which is why we have supported the sovereign base areas administration on the island of Cyprus in its work to counter illegal bird trapping. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence who made it a personal pledge when he visited the bases to ensure that it was happening, and the Minister for the Armed Forces.
That work is being done through a combination of enhanced police action, eradication of non-native habitats and enforcement of regulations. The SBA administration works closely with Birdlife, the RSPB and other NGOs. The administration is confident that the enhanced measures are delivering meaningful results. I therefore welcome the report released this month by the RSPB and Birdlife, which shows a continued decline in the number of birds being illegally killed on the bases.
On enforcement, it is important to remember that the enforcement of all offences, including wildlife offences, is an operational matter for the police. It is not only for individual chief constables to determine how their resources are deployed, but for locally elected police and crime commissioners to hold their forces to account and to set priorities, including on how they tackle the crimes that matter most to residents and businesses in rural and urban areas alike. However, the Government are taking steps to ensure that the enforcement of wildlife protection legislation achieves the best possible outcomes for wildlife through the expertise hosted by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the involvement of the National Police Chiefs Council.
Several people talked about notifiable offences. DEFRA has supported work led by the National Police Chiefs Council and the Home Office to explore widening the range of notifiable wildlife offences, including some of those relating to foxhunting. Other offences put forward for consideration include those relevant to raptor and badger persecution, crimes against deer, and the criminal damage of protected habitats. The benefit of an offence becoming notifiable is that there is a national standard for the recording and counting of such offences by police forces in England and Wales, and reports produced by the Home Office provide a measure of demand on the police and inform the public of the scale, scope and evidence of crime in their local communities.
The National Police Chiefs Council is now considering stakeholder feedback, and a formal submission will be made to the Home Office this spring. The decision on which, if any, offences might become notifiable does not sit with my Department, but will be taken by the Home Office. I am conscious of growing interest, as is the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is taking a particular interest in the issue, including sentencing.
In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), livestock is not wildlife so it is outside the scope of today’s debate, strictly speaking. However, I will ask my noble Friend the Minister in the other place to write to him about the questions he asked. I will ensure that that happens.
I also have an extra point to make to the hon. Member for Islwyn. I was pleased that only a couple of months ago a particularly strong sentence—more than three years—was given to someone convicted of smuggling birds’ eggs, so important changes are being made in that regard.
On sentencing, I have already tried to make the point about the maximum fine, in particular under the Hunting Act. I will work with other Ministers, and I have raised illegal wildlife trade issues before with a previous Minister for Justice. We have an opportunity, and there is interest across Government to see what more we can do, but I stress to the House that we might have to change the law specifically. There are indications about how we extend the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. I commit to work with fellow Ministers to see what we can do. It is down to the independent Sentencing Council to change any guidelines under existing law.
The Government will continue to support work to protect our wildlife from criminal activity, to deter people from breaking the law and to punish those who do. We are equally committed to leading international efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. I believe that there has been a change in behaviour, brought in by the Hunting Act. I fully recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members who do not believe that the Act goes far enough but, as I said, the Government do not intend to reopen it in this Parliament. I again thank the hon. Member for City of Chester for securing this important debate, and all those who contributed to it.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The term “wildlife crime” has been given quite a wide exposition. I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who gave us the international dimension, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who gave us the rural farming dimension. I particularly welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), from the soon-to-be city of Southend, simply on the basis that he, the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and indeed you, Mr Rosindell, were pioneers of the cause of animal rights in the Conservative party when—if Government Members will forgive me—it was not always a fashionable cause in that party. Those hon. Members led the way, and I am grateful for that.
I am most grateful to the Minister and the shadow Minister for their expositions. My only concern about much of what the Minister said is that, although we are now out of the foxhunting season this year, when it begins again next year and the foxes continue to be killed in that dreadful way, the calls for further reviews and tightening of the law will continue and grow louder. I thank all hon. Members from across the Chamber for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered wildlife crime.
Tourism: East of England
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tourism in the East of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Tourism is a vital industry, not only because it supports so many other industries but because it is an excellent source of direct investment into our economy from abroad. Naturally, the east of England is too vast a region, with too much to offer, to cover adequately in 30 minutes. That is why, perhaps unsurprisingly, I would like to focus on Colchester and explain why I believe it deserves the attention, investment, and support of Government.
Many people will have heard of Colchester borough, perhaps from having eaten some of Colchester’s fantastic local produce such as Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree, Fairfield Farm crisps and our world-famous oysters, eaten since Roman times. But how many will know about our incredible wealth of history and the tourist attractions our town and borough have to offer? How many know that we are Britain’s oldest recorded town and Britain’s first Roman city? Colchester castle is the largest Norman keep in Europe. We have the largest and longest intact Roman walls in the country, which can still be walked around today. We have the only Roman circus found in Britain. One of the world’s best-known nursery rhymes, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, was written in Colchester. We are home to the Parachute Regiment and have been a garrison town since Roman times. We have the largest Victorian water tower in Britain.
I have barely scratched the surface, as Colchester is the jewel in the crown of East Anglia, especially when it comes to heritage. Whether people are discovering our Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Norman heritage at Gosbecks archaeological park, visiting Holy Trinity church, Colchester castle or the Roman Circus Centre, living like the personal physician to Elizabeth I at Tymperleys, staring up in awe at Jumbo, our Victorian water tower, visiting our stunning town hall, having dinner at the Old Siege House and seeing the musket balls still stuck in the wooden beams from the English civil war, or taking a walk around our Roman walls, built to avoid a repeat of the revolt that saw Boudicca burn the town to the ground in AD 60-61, Colchester is a town in which history truly comes alive.
Our town has so much more to offer than just heritage. We have fabulous leisure facilities, stunning parks including Gosbecks, Castle Park, Westlands and High Woods country park, and the River Colne on our doorstep. Constable country and the Dedham vale offer beautiful landscapes. For those who want something a little less peaceful, we have Leisure World, Jump Street, numerous soft play facilities, Rollerworld—Europe’s largest roller sports facility—and a wealth of new facilities planned at the new Northern Gateway leisure development sitting alongside Colchester United and Colchester rugby club, which are both going from strength to strength.
Our cultural offering is second to none, making us the cultural capital of Essex and arguably the eastern region. The Mercury theatre is going through a multimillion pound redevelopment programme called Mercury Rising. Colchester Arts Centre, Firstsite, the Minories and the Headgate theatre all offer fantastic theatre, exhibitions and much more. Many start in Colchester and then spread out across the country and beyond.
It has never been easier to visit Colchester: it is 50 minutes from the City of London by train, 30 minutes from Harwich international port and 45 minutes from Stansted airport. It could not be easier to come and see our exciting and vibrant town with an incredible past and a bright future.
I note that the motion on the Order Paper reads:
“That this House has considered tourism in the East of England”.
I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would be willing to be consider tourism in any part of the east of England other than Colchester. Might he recommend that people stay on the train for an additional 15 minutes in order to sample the delights of Ipswich?
Although my speech is somewhat Colchester-centric, of course I would advise anybody coming to sample our heritage and tourist attractions, who choose to base themselves in Colchester for all sorts of reasons, to use it as a base to go and experience other places with considerably wealthy heritage and tourist attractions. Ipswich is one of those, just a bit further up the A12.
Stevenage is also in the east of England. It is a little further up the A1(M) and also on the east coast main line. We also have wonderful culture and heritage, despite being the first new town. Rooks Nest is the basis of E. M. Forster’s novel, “Howard’s End”. We also have Knebworth House, which has a great history. There is lots of culture around the whole of the east of England.
I used to live in my hon. Friend’s constituency, so I have sampled a number of the tourist attractions with my wife, and I hope to do so again. Knebworth House hosts a number of festivals throughout the year and is a popular attraction. Clearly, we are building on fertile ground when investing in the east of England, and Colchester in particular.
My hon. Friend is making a persuasive case for Colchester. I could do likewise for Lowestoft. Does he agree that for the east of England as a whole we should adopt a more comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach to showcasing our glories?
My hon. Friend is right; even in Colchester I do not think we are good enough at taking a holistic approach to our tourism offering. I have not spent much time in Waveney but I very much hope to. Essex and the eastern region as a whole should do far more—perhaps through local enterprise partnerships—to ensure we make an attractive proposition across the board, to spend a week in East Anglia and the east of England and sample the delights of the region.
I would appreciate if the Minister outlined how we can increase Government support for Colchester and the wider east of England. Will he agree to visit Colchester to help me to promote our town as a fantastic destination to visit and invest in? Outside this debate, I have already made efforts to encourage Government investment. I am aware that this may be a matter for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but I would like to reference briefly the stronger towns fund and future high streets programme. I have written to the Department in support of Colchester Borough Council’s recent application to the future high streets programme. I hope the council will be successful in receiving some of that £600 million fund.
We need investment to continue Colchester’s momentum—in a tourism not a political sense—in attracting tourists from across the UK and further afield. The full potential of Britain’s oldest recorded town and its first Roman city should never be squandered. Funding from the future high streets programme or similar Government funds would go a long way to double down on our existing strengths. The building blocks for truly remarkable growth in our tourism sector are there, but Government investment is needed to keep the ball rolling.
If Colchester received some of the £1.6 billion available under the stronger towns fund, specifically the £600 million to be allocated competitively, we could significantly enhance our town’s attractions, unlock its many assets and encourage further visitors to the area. I have mentioned that investment builds on fertile ground in the east of England, but investment must lead the way if tourism is to follow.
Hon. Members will be pleased to know that this is my last reference to Colchester: upgrading the A120 between Braintree and Colchester, and the A12, is key. I ask that the Department for Transport look favourably on the bid, to get people to our town and region.
Outside the Roman walls of Colchester, we have the good fortune to enjoy truly remarkable natural sites, which continue to attract visitors from across the country and overseas. More than 10,000 hectares of land in the region are administered by the National Trust, employing approximately 140 staff members who lead a network of 2,200 local volunteers, and attracting 1.5 million visitors annually. Naturally, that provides a strong foundation for a thriving hospitality sector. The east of England’s hospitality sector has a workforce of more than 246,000 people and represents 8% of overall regional employment. That adds a staggering £5.8 billion to the region’s economy. Historic England has estimated that heritage-related trips alone generated £16.9 billion across the country in 2016. The extent to which our region is already on a firm footing is clear.
The foundation and the businesses are there, the infrastructure is largely there, and the sites are there. The east of England, with Colchester leading the way, has so much to offer. We just need investment to truly unlock our potential. I repeat my invitation to the Minister to please visit Colchester, to help me to promote our historic town and the surrounding region, and to encourage Government funding to support and develop the east of England’s appeal as a tourist destination.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this important debate. It fills all our hearts—and I would like to think those of our constituents—with joy and optimism to celebrate the culture, heritage, community and, importantly, diversity we share across the east of England. My hon. Friend is my constituency neighbour and we share the borough of Colchester. It was a real joy to hear him speak about the positive aspects of tourism in Colchester borough, many of which we share, and stand up for tourism and hospitality more widely, which, as he said, have real economic benefits.
I would like briefly to make a number of key points. The hospitality sector is pivotal to the tourism ecosystem across the east of England, including in Witham, which is urban, rural and coastal. Tourism has many guises, and hospitality comes in many forms, including pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants. We should pay tribute to the people who work sometimes very long and difficult hours in pressurised circumstances in the hospitality sector. If I may say so, the hospitality sector in Essex in particular is enormous. It is based very much on seasonal work and on individuals working incredibly hard to produce great outputs and make a strong contribution to both our local economy and the national economy. That boosts tourism not only in our constituencies but in the region and the wider country.
My hon. Friend mentioned one of the finest products in the country: Wilkin & Sons Tiptree jams and conserves. That is now an international export; it is well known not only in the House of Commons but in some of the finest establishments—hotels and shops—around the world. Wilkin & Sons, which is based in the village of Tiptree in the Witham constituency and the Colchester borough, is a stunning example of a family business that has gone from success to success and expanded internationally. It contributes to many aspects of tourism; it has tea shops and farms, and it is a magnet for tourists. At the same time, it employs people in the local community and sells the great Tiptree brand internationally, boosting our standing in the world and generating tourism to the region and our country. Of course, there are many other attractions in the area, including the Museum of Power in Langford in my constituency, and Tollesbury on the coast, which are all known for the great contribution they make to the tourism sector.
Let me make two final points. I mentioned employment and seasonal work, which are pivotal to ensuring that constituencies such as mine have a thriving tourism economy. At the same time, the hospitality sector needs a flexible labour market and flexibility about how it recruits and trains workers—migrant workers in particular. The Government are testing a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which will absolutely affect the east of England and we hope will have a positive impact on tourism, hospitality and the agriculture economy—that attracts tourism, too—in the region.
Finally, there have been many debates in Westminster Hall about infrastructure in the eastern region and in Essex. My hon. Friend rightly pivoted to the A12, the A120 and the rest of our road network. If our economy is to grow and the tourism sector is to be successful, we need much more investment in infrastructure. The Government need to lean in and influence local authorities in particular to stick to their pledges to support investment in the expansion of the A12, followed by the A120, which the Government have indicated their backing for in the past, to ensure that tourism continues to thrive and grow.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; I will be very brief. I was first elected to the House to represent a part of Colchester, so I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) in promoting its many attractions, which I can vouch for.
I now represent the Maldon district. We are all part of the east of England, which does not always get the attention it deserves—people talk about the Lake district and the west country—but has many attractions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned some of the attractions in her constituency—indeed, I used to represent some of those as well. We share what is known as the saltmarsh coast, which is an extraordinary asset for recreation, wildlife and sailing.
The other great asset I represent is a place that should be nationally famous but is not: the Stow Maries great war aerodrome, the last remaining first world war aerodrome. It is being restored, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it does not attract nearly as many visitors as it should because it is not well enough known.
In Maldon and elsewhere we recognise that digital marketing is key—perhaps the Minister will touch on that—and that people now look online to see where there are attractions, but there is not enough co-ordination. The Maldon district promotes things in the Maldon district, and Colchester borough promotes things in Colchester, but there needs to be more co-ordination so that we can demonstrate all the region’s attractions to people who are thinking of visiting the east of England. I am thinking not just of Essex; I am very happy for the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) to participate as well to promote Suffolk. We sit on this great asset, and I do not believe we are yet doing enough to exploit it.
It is great to participate in this debate about Colchester and other small villages around eastern area principalities. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) was rightly dominated by events in Colchester. I spent three years in Colchester, but he has told me things about it that I did not pick up in that time. I look forward to receiving an invitation to the oyster festival, which I missed while I was there. Also, as an advocate for Tiptree jam—I think Tiptree is just outside his constituency—I feel another visit in support of a colleague coming on.
Southend, which I represent alongside Rochford, is built on tourism. It receives 7.5 million visitors each year, up by half a million since 2016, when statistics were previously produced. Tourists generate £335 million in revenue for the town, up by £22 million since 2016. The local authority tells me, very specifically, that there are 9,586 jobs as a result of tourism, which is up by 607 since 2016. More than £50 million is generated by overnight accommodation, up by £2 million since 2016. Tourism is a very big part of our economy, and it has built up over time.
I recommend that all hon. Members come to Southend. We have Adventure Island, the seafront and London Southend international airport. Southend is a great place for people to base themselves if they want to be outside central London but just 50 minutes by train to Tower Hill. We have three casinos, a number of good golf courses, kitesurfing, sailing, Southend United and nightclubs. We have prestige boutique hotels, but also guesthouses and big-ticket hotels such as Plaza, Holiday Inn and Premier Inn.
I would like to draw one of those hotels to your attention, Mr Hollobone. I am pretty sure you would be welcome at any time at the establishment of Garry Lowen, who runs Gleneagles Guesthouse. I was with him celebrating National Bed and Breakfast Week over the weekend. Fortuitously, I got two press releases out of that constituency visit, because he is our candidate in the local government elections tomorrow. If colleagues want to pop down tomorrow, they could sample the best of Southend, see the tourism and how it fits into the eastern region, and also campaign for Garry in the election.
Mention was made of social media, which is incredibly important. Southend has concentrated heavily on visitsouthend.co.uk, and in just a year it has moved from 120th to 25th in the English tourism social media index. That has really driven its promotion of what it has to offer.
All that remains is for me formally to invite everyone to Southend. Mr Hollobone gets a free stay at Gleneagles Guesthouse; I am afraid lesser mortals only get free Rossi’s ice cream, but everyone is very welcome.
It is a pleasure to be the Minister responding to this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for raising the subject and commend him for the passion with which he spoke. In fact, all Members were walking advertisements for their constituencies, and rightly so. My hon. Friend mentioned “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” and the Parachute Regiment—that must be the only time those two have been in the same sentence. He also talked about Colchester jams, preserves, crisps and oysters. I hope that he will be sent some samples and, if so, no doubt he will share them.
My hon. Friend touched on the importance of tourism generally. Colchester is known to be the first Roman-founded city in Britain and, as such, the current settlement can lay claim to being Britain’s oldest town. That is some accolade. As a result, it is part of the “most ancient European towns network”, among such illustrious locales as Argos in Greece, Cadiz in Spain and Cork in Ireland. The network’s members seek to work together on issues such as tourism, city planning with heritage taken into consideration, and archaeological research.
Colchester is easy to get to. I say that without undertaking to go there myself immediately, but I am keen to go and I will do my very best—I hope to go there this year. It is a short distance from London by train or car, and London Stansted airport and the ferry port of Harwich are also in close proximity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) spoke about the world war one aerodrome. I am not sure whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport budget will allow me to fly to his constituency—if it did, it would probably be in a world war one biplane. It is an attractive location that I have read about, and a lot of aviation enthusiasts would definitely be interested in visiting it. I hope more people will hear about it after today’s debate.
At London Southend airport there are a number of private helicopters that can be hired. Could I arrange for one to pick the Minister up at the London Heliport and take him to London Southend airport, so he can go to the aerodrome and maybe tour the whole area, going as far as Ipswich or somewhere even more exotic?
My hon. Friend is very generous to offer to pay for that journey, but I could not possibly intrude in that way. We will see if we can get there by more conventional means.
There is an impressive selection of attractions in the area, including Gosbecks Archaeological Park and Colchester Zoo. The Government have provided support to lesser known attractions in Colchester. Over £5,800,000 went to projects through the Heritage Lottery Fund, including contributions to the redevelopment of Colchester castle, the restoration of the Moot Hall pipe organ and the Transforming People to Transform Museums project, which aims to develop local skills. That represents nearly £6 million of Government investment in tourism attractions in Colchester. That is not to say that there is not more that we can do, because of course there always is.
Tourism is a crucial part of our economy, and I am pleased to say that it is thriving in the UK: 2017 brought record numbers of international visitors and was our best year ever recorded. The visitors spent record amounts of money across our great nation. Tourism is an important part of our economy; it provides jobs in the most rural of areas, brings wealth and prosperity to our coasts and cities, and is a much loved activity that enriches all parts. There is more that we can do. The upcoming future high streets fund, which colleagues touched on, and the recently announced stronger towns fund will contribute towards developing our more rural and coastal visitor economies in the years to come.
Tourism is good for us as a people and as a nation; we are on the world stage, being open and inviting to visitors. It is often said—and recently oft repeated—that this country remains open for business. I have been repeating the line that we are also open for leisure. We want people to visit this country for its wonderful leisure options and attractions, including our heritage and cultural offers, which are second to none. That is a reason that as a nation we punch above our weight in many spheres, including in soft power, where we are No. 1 in the world on the Portland analysis of soft power. We gain much by visiting other places and becoming more rounded, understanding individuals. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we will continue to be an open and welcoming nation.
To that end, I commend VisitBritain to all my hon. Friends who mentioned their constituencies today. That organisation does a tremendous job promoting the United Kingdom to the world, using images from across the country to demonstrate the wonders we have to offer potential visitors. I also commend the Discover England fund. The east of England has benefited from a good deal of Government funding, focused on the development and promotion of tourism across the area.
As this debate is specifically about the east of England, I mention several projects that have enhanced the tourism offer there. The Passport to the Coast project seeks to encourage visitors to build their own itinerary and experience the coastline from Hull to Harwich in all its glory. The Friendly Invasion project aims to attract visitors from the United States to explore the many American air force bases in East Anglia, where approximately 180,000 US airmen were stationed during world war two. The east of England touring route will take visitors from London to Northumberland, over the length of the east of England. Those visitors can develop their own individual itineraries for their journey. These are among the options that VisitBritain has, and I recommend that hon. Members look at the Discover England fund projects, which are designed to get visitors out of London and heading to all parts of the country.
The cultural development fund is another way in which the Government have been supporting our cultural offer. We recently announced £4.3 million funding for the Thames estuary production corridor. That project will make the area a world leader in the cultural and creative industries, by investing in apprenticeships for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, creating new jobs and workspaces in the area, and delivering Estuary 2020, an international arts festival that will draw audiences from across the world. The fund is part of the Government’s creative industries sector deal, which sees Government and industry working together to invest in the future of the sector and, more widely, the future of these locations.
Staying with the arts, there is a lot of support for the arts scene in the east of England. Arts Council England has provided £300,000 to local organisations working collaboratively in the promotion of cultural tourism, with the aim of increasing cultural tourism in Suffolk and Norfolk. The Making Waves project received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to encourage collaborative working between the arts, culture and tourism sectors, and to encourage a greater contribution to local social and economic strategies. The ultimate goal is to make places in the east of England, such as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, even better places to live, work and visit, by supporting the creation of local cultural strategies, increasing cultural education for children and young people, and using heritage and the arts to drive economic growth. Heritage and the arts certainly do that, and all Members can benefit from that.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legal duties on the Secretary of State to reduce health inequalities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I am delighted to have secured this debate and to raise this important issue.
In 2016, the Health Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), led a thoughtful and important debate on this issue, noting that in the Prime Minister’s first speech in No. 10 Downing Street she had put reducing health inequalities at the top of her list of priorities. But July 2016 is now a very long time ago, and since that date we have heard a great deal less about that injustice. During that time, inequality of health outcomes between those in affluent areas and those in areas of deprivation has persisted.
That injustice has been obscured by improvements in overall health outcomes—and, of course, by all the other business that has been going on in this place and distracting us from the reasons that so many of us came to Parliament. As the Government unveil the NHS 10-year plan, it is right that we make a conscious effort to revisit the question of health inequalities. I want to do so in particular because I can see unequal health spending by local clinical commissioners in my area. While decision-makers may pay lip service to tackling health inequalities, it is not the driver that it is meant to be under the law.
Of course, the primary causes of health inequalities are complex and varied, from unemployment to poor housing. While no one would suggest that healthcare spending is the answer, we must ensure that all healthcare decision-makers understand their duties and the importance of their obligation to provide access for, and direct spending toward, those most in need. Healthcare spending is the one part of the mix that Government can control, and it is right to expect healthcare spending to be focused on tackling both unequal health outcomes and unequal access to healthcare.
The allocation of funding to local commissioners, which the Minister will probably touch on, rightly includes an adjustment for health inequalities based on the mortality rate. An area with a higher mortality rate, such as my borough of Telford and Wrekin, will get more funding per head than an area with a lower mortality rate, such as neighbouring Shropshire, but that is not the end of the matter, particularly when it comes to major hospital reconfigurations, which are happening in so many places across the country.
While funding may be allocated to separate clinical commissioning groups on the basis of need, when it comes to a major reconfiguration, CCGs will group together to form a joint CCG, bringing widely disparate areas under their umbrella. The funding and resource decisions are then made by the joint CCG, without considering health inequalities between those disparate areas. That is exactly what is happening in my area.
Telford is a post-war new town, created on the east Shropshire coalfield, and it has areas that are among the most deprived in the country. It has, by every measure, significantly worse health outcomes than Shropshire, a county that has better health outcomes than the national average, and significantly better outcomes than Telford, by almost every indicator.
We are experiencing just such a hospital reconfiguration. Telford and Shropshire have combined, and funding for hospital care is allocated to the area as a whole. What we have seen is a joint CCG, representing those disparate areas, deciding to direct the bulk of its funding to the more affluent area, and to move existing resources there from an area of deprivation. That is a clear failure of the duty to narrow health inequalities.
The national health service database has the figures there for all to see. When it comes to health outcomes, Telford and Shropshire are at different ends of the spectrum. For someone living in Telford, the premature mortality rate is 25% higher than for a person living in Shropshire. Children in Telford are far more likely to suffer from obesity or to be hospitalised for dental decay. Tragically, rates of suicide and cancer in Telford are significantly higher than in Shropshire. Smoking rates, inactivity in adults and other such indicators show the very same disparity. The truth is that a shire town in rural England is healthier than a new town built in a former mining area on the east Shropshire coalfield, and NHS spending allocations are required to recognise that greater need. It is that simple—yet in practice, that is not what is happening.
The Health and Social Care Act 2012 makes it clear that there is a requirement to move towards greater investment where levels of deprivation are higher. Under the Act, that is a legal duty on the Secretary of State, NHS England and CCGs. The guidance makes it clear that inequalities
“must be properly and seriously taken into account when making decisions”.
As a former non-executive director of an NHS trust, I know that the NHS constitution requires the NHS to pay attention to sections of society where improvement in health and life expectancy do not keep pace with that in the rest of the population.
It is not enough for the Government or NHS England to hand over the cash to a joint CCG and then say, “Job done,” as far the health inequality duty is concerned. CCGs also have a duty to narrow health inequalities and, if they are not complying—as in my area they are not—I ask the Minister how we can hold them to account. What steps can be taken to enforce that requirement?
This is happening not only in Telford. Across the country, from Lewisham to Huddersfield, the NHS is carrying out controversial restructurings of hospital care similar to the one in Telford, where funding and resources are being targeted toward a single area. If what is happening in Telford is happening elsewhere, decision-makers are ignoring their duties to address inequalities—or maybe they are merely paying lip service to them. It is all very well to commit to narrowing health inequalities, but that commitment is manifested only on a spreadsheet when we do our allocations to CCGs; it is not happening in practice when it comes to spending that allocation of funding.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. In my area, East and North Hertfordshire CCG is being forced to merge its management and executive teams, but so that it does not have to consult with local people, it is going to keep three separate boards. As a result, we are concerned about how decisions will be taken going forward and, although the spending will be going to the three separate CCGs on paper, in reality one committee will be making those decisions and getting the boards to ratify them. The concerns she is raising in her area are repeated around the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I am aware of the position he sets out. He is absolutely right; these problems are happening elsewhere with the combination of CCGs coming together and not being able to meet the needs of the individual areas that are receiving the funding.
In Telford, the local hospital trust serving both Telford and Shropshire announced in January, after five years of bizarrely convoluted and contorted deliberation, that it was pleased to announce its investment of a total pot of £312 million in a state-of-the-art critical care unit in the leafy, affluent shire town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, 19 miles from Telford. In addition, the trust announced that it was pleased to say it would transfer Telford’s women and children’s unit and emergency care from Telford to Shropshire.
I have repeatedly asked the revolving door of hospital management over the past five years to explain how that proposal narrows health inequalities, how that decision improves the health outcomes of the most disadvantaged groups in the area they serve and how it improves health access for the most disadvantaged group if it is moving their provision 19 miles from its current location.
The response to my questions over a significant period has been to take no notice whatever. As an MP I have found, and I know from talking to them that many colleagues have also found, that local hospital trusts and CCGs feel no obligation whatever to respond to or even take notice of elected representatives. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) noted in this place just last week, in an excellent debate on his local trust, that he had “absolutely no influence” on any decisions made by the CCG in his area.
As the Shrewsbury and Telford trust felt no obligation to respond to questions on this incredibly important issue, I asked the then Secretary of State if he could seek a response on my behalf. However, even that did not bring so much as an acknowledgement that reducing health inequalities is an important issue for the hospital trust or the CCG when making spending decisions.
The trust seems to feel entirely unaccountable to anyone. The Department of Health and Social Care says that it is accountable to NHS England, and NHS England says that the trust board is accountable to the trust chairman. In reality, there is no accountability. This subject has been raised with me over and over again by local residents who strongly oppose this reallocation of funding from a disadvantaged area to a more advantaged area.
My hon. Friend will be aware that there are health and wellbeing boards at play in local authorities. How effective has her local health and wellbeing board been at holding the CCG and other parts of the NHS to account, not only for their spending decisions but for how those decisions impact on frontline patient care?
I thank my hon. Friend for sharing his expertise in this area. My local council and health and wellbeing board have equally not been listened to on this issue. It is a Labour council, but it has tried extremely hard; if there was an opportunity to suggest otherwise, I would perhaps take it, but that is not the case. Both tried hard and have not been listened to. Most frustrating has been that the voice of local people has not been heard. Who do we expect to enforce this statutory duty? We cannot expect constituents to crowdfund a legal process because we want to hold CCGs to account.
Does the hon. Lady share my concerns on integrated care providers? Those should be statutory bodies and not in any way open to being private companies, which can hide behind commercial sensitivity, for exactly the reasons she says.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. There was an interesting debate on that issue on Monday night in the Chamber. This is an important issue, and I have a lot of sympathy with what she says.
On the injustice of unequal health outcomes, I said at the outset that that is of course not about spending more, and that poor health is not only about healthcare but is a much wider issue. However, if the NHS overlooks its statutory, constitutional and moral duty to properly consider health inequalities when making major spending decisions, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to act; he cannot just sit on his hands and say it is down to local clinicians. That response is all the more frustrating in my case because all six voting members of the Telford CCG voted against the transfer of resource from an area of deprivation and to an area of relative affluence, whereas all six voting members of the CCG in the more affluent Shrewsbury naturally voted for the funding resource to be transferred to their area.
In our case, Telford CCG was made to vote again until it came up with the right answer and allowed that transfer of funding. [Interruption.] That is very topical, yes. This whole issue reminds me exactly of Brexit. I wish I had not come on to that point; this should be a Brexit-free zone, for a change, so that we can all maintain our sanity. However, it is similar in the way that those in power have not been listening to the people. It is extremely important to note that, if we give that sort of funding to relatively affluent areas and take resource away from the most disadvantaged, we are doing something wrong. No Government could think that that was a good idea. I am grateful to the new Health Secretary, who came to Telford to visit our Princess Royal Hospital earlier this month and took the time to see for himself the fantastic work being done in the very areas that the management is seeking to close and to transfer 19 miles away to Shrewsbury hospital.
I would like to get something else off my chest, to further illustrate the problem of unequal health spending. Six months ago the Government gave the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust £3 million for winter pressures. The trust decided to spend all of it in Shrewsbury—all of it—despite there being no evidence that the decision reduced health inequalities between the areas that it serves and not even an indication that it had considered health inequalities when making that decision.
No Government could possibly condone transferring resources from an area of need to an area of greater affluence and better health outcomes. The Government have a legal responsibility to ensure that that does not happen. Everyone in this room will agree that NHS funding decisions must focus on the areas of greatest need, and where that is not happening, we cannot ignore it. The trust has been able to forge ahead with a plan that has never made sense to local people, that was roundly opposed by a consultation that took place, bizarrely, two years after the original decision was made, and despite MPs and councillors vocally pointing out the plan’s shortcomings and its failure to address health inequalities. The hospital trust and CCGs carried on regardless. It cannot be down to local people to enforce the Act. I can only conclude that decision-makers perhaps do not understand their duty to narrow health inequalities or—of more concern—that they do not understand the extent of the need, disadvantage and health inequality in the area they serve.
The flat-out refusal to even discuss the reconfiguration’s impact on health benefits and outcomes for the most disadvantaged has been extraordinary. I have written letter after letter for a considerably longer period than the consultation lasted and I have not received any answers. My trust treats the issue as if it was entirely irrelevant to its reconfiguration plan. If it is not able to show how its plans narrow health inequalities, it must think again.
I know that once the Secretary of State receives the relevant documentation from my local council, he will carefully consider whether to call in the Telford proposal for review by an independent reconfiguration panel. For that, I am most grateful. I hope the panel will look closely at the failure to address need and disadvantage and, on those grounds alone—there are many others—throw out the scheme. If the Government are committed to reducing health inequalities and not only focusing on better health for all, they need more than just warm words. I ask the Minister to remind hospital trusts and commissioners generally, and the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust and its commissioners specifically, to give due regard to their duty to demonstrate how their spending decisions narrow health inequalities.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to keep focusing on this issue. It is so easy to lose sight of the reason we all came to this place, and it is too easy for the Department or the Minister to believe that health spending is allocated and targeted towards need, and that we do not have to look beyond the spreadsheet. We have to ensure that it is happening in practice on the ground. We cannot simply say that we have done our bit and that there is no need to look any further. Health inequalities are a shameful injustice of unequal lives and unequal life chances. I know that the Secretary State wants to ensure that no NHS decision-maker allocates funding in a way that exacerbates this injustice, whether in Telford or any other area.