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Westminster Hall

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 April 2019

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Votes at 16

I beg to move,

That this House has considered votes at 16.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. In November 2017, I brought this subject forward in a private Member’s Bill, which sought not only to modernise the age at which people can vote, but to reform political education in schools and much more. After many years of debate and campaigning to extend the franchise, the time has now come to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

I feel a great deal of pressure, not because of the grandeur of this place, but because of the young people from my town who inspired me to present my private Member’s Bill and to continue the debate after that, because they believe so passionately in this issue. When I presented my private Member’s Bill, I had the pleasure of having members of the Oldham youth council in the Public Gallery. They were disappointed that the Bill did not proceed, but I am continually inspired by their faith, spirit and continued vigour as they seek to achieve their aim of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Across all age groups, people in Oldham generally say, “I didn’t know what I was about when I was 16 and 17, so why should we extend the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds today?” It strikes me that we are setting the bar much higher for 16 and 17-year-olds than for over-18s when it comes to taking part in our democratic exercise. If we wanted to be completely flippant about it, we could say that the only test at the moment when it comes to our franchise is whether someone believes what is plastered on the side of a bus. The truth is that there is no real age test when it comes to participation in our democratic and civic institutions. It should be about spirit, commitment and making the effort to be an active citizen taking part in our democracy.

I am always impressed at the quality and tone of the debate in my local youth council and the Youth Parliament. I am also impressed at how much research goes into everyday issues that we might take for granted. These young people are thinking about their lives and what the future brings, so certain issues mean much more to them.

Extending the franchise is not about left or right. Some Conservatives are concerned that a lot of 16 and 17-year-olds will be more left-leaning, and they think, “They’re not going to vote for us, so why on earth should we prioritise giving them the franchise, when it could be to our detriment at the ballot box?” I do not believe that that is a robust argument, but it has been used.

When I go to my sixth-form college, Oldham College or my local youth council, there is a genuine range of views across the spectrum of political opinion. It is not the case that all young people are Labour left voters; there is a richness of debate and challenge when they take part in political exchanges. I genuinely say to our Conservative friends that there is nothing to fear. However, we all need to make an effort to reach out and to convince young people that we are worthy of their vote. That is healthy for democracy.

The fact is that our democracy and our franchise have always evolved. Some 200 years ago, men and women marched from my town to Peterloo in Manchester, demanding the right to vote—no taxation without representation—and for us all to be treated equally. A number of those people did not return home: five people from my town were killed at Peterloo demanding the right to vote. Last year we reflected on 100 years of women’s suffrage. In my town, we fought for two years to raise funds for a statue of our heroine, Annie Kenney, not only to remember her contribution, but to remind us that what we too often take for granted today was hard fought for by generations that went before us.

We are not just the beneficiaries but the custodians of those rights—they are fragile, important and precious, and we should value them. However, they come with a responsibility to take on reforms in our generation too. Extending the franchise to be more inclusive is the democratic challenge of our generation, and it is one we should take up. Let us bear in mind that less than 50 years ago, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were denied the right to vote. Our democracy and our franchise have always been evolving, and we have sought to expand them, rather than to narrow them down, and to include and engage people.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point about extending the franchise and about democracy being a progressive, ongoing process. On that basis, would he rule out extending the franchise to 13-year-olds? What is it about 16 that means it should be the limit? Why not go lower still?

That is a fair challenge. At what point do we draw the line? I would say it is at the point at which young people take an active interest in politics, which is generally when they go to sixth form or college or they begin their life as an apprentice in the world of work. That is also the point at which they begin to pay national insurance, and there is that fundamental point about those who pay direct taxation wanting to have a say in how the Government spend that taxation on their behalf. No taxation without representation—that matters as much for 16-year-olds as for 18-year-olds.

In truth, this is not about 16 and 17-year-olds at all. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if we gave people the right to vote on their 16th birthday, it would be another five years until they could vote in a general election. It does not mean that, at the point at which they turn 16, they will elect a Government; it is the point at which they become part of the franchise, taking part in local, mayoral and devolved elections.

In terms of devolved institutions, the Welsh Government are currently consulting on extending the franchise to 16-year-olds in local government elections and the next National Assembly for Wales election. That is being done collectively, across all parties in the Assembly. It is interesting to see the different approach taken by Government Ministers here, compared with the cross-party approach taken in the Assembly. However, does my hon. Friend agree that we must have a franchise across the whole United Kingdom that goes right across the age range, starting at 16? As he pointed out, paying national insurance is quite significant, and people should have a say from the time at which they are required to pay tax.

That is a fair point, and I will come on to how diverse the franchise is becoming across the UK.

How many of us, as parliamentarians, receive emails about local council issues, such as street lights not working, potholes and bins not being collected? That shows a basic lack of understanding on the part of people who are currently part of the franchise about where power and responsibility sit. In some cases, they do not know what the council or the Government are responsible for.

Many people also do not understand the role of the judiciary in our politics and democracy. That is why some newspapers can put pictures of three judges on their front pages, calling them “Enemies of the people”, and the general public swallow it. People do not necessarily understand the important role the judiciary plays in terms of checks and balances in our democracy.

A key component of my private Member’s Bill—it was not just about extending the franchise—was about providing democratic and civic education in schools so that every person who has gone through our school system on their route to becoming an adult is fully equipped to hold us all to account. If they do not know who is responsible for what, they do not know who to hold to account. It is easy for politicians, in whatever tier of government, to pass the buck and not take responsibility. That basic education was an important component of my Bill.

Throughout the campaign, we have heard many of the same arguments that prevented the vote from being given to women, the working classes and 18-year-olds in the past. “How on earth will they know what they are voting for?” “Surely if we extend the franchise to women, it will bring down democracy.” There is a common thread between the arguments that were used in times gone by and those used today to deny 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

Is the problem not the inconsistency of that argument? In respect of the 2016 referendum, Brexiteers, who are, by and large, in favour of keeping the franchise as it is, often say, “Oh, people knew what they were voting for.”

There are lots of inconsistencies in the arguments that took place during the Brexit referendum and that continue to take place. In the political debates we have in schools and colleges with 16 and 17-year-olds, there is a richness—they explore ideas. We all hold street stalls and sessions where we engage with members of the public, and I would say that that education and willingness to reach out should not be restricted when it comes to 16 and 17-year-olds. If politics is to be renewed—we are in quite a depressing state when it comes to trust and faith in our democracy—that will require a different approach.

There are two very different approaches in this place. On the one hand, there is the sense that, if we restrict the franchise to the fewest possible people, it will be purer. We see that in individual voter registration, in the need to produce ID at polling stations and in several other cases. On the other hand, there is a contradiction, because a couple of weeks ago we considered the Overseas Electors Bill, which seeks to give indefinite voting rights to people who do not live in this country but who live abroad as British citizens. There is an inconsistency in how we apply these things.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. On the issue of women being given the right to vote, the first woman to take her seat in Parliament was elected in 1919. She represented Plymouth, Sutton, which is the same seat that I represent. In many cases, the same arguments were used against her standing for Parliament as are used against the fantastic young people who protested outside my office during the climate strike. Does he agree that these young people are passionate and determined and want to take part because they realise that the changes that take place here and in local councils affect them?

I absolutely agree. The world of information and knowledge-sharing has changed so much in the time I have been involved in local and national politics. Social media, and the self-organisation that takes place across social networks, are huge, and they connect people across the world, so issues and protests that take place on the other side of the world can be relevant and spark activity here too. I am not sure that our politics has got its head around what that means for our democracy, politics and activism or how we might respond to that. The general sense is that we should expand the franchise, rather than narrowing it down to its purest possible sense, which is what the Government will say they believe in. I believe that our democracy is enriched by having the most participation possible.

In many local elections, only one third of the voting public turn out. If we consider the numbers, not just by ward, but by polling district, in some cases the turnout is 10%. Whole communities are self-selecting to be disconnected from our political process, but that is not their fault—it is ours. We have collectively turned our backs on communities that have chosen not to vote, because we narrow down the type of people we speak to, canvass and reach out to. The debate is about not just extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, but renewing our democracy more broadly.

The evidence is there. In Scotland, 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds turned out to vote in the 2014 independence referendum. Such was the passion of young people during that campaign that the leader of the Scottish Conservative party professed to being a

“fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”.

So this is not a partisan issue. When people take the time to search out and understand the evidence of what is taking place in the UK, it is compelling.

In Wales, young people are due to be given the right to vote too, so if we fail to modernise, young adults in England and Northern Ireland will be denied that which their Scottish and Welsh neighbours have by right. For our United Kingdom to be truly united—by common rights and responsibilities, and with people having an equal voice in our democracy—we must have democratic equality.

Educating and empowering people will have positive and long-lasting results, and will equip future generations with a refined understanding of our politics, our Parliament, the judiciary and how our country is governed. That knowledge will be carried through a person’s life and across generations, and the habit of voting, too, will be instilled at a young age. Extending the franchise will help to increase voter turnout by inspiring young people to participate in political life from an early age.

The Labour party is fully committed to making votes at 16 a reality for 1.5 million young people in our country. It has been included in our three previous manifestos, and there is a real determination to make it happen. Support in Parliament does not stop there, however, because hon. Members from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green party are also fully behind votes at 16, as are many Conservative Members. It is a genuinely cross-party issue; we just need the time to make it a reality and bring people together.

I strongly believe that defending and extending the franchise go hand in hand, so now is the time to stop talking about giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote and to provide time in Parliament for a full debate to make it a reality. If we believe in a United Kingdom, we have to have a united say and a united stake in our democracy. Let us give young people in England and Northern Ireland the same powers, rights and responsibilities that young people in Scotland have, and those in Wales will soon have, and genuinely bring our country together.

Order. In view of the number of hon. Members who want to take part, I will impose an informal time limit of five minutes. If hon. Members stick to that, we should be able to get everybody in.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I commend the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing the debate and for all his work to promote votes for 16 and 17-year-olds.

I come to the debate as a convert. In my past life as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I voted against lowering the voting age in Scotland, along with my Scottish Conservative colleagues. We objected not because we opposed a discussion about extending the franchise, but because we did not support singling out the Scottish independence referendum for the trial.

Time has moved on, however, and 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the independence referendum, the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and our local council elections—indeed, some in the Scottish borders even managed to vote for me. In the last few years, I have spoken to many young voters in the borders at school debates, at hustings, on the doorsteps and on polling day. I have been hugely impressed by their political engagement and understanding. It is clear that they take the responsibility seriously.

There are perfectly valid reasons for keeping the voting age at 18, as there are for lowering it to 16, but many of those arguments miss the point. In this country, there is no single age at which all responsibilities and liabilities are imposed; where we draw the line is largely arbitrary. At 18, we can vote, but we cannot adopt a child or supervise a learner driver.

The argument is not about when we become adults—there is no fixed age at which that happens, and of course, not all 16 and 17-year-olds are equal—but I find it convincing that when the voting age has been reduced, the turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds has been comparable to the electorate at large, and higher than that of 18 to 20-year-olds. If lowering the voting age helps to encourage voter participation in our democracy, that alone is a compelling reason to consider it.

The reality is that 16-year-olds can already vote in Scotland and will soon be able to vote in Wales. Like it or not, the decision has been made in other parts of the United Kingdom and now we have an uneven system across the United Kingdom, which is not satisfactory. I accept the UK Government’s position that the voting age should stay the same; that is a perfectly coherent position to take, even though on balance I think it is the wrong decision.

I understand that some colleagues from both sides of the House are looking at this issue from a purely party political angle. Most people—wrongly, I believe—think that young people are more likely to vote for Labour or, indeed, the Scottish National party in Scotland. I would say that, first, if lowering the voting age is the right thing to do, party politics should not come into it. Equally, I point out to my Conservative colleagues that it was the accepted wisdom that 16 and 17-year-olds would overwhelmingly support Scottish independence in 2014, but that was not the case.

In my view, the Conservative party should lead on this issue. We are the party of personal responsibility, and what better way for someone to demonstrate their personal responsibility than by making their mark on the ballot paper? Extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds would make a significant difference to these young voters; it might even convince them to vote Conservative as they grow older.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to point out that I believe that the other parties are being slightly hypocritical about this issue. Labour made it illegal for 16-year-olds to buy a cigarette when it was last in power and, similarly, the SNP wants the age at which someone can buy a cigarette to be raised to 21 in Scotland. Indeed, the SNP Scottish Government are trying to appoint a state-sponsored guardian for all children up to the age of 18. The message from those parties is, “We trust you enough to vote but we don’t trust you enough to make decisions about your health.”

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. This issue is not about risk; it is about personal responsibility and about when people are able to make decisions about whether to vote or how to vote, or decisions about their health. It is about being consistent. How on the one hand can we say, “You have the responsibility and are able to vote,” and on the other hand say that we want to take away young people’s ability to make choices about whether or not they buy a cigarette?

This is an issue that I believe the Conservative Government should take the lead on and I will continue my campaign to persuade them to change their policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on securing this debate and on piloting his private Member’s Bill. It demonstrates how ridiculous the processes in this House are that although, in my view, there is clearly a majority for votes at 16, because of the arcane private Member’s Bill system the hon. Gentleman’s Bill will not pass.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who made a very thoughtful speech up to a point, and then, as is typical of the Scottish Tories, there was the bingo tick box where he bashed the Scottish National party. In many respects, I think that the road to Damascus has been walked by people such as the hon. Gentleman, and although it is tempting for someone whose party has supported lowering the voting age since the 1960s to take the high ground on these matters, it is important that we build a coalition around this issue. I genuinely welcome the tone that he adopted in making sure that there are Conservative voices in this place arguing for votes at 16.

The reality of the parliamentary arithmetic is that if someone put a proposition to the House on legislation for votes at 16, it would pass, so it is very much the case that votes at 16 are coming, which is a good thing.

The issue of votes at 16 is pretty much the first thing that I ever spoke about politically. When a young person speaks at a party conference, they always want to avoid looking like William Hague, but I remember back in 2006—I think it was in Aviemore—that I was a very young delegate to the SNP conference. I spoke about the importance of votes at 16 and I did not do so from an ideological point of view. I did so because I left school at 16 and, as some weird child who had been out campaigning in elections since I was 11 years old, I always found it very difficult on polling day, particularly after I had left school. The night before polling day—I was working at Glasgow Credit Union at the time—I was sitting on the subway, having just been given my pay slip, and I looked at the part about net pay and tax paid, and I thought, “I’m heading out tonight to deliver poll leaflets for an election and I will spend all of tomorrow out campaigning, but I have paid tax to a Government that I can’t actually vote for.”

That is the ridiculous situation we are in: we ask young people to pay tax to a Government who spend it on the health service or going to war, but they do not have the ability to influence that Government. That is where there is an inconsistency.

I will just take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Scottish Youth Parliament, which has done a sterling amount of work in Scotland to campaign for votes at 16. In particular, I commend the four new members of the Scottish Youth Parliament who were elected to my seat: Lewis O’Neill, Stacey McFadyen, Jason Black and Mashaim Bukhari. Those young people will all try to take forward their views and represent our community. However, in many respects those young people will be limited to doing so in the Scottish Youth Parliament and for some of them that will be as far as they are able to interact with democracy, at least in terms of the Westminster Parliament. That is because, as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk outlined, we have an inconsistency in Scotland, whereby young people can vote at 16 in elections to community councils, the Crofting Commission, health boards, local government and the Scottish Parliament, but then it stops, because they cannot take part in a Westminster election.

Quite often, I am faced with a situation where I go to schools—I do a huge number of school visits—with local councillors or the local Member of the Scottish Parliament, and the kids who we speak to at a high school will be able to question me, Ivan McKee or Annette Christie, and they can vote for Ivan or Annette, but they will not be able to vote on whether or not I am their elected Member of Parliament. There is an inconsistency there and, as is natural with matters relating to devolved competences and reserved competences, my view is that if Westminster will not do something, it should devolve the matter and we will do it in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke about the need for consistency on this issue. I just think that allowing voting at 16 is the right thing to do. Of all the things that I have encountered in my time in politics, it is the one thing that I just cannot get my head around. Why in 2019 are we still debating this issue and having ridiculous interventions, like the one we had earlier on about 13-year-olds? This is a matter of principle and it is up to this Parliament to set things right.

Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth. It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). If I may say so at the outset, what a pleasure it is to hear this matter being debated in a responsible and uplifting atmosphere, because there will be young people watching this debate and those are the sorts of qualities that have been in short supply recently.

However, I am afraid that I take a different view on this issue to other hon. Members and I will explain why. One of the points made by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) that resonated me was that democracy is enriched by having the widest participation possible. That sounds unanswerable, but it begs a question: what is the widest participation possible? Should 13-year-olds be allowed to participate? I have met some 13-year-olds who speak with great authority on political issues. However, the fact is that we in this House have to make a decision about what the cut-off point for such participation should be.

What should be the underlying principles for that decision? The first principle that we have to grapple with is whether we take the view that it is only adults who should be able to vote, or whether we say that people who are not yet at the age of majority should be able to vote. I take as a starting point the UN convention on the rights of the child, which is absolutely clear. It says that young people have the right to be treated as children, and by the way that means that they should be afforded the rights they should enjoy as children up to the age of 18. That manifests itself in issues such as service on the frontline, and so on and so forth.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; let me just develop the point a fraction.

That acknowledgement of the age of majority at 18 is, in fact, reflected across the overwhelming majority of countries that are signatories to the United Nations. We could be forgiven in this place for taking the view that, “Well, actually, the world is moving towards 16,” but that is simply not the case at all. The United States, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain—in all those countries, the voting age is 18. In other parts of the world, things differ; for example, in Singapore the voting age is 21. It is true that some countries are moving in the direction of allowing voting at 16, Austria being one, but they remain overwhelmingly in the minority.

If we want to take the view that adulthood begins at 16, it is critically important that our country does so consistently. Otherwise, we would have the very odd situation where someone would be perceived to be old enough to vote in an election, but when they came out of the polling station they would not be entitled to walk across the road and go into a betting shop to “vote” on the outcome of that election; that would be odd. Alternatively, what about the situation where a 16-year-old, having voted in a general election, would not be entitled to sit on a jury to decide whether or not one of their peers was guilty of a serious crime, such as murder, manslaughter or rape?

My final point about inconsistency is that under the proposals, someone might be old enough to vote but not mature enough—so the law says—to use a tanning booth or buy fireworks. I am not saying for a second that there is not a legitimate argument to be had, but I think the electorate would find it extremely curious if we were to say that a person has the maturity to decide who should be the Government of a country that spends collectively £842 billion every year, yet does not have the maturity to decide to use a tanning booth.

Of course, they can join the Army, but they are not entitled to serve on the frontline in a way that might put them at risk of losing their life. In some ways, I respectfully suggest that the hon. Lady’s point makes the argument for me. Part of the reason why 16-year-olds cannot serve on the frontline and be at risk of losing their life is that under the UN convention on the rights of the child, child soldiers may not serve on the frontline. That is in recognition of the fact that we take the view that children are children and adults are adults.

I am not suggesting for a second that this is not a legitimate argument to have, but people watching this debate might take the view that there is a broad consensus in Parliament to move towards votes for 16-year-olds. I do not sense that there is such a consensus and, critically, that view is not echoed in the court of public opinion. Polling tends to suggest that there is not a majority in favour of reducing the voting age.

Let me make one last point. Before I came into this place, I spent a lot of time as a barrister, and when I go into schools in my constituency such as Pate’s Grammar School, Balcarras or Bournside and ask, “If you were accused of a crime you had not committed, would you be happy to be put on trial with a jury made up of 16-year-olds?”, the schoolchildren often say, “Perhaps not.” Just imagine the inconsistency. The trials that I have prosecuted might involve post-mortem photos—really grisly and explicit photographs—and we take the view as a society that people aged 16 are not old enough to watch a film in the cinema such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Silence of the Lambs”, or to see those kinds of explicit photographs in a jury trial. If those people were considered old enough to vote, that would be a troubling inconsistency.

The hon. Gentleman is making a point about how we need to follow opinion polling. Does that mean that, based on opinion polling, he will be making representations to legalise capital punishment again?

No, I do not think that. Of course, it is right to recognise that opinion polls do not determine everything that happens in this place, but I would hate for the impression to somehow be given that there is a groundswell of popular support for votes at 16. That is not the case at all. By all means, let us have the argument in this place and try to shift public opinion if that is where some Members want it to go, but it would be wrong to create the impression that public opinion is with them. I simply do not think it is.

There is a strength to the hon. Gentleman’s argument about consistency, although I detect a change in the overall direction of travel of Parliament on this issue. Could I ask him to return to his point about consistency, reflecting that there is now a lack of consistency with Scotland and Wales?

There is, and one could take the view that because the position has changed in Scotland, we should reflect that throughout the entire United Kingdom. That is a legitimate argument, but if one takes the view that the decision in Scotland was an aberration, why would we want to continue it elsewhere? I want to make it crystal clear that Scotland has a very large measure of devolution; it is a country, to a very large extent, and it is important to recognise its differences. [Laughter.] Well, it is a country.

If Scotland wants to introduce votes at 16, that is a matter for Scotland, but I do not see that it is an argument for doing so across the United Kingdom. Of course, one recognises the injustice of some 16-year-olds not being able to vote—I have met some extremely sophisticated and politically astute young people—but there has to be a dividing line somewhere. If we want to make the age of 16 that dividing line, it has to be consistent across the piece. It is not consistent now, and unless we are going to change our fundamental assessment of when adulthood begins, the case for changing the voting age has not been made.

I do not want to inhibit people from intervening, because I accept that it is a useful way of conducting the debate. However, the more interventions that are made and accepted, the less likely it is that I will get everybody in. I am going to reduce the informal time limit to four minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. My apologies for laughing; I am just glad that this debate has confirmed that Scotland is a country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing this debate, and for the huge amount of work that he does on this issue. I imagine that it is an honour for his local young people to have such a great representative who stands up for their causes and beliefs.

I will not focus my remarks on what can and cannot be done at certain ages, because I find that argument reductive; it often limits the discussion. Instead, I will focus on what can be made possible, and the huge opportunities that lie in extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. One of the reasons why I am so passionate about extending the franchise is that it would be a huge step towards ensuring that young people and the issues that matter to them are properly represented in this place, in policy and in practice. Young people and their diverse insights are hugely missing from this place. As Labour’s youngest MP, I was very aware during my first year here of the gap between my age and the average age of other MPs, and I am sure that others present will have had similar experiences.

One key reason why young people are under-represented is that far too often, their creativity, energy and focus are not captured by politics at an early enough age. Many young people are not encouraged to see their interests in political terms, or taught about the opportunities that they have to influence the political system. If young people were able to vote while still in an educational setting, engagement with the electoral process would be encouraged and supported, as we saw during the Scottish independence referendum. Currently, the majority of young people leave formal education without having an opportunity to vote, and being able to vote while receiving proper political and civic education is a fantastic opportunity that we are not taking advantage of.

There is much that we can learn from how young people engaged with the electoral process during the Scottish independence referendum. I have covered that topic before, so I will not go into it in depth, but I will point out that during that referendum, the younger age bracket accessed information from the greatest variety of sources and looked at the most information. Research has shown how engaged they were, and some 97% of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland who voted in that referendum say that they would vote in future elections. That is evidence of how turnout can be increased through engaging at a younger age.

Clearly, young people are deeply engaged with political issues, and in some cases are a driving force behind change. In the past few months alone, young people have been a leading voice on many issues, most notably climate change. Thousands of young people across the UK have been taking part in climate strikes. Those young people are informed and articulate, and have a clear idea of the scale and urgency of the problem—a far clearer idea than some colleagues in this place. Their generation is being let down on the issue of climate change by generations of decision makers before them, and they understand how urgent these key issues are, yet they will not be able to vote on them.

One of the signs at the recent climate protest said:

“If you don’t act like adults, we will.”

That bashes out the argument that young people are not mature or intelligent enough. I know loads of adults, including a lot of my pals, who are not really engaged in politics and would be quite happy to admit that they do not know the issues inside and out. It is not about how mature or intelligent someone is; that cannot be the test of whether someone can vote.

As a young and newer Member of Parliament and a campaigner, I have felt more affinity with young people out on the streets, taking up placards and shouting about issues they care about, than with some colleagues in this House, especially on the Government Benches. In her initial response, the Leader of the House said that the climate strikes were truancy. It baffles me that someone who cares about democracy, politics and engagement could look at young people taking action and think it is a negative thing.

I will round off my remarks, but there is so much that could be said in this debate. These are turbulent times in politics. We have decisions going on that will have lasting effects not only through the next electoral cycle, but for years and years to come. It is crucial that young people have a say. I congratulate the young people who have been making their voices heard, the Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament in my constituency and all the young constituents who regularly write to me to let me know their thoughts.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The Labour party values our young people. We value their thoughts, determination and wisdom. Some of the best, most informed contributions I have ever heard have come from young people. Their values are well thought through. They hate injustices, and they want a fairer, different kind of society. For this place not to hear their voice is a huge mistake.

I recall my frustration when I was young that other people were making determinations that were so removed from the world I was growing up in, and young people feel that today. We have to heed their voice. For the past few weeks in Westminster, the Government have been putting party and self-interest above the country, and young people can see right through what they are doing. I spoke to some 14 to 16-year-olds, and they understood how the Government are not listening to them.

No, I will not; the hon. Gentleman has spoken long enough. The Government are not listening to young people. They have not had a say and the Government have not even tried to reach out to them at such a crucial time, yet those young people, all being well, will live a lot longer than most people in this place. We are debating their future and they cannot understand why their voice just does not count.

When I meet young people, the issues they want to discuss are the burning injustices across our society. They advocate their points with passion, deep understanding, thoughtful political processing and reasoned arguments that are outstanding and well researched. They also look to the longer-term consequences of decision making, which is rare in this place. I am inspired that young people have such thought, and it gives me real hope. They re-energise me and recommit my focus on the important issues we are here to fight. It is arrogance that denies our young people a voice. They rightly put this place to shame. They put many in this place to shame for not wanting them to have their franchise. The Labour party values that voice and the challenge young people give us all. We will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote.

Another side to politics that arises from this issue—people should not patronise by saying we need to educate young people first, although I am a massive advocate for political and citizenship education—is that today, it is the young people who are educating politicians. While the Government are self-absorbed in their survival, the young people who they have denied a vote are finding an alternative political voice. It is not a cross on a piece of paper, but something far more powerful. They are taking to the streets and challenging this archaic monument. They are showing Westminster that they have a voice and are going to use it. They hold the power, and they will make the change and use it to highlight the biggest political issue of our time. The climate strikers have just started their campaign, and they will take power and show up this place if it does not respond to the most pressing issue on our planet, which is causing so much conflict in our world. It is causing people to move from their homes. It is causing floods and famine on our Earth. I was overwhelmed by the determination of the 200 climate strikers in York, and I expect far more to come out a week on Friday.

If denied a vote, young people will find another way of doing politics that will surpass this place. They are determined, defiant and demanding change. We all have power, young and old. The question is what we do with it. In order for the climate strikers to have climate change at the top of the political agenda, Labour will not only give young people a vote, but will listen to their voice.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on his passionate speech and his tenacious pursuit of the objective of votes at 16 in this Parliament. To Scottish MPs, it feels a bit of an antediluvian argument, because the practice is normalised in Scotland in pretty much every election apart from general elections. Wales is soon to follow, if it has not done so already.

It feels like the direction of travel and momentum is very much in favour of the objective. It is great to see the level of consensus in the all-party parliamentary group’s report on votes at 16. That is welcome, and it is great to see the journey and reasoning of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on supporting votes at 16. I do not necessarily agree with his point about libertarian decisions on cigarettes and so on, but it is welcome to see that level of consensus developing in the House.

Thinking of my journey, I was probably quite precocious as a young person. I read newspapers quite young. I used to watch political TV shows. I remember when Andrew Neil started presenting “This Week”, and now it is finishing. When I was 12, I was sitting watching those programmes. I was always a bit of a nerd when it came to politics. When I visit schools and speak to young people, I am impressed by their level of engagement with and passionate views about the political system. They are passionate about championing their objectives for life and society and passionate about trying to improve the world around them.

I have seen nothing more moving since my election than the effort by young people at Springburn Academy when two of their school-friends who were asylum seekers were threatened with deportation. Somer and Areeb Bakhsh were children and had lived in Glasgow for years. They had been there all the way through school with their school-friends, and the entire school mobilised to go down and support them outside the Home Office. Thousands and thousands of young people signed petitions to keep their friends in school. That was a powerful expression of the agency of young people. Even though they did not have a vote, they were willing to engage with the political system and fight for their friends. That is the reality of what we are looking at.

We are talking about young people, and their education is not simply about slavishly following a curriculum; it is about championing their understanding and passion, and giving them an opportunity to follow their passion and give it expression in as many ways as possible, including in the political system. That is why votes at 16 is such a positive measure. If we can implant and embed the idea of voting and participating in a democracy while young people are still at school and in an educational environment, that would go a long way to establishing and normalising that behaviour for the rest of their lives. There is clear evidence that is the case in Scotland, particularly when we look at the referendums that have taken place and subsequent elections. The engagement from young people has been incredibly positive. I am fully convinced, as are most people in Westminster Hall today, that it is the way to go. I encourage the Government to look at the evidence in that regard. The APPG’s report is compelling.

One of my biggest challenges is that my constituency has the lowest turnout in the UK. Only 51% of my constituents voted in the EU referendum, and only 53% participated in the general election. Looking at the wider issues in society, it is about engaging people generally in our democracy. Why are we so hung up on extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds? There is a much more urgent crisis in our democracy, and that is engaging people, particularly those from working-class and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, in our democracy. The measure would be a small but positive step forward. In light of developments in other parts of the UK, votes at 16 would certainly be an entirely reasonable step to normalise and make things consistent with what is clearly established in the rest of the UK.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on securing it.

Over the past two decades our politics has been marked by a decreasing turnout among young people at elections, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy where political parties focus their campaigning efforts and policy proposals on the older voters who are more likely to turn out at elections. However, I would argue that although young people are not engaging in traditional party politics, they are quite clearly a political generation. I am regularly contacted by young people in my constituency who campaign on the issues that matter to them, such as Brexit or climate change. I regularly meet young people who engage in political activity through trade unions, campaign groups or charities; and I regularly help young constituents who suffer as a result of political decisions, such as the botched roll-out of universal credit.

All the issues that matter to young people and impact on their lives are influenced by decisions taken in this House. That is why we need to look at increasing turnout among young people and extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. As the Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, I have already witnessed the positive impact on turnout and engagement that can be achieved by extending the franchise. When the decision was taken to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, there was a large degree of scepticism about whether it would have any notable impact, yet 89% of 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote and 76% turned out to vote.

Since the referendum, 16 and 17-year-olds have also voted in elections to the Scottish Parliament and for Scottish councils. In the recent Scottish council elections, I was challenged on why they could vote for me in a Scottish council but not vote for me as an MP. It is good to see that the Welsh Government are expected to legislate for votes at 16. It is the Conservative party that stands as the roadblock to bringing about change. They wanted to filibuster when we were in the other Chamber, so I pay tribute to organisations such as the Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party and all the other parties who get involved in supporting 16-year-olds.

Votes for 16-year-olds are important. Working men had to organise and mobilise through the labour movement, and even lay down their lives in the first world war before securing the basic democratic right to vote. Women from all classes and backgrounds had to organise and mobilise in the suffrage movement, as suffragists and suffragettes, with many struggles in the face of a hostile Government that used the full force of the law against them. There is a reminder in this House of their struggle for democracy: a plaque to Emily Wilding Davison resides in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in this Parliament. It was placed there by the late Tony Benn with assistance from the Leader of the Opposition. It should serve as a stark reminder to all of us in this House of the individual and collective efforts that brought about the democracy that we now often take for granted. In the proud tradition of the Chartists, suffragists and suffragettes, we will not stop campaigning until we finally secure votes at 16.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Mr Howarth.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has displayed all of his skills as a Wykehamist and a barrister to argue that black is white, but that is what they are taught to do. Should I find myself in an English court, I would look no further than the hon. Gentleman to defend me. He would make an extremely good job of it—not that I agree with one word of what he said.

I am probably the person here who is furthest away from the age of 16. My first point is that times have changed. Years ago, when I was at school at Tain Royal Academy in the highlands, the idea of a politician or an MP visiting the school was absolutely impossible. Politics did not enter our lives. We knew nothing about it, and it was not encouraged at school. How very different things are today. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) has visited schools and he interacts with classes. We all do that and we all see how sophisticated the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are in discussions.

During the independence referendum, as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) said, classroom discussions with voters were extremely sophisticated. All of us who were involved north of the border came away thinking, “My goodness me; they really do know their stuff.” When they came to cast their votes, we must not think for one second that they were ignorant votes; they knew what they were doing. As I gaze around all corners of the House of Commons, I see gentlemen and ladies of much older ages who do not make such intelligent decisions as did the young that I saw during the independence referendum. The same is true, as other Members have said, of local government and Scottish Parliament elections. I have complete confidence in the wisdom of that electorate. I have no problem with it at all. It is absolutely refreshing to see them engage in the process in the way that they do. The UK should be of good heart; it has nothing to fear at all.

I will close with a short anecdote about the one political event that crossed my radar when I was at school. My English teacher, a remarkable man called Jack Paterson, tapped me on the shoulder in my English class and said, “We are having a mock election. You will be the Tory candidate.” That might come as no surprise to Conservative Members. I stood in the Tain Royal Academy mock election. I made an impassioned speech in the hall as to why people should vote for me and I quoted at some length from Edward Heath’s leaflet. Unfortunately, I came bottom of the poll with 18 votes. Perhaps that shows that even then, although I say it against myself, the electorate were quite sophisticated and clever in the way in which they made their decision.

As we have heard, 16 and 17-year-olds are knowledgeable and passionate about the world around them. Participation in free elections is a fundamental right. Despite what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) says, it is a right enshrined in the convention on the rights of the child, which states that children have the right to participate in decisions about their lives and that it should be age-appropriate. Of course a three-year-old is different from a 16-year-old, but even the convention acknowledges that when young people—or “children”, if he insists on using that word—have capacity, they should have recourse to democratic participation. He was therefore right that we should heed UN and international agreements.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned countries that we should follow: Germany, Italy and so on. Germany, of course, has votes at 16 in its local elections. Italy does not allow people to vote for the Senate until they are 25, and it is even older for certain other roles, such as the presidency. If we are to benchmark from other countries, we will get into a worrisome position. This House should lead and not simply follow. It should take a moral stance and not just say, “What is the lowest common denominator?”

We can look at best practice around the world and in Britain, and at how young people participate. Often, the debate focuses on whether young people have the right capacity and on the group of young people who might not know. Let us talk about the 600-odd members of the Youth Parliament and the 85% of schools with school councils, where young people participate.

I also want to touch on the importance of democratic rights coming first. We should first engage in voting and then enable the other rights and responsibilities and age limits to come in. Eighteen is the worst age to start voting: people leave home and live a chaotic life. Starting earlier means that people will continue to vote for the rest of their lives. If someone votes in their first election, they are likely to vote continuously throughout their lives. An 18-year-old who does not vote is likely to be a 50-year-old who does not vote. A 16-year-old who votes together with the family is likely to be a 50-year-old who votes, and I want to increase voting for all.

I thank everybody for coming, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing such an important debate.

Like most Members, I regularly meet youth organisations and youth representatives from different areas in Renfrewshire, including people from the university and local Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament. Two things always come out of any conversation. The No. 1 complaint is: “Why can’t 16 and 17-year-olds vote?” The second one is adults asking me, “How do we get young people involved in politics?” That is the one question that I am asked everywhere. It is very simple: we do it by accepting that politics affects them just as much as it affects us.

Surprisingly, I agreed with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) that party politics should not have anything to do with this debate. Do not worry—we parted ways very quickly in his speech. I was unsure whether he wanted to lower the smoking age limit or abolish it altogether. All I knew was, as is always the case with Tories, it is all about personal responsibility until the rich are the ones breaking the rules.

Ultimately, I have to ask: why would any functioning democracy fear more people having the vote? The whole point of a democracy is that we have different perspectives. The same argument applied when I stood in this Chamber not that long ago to speak about the minimum wage. We talked about the fact that it is totally unjustifiable that, even though two people have the same tasks and responsibilities in a job, purely because they were born in different years they do not get paid the same wage. That does not make sense, and is in complete opposition to the idea of personal responsibility, which we are always hearing about from the Government. It is exactly the same when it comes to votes. If someone is allowed the responsibilities of life, they should have the same rights.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton correctly said that there is no age test when it comes to participation. In many ways, I serve as an example of that. After we lost the independence referendum, suddenly lots of people were encouraging me to put my name forward to stand for Parliament. My first reaction was: “Don’t be stupid—I’m 20. What a ridiculous idea.” What changed my mind was that so many older people who I respected, and whose views throughout their lifetime I respected, said to me, “If Parliament’s supposed to reflect society, why is nobody young in it?”

What has been normal for us has to change. I thought that I could not do this job. I thought, “No—politics isn’t for me; it’s for the adults. All we get is a little pat on the head, and told to go away to the Youth Parliament if we want to get involved.” We need to change that, because the decisions that are made in this House daily have drastic influences on the paths open to people in their lives.

Ultimately, politics is about perspective, and trying to understand as many different perspectives as we can. We cannot understand someone’s perspective if they are not even part of the debate. We have seen living, breathing examples of that, and heard about them throughout this debate. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, 75% of young people used their vote. The quality of that debate was phenomenal, and it was wide-ranging. Honestly, I could not go anywhere without hearing people talk about the referendum—people of all different viewpoints, backgrounds and ages.

I was on the losing side of that referendum, and I am still banging on about the great influence it had because young people were involved. Compare that with the EU referendum, where roughly 1.5 million 16 to 17-year-olds were denied a vote. They are now seeing their opportunities to work and live abroad snatched away right in front of them. Fundamentally, if someone is old enough to get married, have sex, join the Army, leave home, work full time and pay tax, frankly they are old enough to hold a pen at the ballot box.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. We have heard a great many contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber, and we have had quite a lot of consensus. It is notable that we have heard fantastic contributions from a number of Members from Scottish constituencies. There is a really strong argument that, where people have seen votes for 16 and 17-year-olds work successfully, they have warmed to it.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing today’s debate. He campaigns tirelessly on this issue and is a great advocate for young people in his constituency. They have asked him to raise this issue in Parliament, and he has done so diligently. I enjoyed his comments about his constituency’s connections to Peterloo and about the Oldham suffragette Annie Kenney, reminding us that this is about not just extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds but extending democracy and increasing participation.

I shared my hon. Friend’s frustration two weeks ago when this House did not have the opportunity to debate his amendment to the Overseas Electors Bill—an amendment that had gathered cross-party support and would have been a significant step towards securing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. We can safely say that private Members’ Bills have not been an effective vehicle on this issue. I therefore welcome the opportunity to debate this important topic, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Many arguments have been made about the age of maturity. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) argued strongly on that, and I disagreed with him on a number of issues. I enjoyed his comment that a 16 or 17-year-old is not eligible to serve on a jury. Of course, neither is anyone above the age of 75. Unless we are going to restrict the franchise at the upper end as well, his argument is somewhat inconsistent. Such arguments fail to capture the spirit of the debate. Above all, this debate is about strengthening our democracy, inclusion and how to involve all society in shaping a vision for our country. I believe our democracy would be made stronger by such an improvement to it.

A key reason why Labour is strongly in favour of votes at 16 is that it would help to increase voter turnout and develop lifelong voting habits. A recent study by Demos found that only 37% of young adults in the UK feel that British politics today reflects the issues that matter to them, which concerns me. No wonder we are seeing high levels of voter apathy and low turnout when voters are not directly engaged from a young age and feel unrepresented from their first point of contact with the political sphere.

If the hon. Lady thinks that young people have the right level of political maturity to vote at 16, does she think that they have the right level of maturity to buy fireworks? If she does, why did her party vote in favour of banning that?

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two different issues. One is about our rights as citizens; the other is much more about society, welfare and protection. Basically, there are some things that a person can do that will kill them; however, voting is not known to lead to death, at least not directly. When people make such arguments regarding the right to buy alcohol, cigarettes or fireworks, it confuses two different issues.

It is fair to say that we agree across the House that there is no magic age at which someone becomes an adult; it is a spectrum. The majority of people of a particular age might be of a certain maturity, but we all know fine well that an 18 or an 80-year-old might lack the maturity to do many of the things they are legally able to do.

In the hon. Lady’s experience, has she—as I have—met many 16-year-olds who have more life experience and understanding in their pinky than half of the people in this place?

The hon. Lady makes the point that life experience is different for everyone, and all of us come here with very different life experiences. Many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds have experienced far more in their lives than a 40, 50 or 60-year-old, and she is right to make that point.

I must make some progress, because I am aware that I need to leave time for the Minister’s response, which we are keen to hear. It is fair to say that there is no silver bullet for improving participation in politics. The way that people come into contact with politics in their formative years is a crucial part of it, but that is not the only thing that we should focus on. Evidence from the Scottish referendum and the 2017 Scottish council elections demonstrated that turnout rates among 16 and 17-year-olds were much higher than among 18 to 24-year-olds. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), who also highlighted that 16 and 17-year-olds were more likely use a broader range of sources to research how to use their vote, arguably using it in a much more mature way than older voters.

We know that an individual who has voted once is more likely to vote in future elections. The young people I mentioned were aided by the encouragement of their families and schools to become politically engaged, which should be a lesson for us throughout United Kingdom.

“Voting is a habit that is formed early, and we ought to treat it as such…It is important that we take…a progressive stance on these matters.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 527-532.]

I hope the Minister agrees with those words, not least because she said them in this House in 2015. For that reason, I am optimistic that we will find there is a great amount of consensus between the two Front Benches.

The recent school strikes that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) highlighted demonstrate that young people are aware of the world around them and are trying to take part in the democratic system, despite not having the right to vote. They have been inspired by a 16-year-old from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who has risen to international fame for her work on the issue.

I believe that change is imminent. Across the United Kingdom, politicians have begun to recognise the changing tides. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) mentioned the situation in Scotland, which has left us in the bizarre position where 16-year-olds living there can vote in local elections but are denied the right to vote in a UK general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) mentioned the Welsh Labour Government, who are seeking to extend the franchise in Wales to 16 and 17-year-olds. There is now a fundamental inequality of rights in this country, because the right to vote has effectively become a postcode lottery—a situation that is morally and politically unsustainable for this Government. It is time that 16 and 17-year-olds had equal rights across our country for all elections.

A cross-party consensus has emerged. I acknowledge the great work of the all-party parliamentary group on votes at 16, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, which is about to publish a report highlighting the consensus across many of the political parties that have taken part in the debate. It is important for Conservative colleagues to realise that this idea is not a threat to their party. After the Scottish referendum, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, described herself as

“a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club”,

having witnessed its positive impact. Since then, various Conservative politicians, including George Osborne, have claimed that there is widespread support for the policy among Conservative MPs and have called on the Government to lower the voting age to 16 or risk losing the support of younger generations.

It is our duty as politicians to catch up with the modern age. It was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK, and exactly the same arguments were prevalent then that are used today to prevent 16 and 17-year-olds from voting. The Government are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote. Given the Minister’s personal support for the issue, I hope she will have the courage and determination to convince the rest of her colleagues to do the right thing and give all young people the vote.

I thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing this debate; I confirm that I will leave a little time for him to conclude it. I also thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and all hon. Members who have taken part.

Voting age is a really important topic. Like all hon. Members present, I have followed the arguments closely over the years. I stand here at the age of nearly 37; I was first elected to this place when I was 27; and, like many in this Chamber, at the age of 17 I was taking part in youth forum politics. Crucially, the arguments are not being made only by young people; they need to be considered across age groups and across society, as we have done in this thoughtful debate.

I want to take on some of the arguments that have been made, furnish a little more detail and crystallise the choices that we face. I will come on to how the Government are setting out to engage and educate young people, which is very important, but let me start with the fact that the Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current franchise for parliamentary elections. In response to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—my Front-Bench opponent but also, dare I say it, my hon. Friend, because we have shadowed each other in this brief for a while—let me say that if we are talking about the core concepts of democracy, one of them is manifesto commitments. Those commitments mean something to people who follow politics, and it means something for us to stand up and say that we should have faith in the decisions that we offer the electorate and expect to defend.

I will address some points that were made about public opinion and then move on to the issues that were raised about the standard age of majority. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) referred in passing to the state of public opinion, so let me furnish hon. Members with some detail. In 2004, in one of the most comprehensive reviews and consultations to date on lowering the voting age, the Electoral Commission found that two thirds of people thought that the right age was 18. Instructively for our discussion, it found that more than half of 15 to 19-year-olds agreed. In 2008, the then Labour Government established the Youth Citizenship Commission, which found that although the majority of 16 and 17-year-old respondents were in favour of lowering the voting age, all older categories of respondents were opposed to such a change—an interesting detail.

The 2004 Electoral Commission report also recommended that a further review be carried out in four to five years, but that review has not yet taken place. Will the Minister commit to it now?

I almost misheard the hon. Gentleman and thought that he said “45 years”, but he rightly notes that the recommendation was four to five years. No, I am not in a position to commit the Government to such a review today, because the Electoral Commission’s own review concluded that the age should not be changed and, as I shall set out, the evidence still says so.

In 2013, a YouGov poll of voters of all ages and political views found that they opposed changes to the voting age—even the majority of young people did not want 16 and 17-year-olds to have the vote. More recently still, in April 2017, a very large poll of adults found that only 29% were in favour of lowering the age to 16, while 52% were against it.

The international state of play has been discussed, but I will not dwell on it because hon. Members’ examples were well given. The topic that I really want to address, and that the bulk of our debate has focused on, is the age of majority. We have to face up to the fact that 18 is widely recognised in this country as the age at which one becomes an adult. Rightly, we have a range of measures to protect young people below that age. It is a concept in our laws: there is a wide range of life decisions that entail taking on significant responsibility, for which this Parliament has judged that 18 is the right age.

Not only is the Government’s stance built on a bedrock of public opinion, from which we take our manifesto commitment, but there is a clear consistency to it. I do not think that the same can necessarily be said of all the arguments that have been made in this debate. Either someone is old enough or not—both cannot be true, so which is it?

Let me start with health. We generally seek to protect children and young people, who can be some of the most vulnerable members of our society, from actions—either by themselves or by others—that could be detrimental to their health. For example, Parliament has raised the age at which a young person can buy cigarettes; private vehicles carrying someone under 18 must now be smoke free; and we have introduced legislation to ban under-18s from buying e-cigarettes. As I suspect hon. Members know, the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health recommended only last month that the age at which someone can buy cigarettes ought to be raised from 18 to 21.

The arguments are fundamentally about health and damage; I wonder whether there are hon. Members present who voted against such measures, because they have an argument to answer about consistency. We as a society determine that young people need that additional support and protection. If we consider them to be minors in that area, why do we not in another area?

A further health example is sunbeds, which have been mentioned. Another, which draws on the point about how we differ in parts of our country, is that the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 raised the minimum age for getting tongue and intimate piercings in Wales to 18. That is a recent way in which the age has gone upwards. A non-health example is that of buying fireworks, which has also been mentioned.

There is a serious consistency point. Someone is either old enough or they are not, and that is not only an idea that is based on health examples—there are plenty of other areas where Parliament has made the same judgment. It includes the right to take out credit, to be able to gamble, to sit on a jury, to own land or property and to legally sign a contract. We could also look at the way the criminal justice system works, where young people are treated differently, with different types of courts and institutions.

Let us move on to the two areas that require parental consent: marriage, other than in Scotland, and joining the armed forces. Those concepts have been discussed in today’s debate. We have to be able to return to the central point of understanding whether someone is or is not old enough, and we should be honest on that point.

I have to continue as I must allow time for the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton to wrap up the debate.

The field of education and work is also relevant. At the age we are talking about, young people can choose to participate through full-time education, a job or volunteering combined with part-time study, or by undertaking further training—many young people choose to do so because it gives them good prospects. I think we would all argue that having people in education post 16 helps the economy and society more generally. If we determine that it is good for individuals and for young people collectively, we have to address that question to ourselves when we talk about their voting choices.

That leads to the question of when people work and pay tax. Some people—I think the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned it first in the debate—make the “no taxation without representation” argument. A minority of young people work—a small number—but not very many of them pay tax, in part at least because of the raising of the personal allowance. Those who earn least in our society, including our young people, will not be required to pay tax until they earn more.

I understand the argument that one could work and therefore one could pay tax and therefore one has an interest. It does not follow that the tax should be linked to the right to vote, especially if we turn the argument around. If we turn if from “no taxation without representation” to “no representation without taxation”, we would essentially be saying that those who are unable to work or the lowest earners in our society should not get the vote. That is the corollary of the argument, and it needs to be drawn out. If we want to make a link between tax and voting, we have to look at the opposite case as well. It is right that we should do so.

Parliament has determined time after time that we have such a thing as an age of majority, and we seek to protect people who are younger than that age. We have to confront that in today’s discussion.

I move on to what else we should, must and do do to improve citizenship education and expand the range of ways that young people can participate in our democracy. The Government absolutely recognise that point and have a record of action to prove it. We work in partnership with a range of civil society organisations, including the British Youth Council, to help young people be involved. The Government facilitate the UK Youth Parliament, and last year we saw the success of National Democracy Week. Of course, the national curriculum now rightly includes citizenship education.

I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton reminded us of Annie Kenney, because that allows us to look at what the Cabinet Office did for the suffrage centenary last year. It delivered a range of things to help young people get involved in our democracy. I urge hon. Members to look at the toolkit, the democracy ambassadors scheme and the school resources, which are there for us all to use in our constituencies. Those resources help us to do the practical work in a way that makes a difference, and help young people to be in their rightful place in our democracy, as part of what we should all be doing to promote and improve the way that we do politics. We do that by including young people, but also by being respectful of the arguments that go with that: what public opinion really says; what minority and majority really mean; what commitments such as those in manifestos actually mean to people; and how we can consider all of those things together in a way that means that everyone is welcome in our democracy, at the right age. That is as it should be, and it is a good thing.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate. It is more fundamental than extending the franchise; it is about our whole democracy and the value of our politics. I find myself not only coming to the conclusion that our politics is broken—repairable, I hope, but broken—but wondering how broken our United Kingdom is, and how little voice English residents have. Scotland and Wales have taken the initiative, because they have devolved institutions that want to take the lead. In England, we are being held back by the UK Parliament, which will not even facilitate a debate on the Floor of the House to test the will of Parliament on this issue. That is the frustration.

We know that there are different views—we take a different view on some of the arguments that are deployed—but we have been denied the opportunity to test the will of Parliament and have a vote on the issue. For me, that is the most scandalous part of how our democracy works. We have seen the private Members’ Bills process frustrated time after time. We have seen parliamentary gymnastics deployed to make sure that the Government do not have to face up to difficult decisions.

It is correct to say that the Conservative party manifesto is one that the Government seek to deliver, but let us be honest about the parliamentary gymnastics that were employed when the Overseas Electors Bill came to the Floor of the House as a private Member’s Bill with the Government’s support. They deliberately arranged for it to be talked out because they did not want to face a potential vote on votes at 16. Their own manifesto commitment was denied because they did not want to face a vote on this issue.

To be frank, some of the explanations that have been given on objections do not hold water. My son Jack, who is an apprentice, is old enough to pay tax on the income that he earns. He is affected by public transport when he goes to work, in the way that every other worker on that bus is affected, and he contributes to his taxes for that. He is old enough to have taken driving lessons and before he is 18, he is very likely to be driving a car. Where the age line sits is not an argument that really holds water, for the same reasons that have been explained around consideration being given for some public health issues moving from 18 years to 21 years. It would not follow that the age of voting is then increased to 21—that is a nonsense.

I would respect the Government more if they really stated why their objections on this issue are so firm. It is not about the age of maturity. It is not about a common age across public health and protection issues. It is because they just do not believe that 16 and 17-year-olds will vote Conservative. It is as cruel as that. It is the same reason that we are seeing ID being introduced at polling stations, denying the right of people to cast a vote in some cases, when the evidence base is flimsy. We have seen that with individual voter registration, where people are deliberately pushed off the register. We see it through the stuffing of the House of Lords with people who are more likely to vote the Government’s way—I accept that every Government does that, so it is not an entirely partisan point. We see it at every opportunity, including the proposal to reduce the number of MPs. Why? It is about gaming the system, rather than expanding our democracy.

I appreciate the debate that has taken place. I would like to have won the hearts and minds of the Government, but I have to accept that we are running out of time, and maybe it is a fight for another day.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered votes at 16.

Children’s Social Care Services: Stoke-on-Trent

I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s social care services in Stoke-on-Trent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is not a pleasure to be having this debate. Children’s services, and the role that councils play in protecting the most vulnerable children in our societies and communities, should be taken away from the party political arena. The Ofsted report that was received by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, showing the failures across the local authority area to help the most vulnerable people, is worthy of discussion with the Minister in order to work out how we can put that system back together. The report is one of the saddest things that I have had the displeasure of reading in my short time as a Member of Parliament.

We know that when it comes to engaging and working with young people, Stoke-on-Trent is now a city of two tales. The Minister will be acutely aware of the excellent work being done by Professor Liz Barnes and Carol Shanahan under the opportunity area, and I am sure he will agree that they are exemplars of good practice across the country, and of how people can achieve very impressive things when they get their act together. The flipside of that—the other side of the coin—is a children’s services department that has now been rated “inadequate” in all four areas of the Ofsted report, which has highlighted some shocking outcomes that prompt the question whether the local authority is fit to continue running that service, and whether the individuals who are responsible for running it at cabinet level are fit to continue in public office.

I do not wish to draw too much on the politics of it, but I want to read out a few of the findings from the Ofsted report, which will set the context for what we are discussing this morning. It starts by saying:

“Children are not being protected…Vulnerable children are not safeguarded in Stoke-on-Trent…There are insufficient fostering placements to meet local need and many children are placed in unregulated placements. The local authority knows that some of these placements are unsafe.”

It states:

“Too many children come into care in a crisis or wait too long to be reunited with their families.”

It also says:

“As a result of poor leadership, management oversight and an absence of clearly evaluated performance information, services for children have seriously declined since the last full Ofsted inspection in 2015.”

That is a damning indictment of a children’s services department, regardless of who is running the council. As a result of those shortcomings, young people are suffering in my constituency and across Stoke-on-Trent.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The reality is that very few Ofsted reports—thankfully—are as bad as the one that has been written about Stoke-on-Trent City Council. However, I want to praise the individual social workers. It has been made clear that they are working extraordinarily hard and achieving good things, but are not being well managed and are not being supported to deliver. Their casework involves over 25 cases. Does my hon. Friend agree that this shows that there has not been the appropriate management or political leadership focus on this area, and that they have abandoned the professionals, who are trying to do their best?

I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that, as a local authority, Stoke-on-Trent has a level of casework that is higher than the national average. Each individual within that team is managing more cases than the British Association of Social Workers would deem acceptable for any authority, let alone one such as Stoke-on-Trent, where demand is higher than the national average.

The part of the report that I found most shocking stated:

“Support for vulnerable children, including those at risk from child sexual exploitation, going missing…private fostering and extremist ideologies”

was failing. The report basically says that young children in our city are at risk of being groomed for child sexploitation and criminal exploitation. I do a lot of work in this place on modern slavery, and I am appalled to know that not only is it happening in my city, but it is happening in my city because the one authority that is ultimately responsible for dealing with that has failed. I hope the Minister will pick up on that later, not because I want to kick about the council—we will do that in the forthcoming local elections—but because, fundamentally, something must change in Stoke-on-Trent so that we are no longer rated “inadequate” across the four areas when the Ofsted inspectors next come in, and so that I can look into the eyes of my constituents and say, “Yes, your children—if they ever end up in the care system—will be safe and looked after.” That is something that I cannot do currently.

Although my hon. Friend may not want to bash our councillors, it is important to make it clear that we did not have that rating when we were last inspected in 2015. In fact, we were rated “good”. As Ofsted has made clear, these services have seriously declined since the last full Ofsted inspection in 2015. The majority of recommendations made at that inspection, and at a focused visit in 2018, have not been actioned. It seems that the council has actively disengaged from the process and not followed the Government guidance in this area.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I agree wholeheartedly. The report makes it quite clear that there has been a marked decline in the provision of children’s protective services in Stoke-on-Trent since 2015. That coincided with the last round of local elections, in which the City Independent group took control of the local authority. If we are being honest, its record of attendance at the corporate parenting panel demonstrates its disinterest in this area. Of the 16 meetings that one councillor could attend, she attended zero, and she is responsible for the funding of children’s services across the council—eight apologies, and eight non-attendances.

We should make it clear—I will ask the Minister later on—whether there is anything that the Government think they can do to ensure that councillors that have responsibility for these very important areas, including both adults’ and children’s social care, are compelled to attend those meetings, to further their understanding of what is going on. From councillors who have been on the corporate parenting panel, where they have heard from caseworkers who feel under pressure and stretched, I know that information was available at that time to the local authority members who make these decisions, had those members chosen to attend. The fact that they chose to attend none of those meetings shows the interest they have in that service. As a Parliament, we should talk collectively about how we can reinforce to people in decision-making roles their responsibilities.

I want to touch briefly on another comment in the report, which said:

“The response to children and young people who may be at increased risk due to contact with extremist ideology is not robust”.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city in which we have had our problems with both the far right and organised Islamist terrorism, and we need to ensure that we protect our young people from both extremes. The report clearly states that young people are not being protected from extremism activity in a place where we know it is taking place. I do not understand how any local authority or councillor can stand up and defend the report in the way that Councillor Janine Bridges did by saying that things are much better under her watch than they have ever been.

The report sets out in black and white one of the starkest arrangements for protecting young people anywhere—not only in the west midlands, but in the country. I wonder whether the Minister could help me better understand at what point Government step in to start to resolve some of this directly. Frankly, I have no faith that the City Independent group that currently runs the council with Conservatives has either the political ability or the determination to resolve this, other than saying that everything is all right. That has been made quite clear in the leaflets that are being delivered around the city ahead of local elections, which say how wonderful children’s services are. It beggars belief that there is this lack of connection between what is written in black and white by the authorities that are responsible for this, and what is written by the people who have taken decisions that led to this chronic failure in the first place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this very important debate to the House; it is vital that this issue gets debated. I understand that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is in quite close contact—particularly through the multi-agency safeguarding hub—with Staffordshire County Council and other excellent councils, such as Leeds. Has he seen a determined effort by the leadership to ensure that—even now—the deficiencies pointed out in the report are beginning to be addressed?

The hon. Gentleman points to the MASH system in Staffordshire County Council, which is one of the areas where Stoke-on-Trent City Council has made a rod for its own back. Across the border, in Staffordshire County Council—literally on the doorstep—is a system that is more robust and much better than the one that Stoke-on-Trent City Council operates. A lot of the agencies that are involved in it, including the police and some of the third-party organisations, work with both authorities, so it is not as if it was not possible to tap into that system to see how it works.

The officers that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) North and I have spoken to understand the severity of the report and want to fix the problem. The officer corps desperately wants to resolve it, and the social workers we know are heartbroken. They have taken it personally, because it is young people entrusted to them who have been let down. However, I have not seen any element of acceptance from some parts of the political leadership that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. They took to the airwaves on the day the report was published to dismiss it and say that it was the Government’s fault for not giving them enough money, local MPs’ fault for not shouting about it previously, and in some cases the families’ fault for having the audacity to find themselves in need of social care in the first place.

I do not have the sense that the cabinet member responsible and the leader of the council understand the gravity of the report that is in front of them. If I am being honest, I do not believe that they have any interest in resolving this problem, because this is not the sort of politics that they want to do. They are not interested in rolling up their sleeves and dealing with the difficult parts of civic life in Stoke-on-Trent. They like to do the fun, happy stuff, such as cutting ribbons in front of new car parks, filling potholes and having their pictures taken—but children’s social care is the sort of stuff that matters to people on a day-to-day basis.

The hon. Gentleman and I have joint concern for the city, which is important to the whole of Staffordshire, not just its residents. I understand that an improvement board has been set up to deal with the situation. What is his understanding of its work and its effectiveness so far?

There is an improvement board, but unfortunately, given the timing of the report and the purdah period for the local election cycle, no one will tell us what is going on with it, what actions it is taking and whether it is looking to Staffordshire County Council, which I hold up as an example—it is run by a good Conservative administration, which has taken responsibility for these issues and is dealing with them. This is not about Labour and Conservative party politics. There are perfect examples around the country of good Tory councils doing this well, and examples of Labour councils doing it well. This is an example of a council doing it badly, and the leadership refuse to accept that.

Does my hon. Friend agree not only that the council is doing it badly and has dismissed the report, but that it has failed to acknowledge the impact on families in our city and has not said sorry? Councillor Janine Bridges and Councillor Ann James have acted as if this has nothing to do with them, despite the fact that both of them have been responsible for delivery for the past four years. During that time our children, including homeless children, have not received the support that they are due under statutory provision. Homeless 16 and 17-year-olds do not always receive a timely or thorough response to meet their needs. We have young people on the streets and a political leadership that will not even say sorry.

That sums up why there is so much frustration with this process. Our city has problems. None of the MPs who represent it, including me, my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), who would have been here if he was not restricted by his Parliamentary Private Secretary role, would hide that fact. We saw the same when the Care Quality Commission did a system-wide review and found that older people were being left in their beds covered in urine for days because of a social care failing in Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Our frustration stems from the fact that, unless the problem is so stark and is written in black and white in a report that is so damaging that it requires a political intervention at this level, or is splashed in the headlines of our newspapers, nothing gets done and nothing gets changed. There is no remorse, no apology, and no sense that anything that the council was responsible for was its fault. It is always the fault of the Government, of everybody around them, and of the agencies not doing their bit. It is about time that people such as Councillor Bridges, Councillor James and their partners in the coalition took responsibility for the decisions that they have taken over the past four years, which have led us to this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is right. We are highlighting some of the starkest parts of our society. It is a constant badge of shame for me that, when we highlight the awful parts of our society, they always manifest themselves in Stoke-on-Trent in a way that is even worse than they had to be. If we got the basics right—if we got the bread-and-butter politics right and had given a damn about the people we are there to serve—some of this would not have happened.

I am sure the Minister will say that every child service department is now stretched because there is increasing demand. He will say that it is a demand-led service, and the local authority has no immediate control over the demand. I accept that, but if we know the demand is there—if there is a constant reporting system that says, “There is a problem with this system”—and people choose not to act on it, choose not to attend corporate parenting panels, choose to divert funding to other departments, choose not to engage with the Local Government Association, choose not to participate in county-wide programmes, choose to defer the decisions that they should be making to officers, choose not to turn up to reports, and choose not to say sorry, that is a pattern of behaviour of failure. That is not a coincidence or a coalescing of misfortune; it is a pattern of behaviour that has led to systematic failure.

I sincerely hope that the work being done by officers, the social work team and the people who are coming into the local authority is effective. A commissioner has been appointed to establish whether this should stay with the local authority or whether it should become a trust. For what it is worth, even though it is an appallingly run service, I hope the Minister will take heed of what we suggest: we think it should stay with the local authority. We genuinely believe that, once the election is out of the way—whatever the outcome—there will be a renewed appetite to fix this. I have always been a believer that local authorities should clear up their own messes. I appreciate that that is his decision, not mine, and the commissioner’s report will guide him. We have some responsibility for this. We will hold whichever political party is running the council responsible for fixing this, and we know that the Government will do so, too.

I ask the Minister to address these points. Where there are clear examples of councillors not engaging in their executive-level functions, what can we and the Government do to ensure that they take those responsibilities seriously? This is not just a matter of funding; there is clearly a cultural issue. What can the Government do to help change the culture in Stoke-on-Trent? If there is a plan, I will happily work with them to deliver it. Importantly, what does the Minister believe we can do to ensure that when Ofsted comes in next time, it does not give us a catalogue of failures that shows that young people in Stoke-on-Trent have been let down?

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) on securing this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton)—my PPS—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for engaging with it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North raised the important issue of social workers. We must not forget to thank the frontline workers. I went up to Doncaster after the turnaround there, and I met social workers on their own without directors in the room. I asked, “What happened? Seventy per cent. of you are the same people who were here when you were failing, and yet you are now ‘good’.” To a man and woman, they said to me, “It’s because we had strong leadership—political leadership and officer leadership—that believed in us. It was consistent, it was there for us and it supported us in what we were trying to do.” That is a strong message to take from that.

I commend the leadership in Staffordshire County Council—the political and officer leadership. The chief executive and the director of children’s services are both outstanding. I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more important than the work that we do to ensure that vulnerable children are able to live safe and happy lives and achieve their potential wherever they live in our country. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the 2015 Ofsted inspection. Sadly, Ofsted’s rating was “requires improvement” but services were in a much better place than they are today—the hon. Lady is absolutely right about that.

The inspection of local authority children’s services report states that there are demonstrable failings in protecting the most vulnerable children. The Government have always been crystal clear that it is the responsibility of the local authority to manage their service to ensure continuous improvement and proper protection of all children, but Stoke’s decline—all service areas are now deemed “inadequate”—since its last inspection in June 2015, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned, is deeply concerning and highlights the urgent need for central Government intervention. It is important that we act quickly on improvement, so we are funding Leeds—an outstanding authority and one of our “partners in practice”—to provide immediate peer support to Stoke and help ensure that children there are safe.

In the light of the seriousness of that systemic failure and as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Department will also appoint a children’s services commissioner to conduct on my behalf a three-month review of Stoke’s capacity and capability. The commissioner will look at all evidence and views, and will report to me after three months on whether the council can improve in a reasonable timeframe—I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments on that—or whether services are more likely to improve if run by another organisation, such as a children’s services trust, to which he referred, or a better-performing local authority.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw at first hand in Doncaster how trusts have been effective in securing change in local authorities that have had some of the most serious failures. Doncaster is now rated “good”, having been a failing local authority for children’s services. Birmingham and Slough are now no longer “inadequate” after years of failure. Local authority partnerships have also shown success. The Isle of Wight has improved from “inadequate” to “good” as a result of its partnership with Hampshire.

That is not to say, however, that local authorities cannot improve themselves when there is the commitment and the capability to do so—I think that is the point the hon. Gentleman sought to make in his outstanding remarks. I enjoyed visiting Bromley and Bexley earlier this year. Both have been the focus of Government intervention in recent years and are now deemed “good” and “outstanding” respectively. There was real commitment, from the political leadership to the officer class and all the way through, to deliver on that.

The Department has a good track record of working with local authorities to improve “inadequate” services. Since 2010, 44 local authorities have been lifted out of intervention and have not returned, the significance of which should not be underestimated. I am also keen to focus on preventing failure, which is why the Department has developed a new improvement programme over the past 18 months. Bringing local authorities together through regional improvement alliances, and identifying “good” and “outstanding” authorities to be our partners in practice, is helping to get ahead of failure, while supporting sector-led improvement. Since April 2017, the number of “inadequate” local authorities has been reduced by a third, from 30 to 20. We are on track to achieve our target of having less than 10% of local authorities deemed “inadequate” by 2022.

I recognise the importance of supporting performance improvement across all local authorities, so that more and more are providing “good” and “outstanding” services to children. The Department’s innovation programme focuses on ensuring that families receive the right support at the right time by adopting and adapting the best new practices, and continue to do so with the advent of the new What Works centre. That initiative seeks better outcomes for children, young people and families by helping practitioners and decision makers across the sector to inform their work with the best possible evidence.

Some promising signs are emerging from the innovation investment, such as an integrated edge-of-care service, “No Wrong Door” in North Yorkshire, which has delivered extraordinary results: 86% of young people in North Yorkshire stay out of care, with greater stability and improved educational and employment outcomes. The Department, with the Treasury, is committing £84 million over the next five years to build on learning from the examples in North Yorkshire, Leeds and Hertfordshire—the most promising innovation projects. The programme is called “strengthening families; protecting children”, and it aims to improve social work practice and decision making in up to 20 local authorities, and to support more children to stay safely at home with their families.

We will also continue to learn from What Works, and understand how we might further strengthen the quality of social work practice. The most valuable resource is our people—the workforce. The practice of staff locally, from the leadership of directors of children’s services to the decision making of social workers, is all paramount to ensure that children get the right support at the right time. That is why we are undertaking a programme of reforms to ensure that a highly capable, highly skilled and highly confident workforce make good decisions about the best outcomes for children and their families.

I recognise that Stoke and other local authorities are delivering services in a challenging environment—there is no doubt about that; the hon. Gentleman was right to highlight it—and they have had to make difficult choices to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced an extra £410 million to address pressures on adults’ and children’s social care services.

The Department is also working closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding, as part of my pitch for the spending review. We are in dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inform a review of relative needs and resources, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That will make sure that the money gets to where it is needed most after future Government funding settlements.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I mention for the record the fantastic work that he and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North do to champion the opportunity area programme. With people of such passion, commitment and quality, we can turn children’s services around in the local authority. I am pleased to hear that we share the ambition to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Stoke have the safety and stability that they need to achieve their potential. I hope that I have provided reassurance of this Government’s commitment to taking urgent action to support Stoke-on-Trent in its journey to improve children’s services, so that all children are well protected and cared for and their social workers are supported to practise safely.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Infant First Aid Training for Parents

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Although the title of this afternoon’s debate is “Infant First Aid Training for Parents”, there is some debate about whether it should not be “parental first aid training for infants.” No doubt, all will be revealed. I call Sarah Newton.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered infant first aid training for parents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You make a good point—I was never an excellent scholar, and I am sure my English can be improved upon. In the course of the debate, I hope to provide a good explanation of what I was seeking to achieve in securing it.

I would like to begin with Rowena’s story. Rowena had been shopping in a department store with her mother and her five-month-old daughter. They had stopped for coffee in the children’s section, where there were lots of mothers with their babies. Seated near their table was a mother feeding her nine-month-old baby girl some home-made food. Given that they both had little baby girls, they exchanged compliments on the girls and continued with their business.

Leaving her daughter with her mother, Rowena went off to buy some coffees. While in the queue, she heard screaming and a terrible commotion. Looking around, she realised it involved the mother she had just met. Rowena could see that something was wrong with the little girl, who was not moving and was very quiet. Instinctively, she left the queue and ran to the back of the café to see what she could do.

When Rowena arrived back at the table, she saw that two other customers had come to the mother’s aid. They were trying to calm the mother down while furiously patting the back of the baby girl. Rowena quickly realised that the baby was choking on the baby food that she had been fed. Fortunately, Rowena knew what to do. She told the women attempting to help to stop and that she had first aid training, and she took the baby. Because she had completed a baby first aid course, she felt confident enough to help.

Rowena sat on a chair and held the baby face down along the length of her left leg, with the head lower than the knee. She started to give her back blows, hitting her firmly between the shoulder blades. After Rowena delivered the second or third back blow, the baby girl started to cry, so Rowena realised that she could breathe and that the blockage in her throat had gone. She handed the girl to her mum and reassured both of them that everything was okay.

The mother was quite shocked and upset, and so was Rowena. She realised the significance of her intervention. She said:

“I didn’t fully realise until that point what had just happened and the gravity of it”.

She said it had a big impact on her. That day, Rowena had done something remarkable, yet so very simple. With a few simple actions, she had saved that baby’s life. I want to enable every new parent or carer to receive high-quality training.

I commend my hon. Friend on bringing this debate to the Chamber. I had first aid training with the Red Cross over a decade ago, as did my father. My dad put it to use when my mum had a mini-stroke, and my mum ended up using it on my dad when he was dying. I am a mother of a two-year-old little boy, Clifford. I am sure most parents would agree that the most precious thing in any parent’s life is their children. My hon. Friend has prompted me to go and be retrained, especially now that I have my little one. If we can, cross-party, encourage as many parents as possible to do that, that will be a win-win for us and for parents across the country.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention as a young mum. Rowena had her first aid training through the Red Cross, which can provide my hon. Friend with specialist training for babies and children. Administering first aid to a young child is quite different from administering it to an older person. I commend my hon. Friend, and I hope that, as a result of our work today, many more parents will do the same.

This is an excellent debate. The scale of the task we face is quite enormous. A survey published in The Daily Telegraph not so long ago showed that only 24% of parents thought they had the skills to be able to stop their child choking. That is a very small percentage. What can we do to encourage a vast number of parents to get the training?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I am blessed to say that I have three children, who are in their twenties; I remember how many times I was worried about them and went to my GP or to A&E unnecessarily. I wish I had done the training, because I would have felt much more confident as a parent—I certainly would have saved some valuable time in A&E and with doctors.

I was prompted to secure this debate to continue the work I have done to prevent avoidable deaths from sepsis. We have made huge progress, and the Government have done excellent work with the UK Sepsis Trust to make sure that parents are aware of the symptoms of sepsis, as are our healthcare professionals, from paramedics right the way through to people in hospitals, and professionals in nursery schools and primary schools. They are all having sepsis training. That is important, and now is the time to build on that and to empower parents to spot the signs of not only sepsis but all other serious illnesses.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for sharing Rowena’s story. We all know that story could have turned out very differently. My constituents Joanne and Dan Thompson set up Millie’s Trust after their daughter Millie tragically passed away in a choking incident in October 2012. The trust provides paediatric courses for nurseries, emergency first aid courses for workplaces and first aid courses for families, including for young children between the ages of eight and 16—that may answer your earlier question, Mr Hollobone. Does my hon. Friend join me in recognising the wonderful work of Millie’s Trust and charities like it, which offer courses not only to give confidence and reassurance to professionals and parents, but to ensure a good grounding in first aid, potentially giving life-saving information to people in situations such as Rowena’s?

Rowena’s story might not have ended so well without the wonderful work of Millie’s Trust and all the other organisations that ensure that people have the training to empower them to take the right action at the right time.

That brings me neatly to the statistics from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which suggest that 21% of child deaths involve a modifiable factor—something that could have been done to prevent that death. That is quite a significant number of lives that could have been saved if the appropriate action had been taken.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The statistics that she outlines demonstrate how important first aid training could be—it could genuinely save lives. Given the number of agencies and organisations that young parents engage with, from schools and nurseries to GP practices, is there not a good opportunity to signpost the availability of existing courses to parents and raise their awareness of them? In my area, they are available through St John Ambulance and the Red Cross. That would encourage take-up. If parents heard the statistics, very many more would take up the opportunity.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I hope that in our small way—as a result of this debate, the people watching it from outside the Chamber and the media coverage we secure—we will encourage people to take up that opportunity. That is a really good idea.

I have been listening very much to healthcare professionals in my constituency. Dr Simon Robertson, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, told me:

“I have been a consultant general paediatrician for the last 12 years. I see children referred into hospital from their GPs, and the emergency department.

From the view of a general paediatrician a child illness and resuscitation course for all parents makes practical sense for the families and NHS services.

Parents are expected to make important decisions about their children’s health and about seeking medical advice. But we know they find it difficult to work out if their child just has a minor viral illness, or something more serious. Unfortunately not all parents are educationally equipped to read instructions from their red book, NHS Choices or health advice apps like the ‘HandiApp’. For them, we know they really need time and practice in a supportive environment to learn these decision making skills. We repeatedly see this in the families we teach resuscitation to on the wards.

What is needed in my opinion, is a course for all parents and those in child care on how to manage the common emergency problems like choking, diarrhoea and vomiting, a seizure, recognising sepsis, managing a head injury, or in preventing accidents, drowning or cot death. These learnt skills could help keep children safe and healthy, so should be the skills highly valued by families. Vitally, early action may help prevent some medical emergencies deteriorating to life threatening illness.

This can only be good for the health of children, and for children’s acute NHS services.”

I completely agree.

In 2013, the Department for Education undertook a confidential inquiry into maternal and child health in England. It conducted a meticulous audit of deaths of babies and children, and reported identifiable failures in children’s direct care in just over a quarter of deaths, and potentially avoidable factors in a further 43% of deaths. The University of Northampton’s 2017 report “Before Arrival at Hospital: Factors affecting timing of admission to hospital for children with serious infectious illness” stated that parents often find it difficult to access relevant health information or to interpret symptoms, and that it can even be difficult for GPs to determine how serious a case is in the early stages.

I have been working with Cornwall Resus, which was established in 2012 by two paediatric nurses to give parents and carers the necessary skills to empower them to recognise when their baby or child is unwell and to respond appropriately. It runs courses for parents in community centres around Cornwall. Those courses last two to two and a half hours and include practical training on choking and resuscitation using lifelike dummies, with lots of time for questions and discussion at the end. I know that I would not be happy to undertake those actions unless I had practised them on a dummy first; having just looked at instructions or a diagram, I would still be very nervous about the amount of pressure to apply, so using dummies and having practical sessions and reassurance is really important.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this subject forward for consideration, and I commend her for the work she did as a Minister. I am very pleased to see her active on the Back Benches with the rest of us. I became a grandfather for the third time just before Christmas, when my grandson Austin—I already had two granddaughters—was born. I am very mindful that parents are immensely stressed after the birth of their baby, given the care babies require. For each parent to have just a bit of knowledge about these things at that time can be the difference between life and death. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is an opportunity, through the antenatal classes that mothers do with their local trust and GP, to instil in parents the basic skills she refers to?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I will come on to what I would like the Government to consider doing. I do not think we should be prescriptive about how this training is enabled. Lots of organisations provide such training—Kernow Resus is one such organisation, but we have also heard about the Red Cross, St John Ambulance and Millie’s Trust—and of course there is the NHS workforce themselves: maternity nurses, and healthcare professionals who visit families at home. We should not be at all prescriptive about how we might enable this training, but it is important that all parents have the opportunity to participate.

Most courses cost around £30, which will seem to most of us like a very modest investment, but not every parent will be able to afford that. That will be a real barrier for some families. That is why I would like the Government to enable universal access to high-quality, evidence-based training delivered by fully qualified providers. That would give us the opportunity to reduce morbidity and mortality and, importantly, family distress. It would also help tackle the associated costs of treatment, hospital admissions and even possible litigation. We have seen huge improvements in child and infant health in our country. The number of deaths of babies and small children has fallen significantly, but it is still far too high, so I really hope that the Minister will consider seriously how we might take forward this relatively modest, straightforward intervention.

The NHS is rightly focused on preventing ill health and injury, and I am delighted that the Government are investing so much in it. I am sure everybody in the Chamber is fully supportive of that investment. It would require only modest investment to pilot this training in a couple of geographical areas and work with a couple of local commissioning groups to see how they might go about delivering it. We have heard about a range of options they might pursue. By giving commissioning groups responsibility to see how they might go about that, we could collect proper evidence about not only the impact on families and the reduction of deaths and harm to children, but the impact on acute trusts and primary care in an area if, as a result of being more confident, parents do not engage with the NHS quite so much.

This would be a small but vital step. It would be such a positive contribution. We would have more Rowenas, and far fewer families would have to cope with the dreadful grief of losing a loved one.

Order. The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to begin calling the Front Benchers no later than 3.27 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Sarah Newton will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 3.27 pm, it is Back-Bench time. Two Members have indicated that they would like to speak. I call Douglas Ross.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this important debate, and for the various points that she raised. The way she delivered her remarks shows that the care and compassion she displayed as a Minister continues on the Back Benches. We heard from the interventions of several hon. Members how important this issue is for many people.

I approach the debate as the father of a 22-day-old; young Alastair was born three weeks ago yesterday. That is where my interest in this issue comes from. I am now mentioning my son and my wife quite a lot in the Chamber; it seems my soft side is coming out. To compensate, I remind people that when I was first elected, a magazine did a profile of all the Scottish Conservatives who had been elected, in which I was described as “tough as teak”. I have a tough side and a soft side, which I hope to balance in the debate. I was keen to take part in it for personal reasons, but also to explain some of the issues that my constituents face. While I was shocked and disappointed by the Red Cross figures that showed that just 5% of adults had the skills and confidence to provide emergency first aid to infants, I had to accept and admit that I was among the 95% who do not have those skills and have not gone through that training. I probably should have. In the nine months ahead of Alastair’s birth, I thought we had prepared for everything. We bought nursery equipment and new clothes, and even went down to the detail of how we would introduce our child to our dog. Those are all things we thought about, and it was only when this debate appeared on the Order Paper that I thought we had done nothing about preparing ourselves for this new human being coming into our lives and how we would care for him and look after him if, in the unfortunate situation described by some hon. Members, he required emergency first aid.

One of the great benefits we got ahead of my wife giving birth was the care, understanding and education of our antenatal classes. They were excellent. At Dr Gray’s and throughout Moray we have excellent midwives. We went along to Moray College on two Thursdays to attend the classes, which really prepared us both, giving us all the knowledge and information we needed for the birth and the first few days. I now wonder why we do not introduce an element of first aid training into those antenatal classes. There is a captive audience of parents wanting to know more about the first stages in their child’s life and the birth process, and they could be told how to provide emergency treatment for an infant if they require it once they are home.

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have said about using antenatal classes. The parents are there and they want to learn, so that is a good opportunity. Does he agree that there are alternative opportunities, such as through Sure Start, to target families to support them on looking after their child? There is that opportunity after the child’s birth to give parents those necessary skills to save lives.

I fully endorse what the hon. Lady said. If there is not time or there are other constraints that mean a first aid element cannot be included in an antenatal class, perhaps there should be a signpost saying, “This is something you can consider. Here are some of the organisations who could do this,” just to put it on people’s radar. They are very excited about the birth of their child and fascinated by the birth process, which they have gone along to learn about, so just mentioning that may be a trigger that would make some parents consider, “Actually it is important to go to that organisation, or another, to get that training.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the birth of his son, which I would have done anyway. Will he be a footballer or a referee—who knows?

There is another option: the health visitor calls to check on the child and the mother, and there is a follow-up after birth. There are many ways other than statutory ways of doing this.

Absolutely. One of the texts I was reading before I came to the debate was from my wife, who had had her weekly meeting with the health visitor this afternoon. That is something we can look at, and at the end of my remarks I will explain what I think we could do in Scotland and for other new parents in Moray.

Having not had the option or opportunity to do that training in antenatal classes, we looked at what first aid training was available in Moray for people with infants. During my research for this debate, I was notified that there were no classes at all in the Moray constituency; parents must travel to Aberdeen—a 70-mile journey each way. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, the classes cost about £40, which is not much for some but prohibitive for others. Those classes cost roughly £40 to £50 in Aberdeen, 70 miles away, or in Dundee, 150 miles away. I mentioned in a previous Westminster Hall debate the downgrading of our maternity services in Moray—I am fighting against that—and surely we must ensure that first aid classes for people with infants are available in a constituency the size of Moray, because we want to attract people to come here and set up their families. We must have everything possible available to them.

Since I did not take these classes, I looked at some of the things I could learn at them. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), who will follow me, will give far more information, given her medical background; I look forward to listening to her. However, for example, I was fascinated to learn that, to treat a burn on an infant, the burn area must be put under cold water for 10 minutes and then covered with cling film. I think I could do the cling film bit, but keeping my 22-day-old baby under a cold water tap for 10 minutes would be challenging, given how difficult we have found bathtimes. I also noted that the best cure for any bumps was putting what we in Scotland call a cloot—frozen peas in a towel—on the bump. I therefore learnt a bit in preparation for the debate, which I hope provides reassurance that things are progressing.

Many more new parents would feel confident and more comfortable in the knowledge gained from such classes. It is not simply about not knowing but about a lack of confidence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said. We can have how we would do something in the back of our mind—we may have seen something we could try on television—but having the confidence that results from practising on dummies, as she mentioned, before having to take that step is important. Of course, we all hope we will never have to use that know-how.

I commend the Government’s proposal for health education to become compulsory in primary and secondary schools from September, requiring schools to teach first aid and life-saving skills. That is important because by the time a pupil leaves school they will have all the skills we are mentioning today, having been taught to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation as well as learning the purpose of a defibrillator and basic treatment for common injuries. In Scotland, I really back the “Save a life Scotland” strategy, which aims to equip 500,000 people in Scotland with CPR skills by 2020—that work to be done in primary and secondary schools with partner organisations the Scottish Ambulance Service, the Red Cross, Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland and many others.

St John Ambulance states that when a child stops breathing, only one in four parents know what to do. When 82% of people feel it important to know first aid and 80% are interested in first aid, surely this is as good a time as any to include first aid training in a number of elements, whether antenatal classes or our national curriculum, so that people who lack knowledge and confidence have that built up, so that they know they are not doing something wrong if faced with a situation where they need to perform first aid.

One of the best sources of information for the debate was the “save a life” survey carried out by Mother and Baby magazine, which we have become regular subscribers to. It found that 62% of parents said that knowing first aid skills would make them feel more prepared for parenthood and 57% said they would leave an injured child until an ambulance arrived, which is wrong. If we learn basic first aid skills, we can assist a child in those cases. It also found that 55% of parents said they lacked the skills necessary to save their child in the event of a life-threatening accident and 72% of parents would not know how to assist an unconscious child with CPR, or even deal with burns or scalds. Only 19% of parents interviewed—less than one in five—had been on a first aid course in the previous five years. We should change that, and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth having secured this debate, we can go forward on that.

In a number of years of marriage, I have found it is best to leave the final word to my wife. When I told her that I was to speak in this debate and what I was to say on training for new parents about infants, she said, “You don’t want to have to do it, but having the knowledge is reassuring.” That is how we should go forward. We should ensure that my wife, and all parents in Moray, in Scotland and across the UK, have that knowledge to save a child’s life if required, even if we never want them to have to use it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate. She has been a champion of raising awareness to reduce avoidable deaths through working with the UK Sepsis Trust—sepsis is also a major killer of adults and children—and I am delighted that she has now lent her voice to the cause of infant first aid training for parents. As a paediatric consultant, this is an issue close to my heart.

My hon. Friend highlighted the alarmingly high number of cases where something could have been done to prevent a child’s death: 21% according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I should declare my membership of that organisation. Working on a children’s ward for the last 15 years, sadly I have seen far too many of those 21%. However, I have also seen children whose lives were saved by passing members of the public, as was described earlier in the case of Rowena, by doctors or health professionals, or by visiting family members who just happened to spot something and were able to help.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth powerfully described a case of a child choking. As we approach Easter and then summer, mini-eggs and grapes are particular culprits. Advice should include how to manage a choking child, as well as simple measures to prevent choking. Chopping up grapes into little pieces, sitting down while eating and not running about with things in the mouth are helpful in preventing choking, but it can still happen to anybody, young or old, at any time. We should all know some of the manoeuvres that can help, such as the one my hon. Friend described in the case of the baby choking. The baby should be held face down across the adult’s legs, so that the baby’s head is lower than the adult’s knee, and blows should be applied to the baby’s back, between the shoulder blades.

That sort of information does not take long to learn, but can have a huge impact and can be responsible for saving somebody’s life. The information is already provided to a number of parents. I have delivered infant first aid to parents whose children have been in hospital. Each of the neonatal units that I worked on in the midlands provided first aid training to parents before they left hospital, in part because pre-term babies are more vulnerable when they have just left hospital and in part to provide parents with the confidence to manage very small babies when they go home, as was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). Training is also provided routinely to parents who have had a child die in the past, but obviously we want to look at prevention.

The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) talked about contact with health visitors and midwives. Evidence shows that parents are particularly receptive to messages about healthcare and first aid when they have just had their baby or when they are expecting their baby, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray mentioned. That is a time before life becomes really busy, when one can reflect on the joy that is to come and be well prepared for it.

There are lots of opportunities for first aid training to be provided. There are antenatal classes, where training can be signposted or provided, as well as nurseries. I strongly believe that the practical advice should not just include what to do when things have gone wrong, but how to stop them going wrong in the first place. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray mentioned burns. I remember the case of a child who walked past a lit candle; it caught her dress and she got severe burns to her whole front. In that case her mum knew what to do—drop her to the floor, roll her over and stop the burning—and treated the situation appropriately, but even so the injury was severe and could have been prevented if the candle had not been left on such a low table.

Using seatbelts and car seats are among other simple measures that we know we should to do. One major cause of preventable deaths in children is drowning, so there should be simple advice about making sure that children are not left unsupervised around open water. I have seen this particularly in situations where there has been open water and a group of people, often at a big family event, where everybody is looking after the child but there is not one specific person watching to see that they do not end up in the water. At one of my children’s christenings, I was upstairs in a bedroom on the other side of the house when I saw from the window that a friend’s little boy had gone towards the small pond we had in the garden and that he was on his own. I ran downstairs and was fortunate that he had not gone into the pond by the time I got there. My husband was out with a digger the following day getting rid of the pond. It was not worth the risk, but if people have such ponds they need to be carefully managed. I have certainly seen children drown in those situations.

One thing that can be neglected in homes is fluids in cupboards. Years ago, when we were younger, fluids were kept in lemonade bottles and similar containers, and children did not realise that. I well remember when my second boy was very young—he was the one who everything seemed to happen to—he managed to get a gulp or two of Brasso. He had the shiniest backside that any child ever had, but that is by the way. It can easily happen that a fluid can be drunk or absorbed by a youngster. We need to take steps in our own homes to ensure that all fluids are under lock and key, wherever they may be.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about fluids. I noticed when I bought some washing detergent last week that the lids now have a clasp that is especially difficult to open, so children cannot consume those little bubbles. No one is ever perfect; I know that if I looked for hazards to my three children in my own home they would be there. So far, thank God, I have been lucky and I hope that will continue, but we can all do things to reduce risk.

I am glad that the Government are committed to ensuring that all early learning staff have first aid training, but it is time that they did the same for parents. Since 2016, all newly qualified level 2 and 3 early years staff must hold a current paediatric first aid or emergency paediatric first aid certificate. The Millie’s Mark quality scheme, which was commended by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), was also launched in 2016. It requires childcare providers to train 100% of their staff in paediatric first aid, not just to have one trained person on site at any one time. The 300th nursery gained Millie’s Mark last summer, which was a cause for celebration, and I am proud those nurseries include Dappledown House Nursery and Appletree Corner Daycare in my constituency. My son’s nursery has offered parents first aid training in the last couple of months, so the message is getting out there and that needs to continue.

The efforts to provide safety in schools should now be matched to provide safety in the home. The time and financial investment needed to provide that is small. It costs £30 for two and a half hours of invaluable training on some of the most common causes of avoidable death, including choking, and ways of providing resuscitation. Providing preventive medicine is one of the best investments we can make. As well as avoiding tragedy, it takes pressure off our NHS services, which are facing ever-increasing demand. It is the right thing to do for both our children and our country, and I am glad to lend my support to this cause today.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is telling me that I will get endless amounts of time, but I will not indulge the House and will try to be relatively brief.

It is, as always, an immense pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to see you here today, Mr Hollobone. Can I, as others have done, congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate? I always thought she was a conscientious Minister. I was annoyed that the week she resigned I had had a productive meeting with her about taking forward some changes to regulations. I hope the Government will appoint a new Minister soon and that we can follow that up. In one respect it is sad that she has left Government, but, as Members have said, it is good to see her on the Back Benches pursuing this issue. We wish her well, not just for this campaign but for her future time here.

In opening the debate, the hon. Lady spoke movingly about the story of Rowena. There was something incredibly encouraging and powerful about the story, which leads us to think about how many of us have received infant first aid training. It certainly gave a lot of us food for thought. Her asks of the Government are modest. She is not asking for billions of pounds of spending—perhaps if her colleagues from the DUP did it, they might have more success—but in all seriousness, she is looking for a modest change. I hope that the Minister is taking note and will take that back to the Department.

The hon. Lady was right to highlight the fact that it is great that organisations such as St John Ambulance and the Red Cross offer training on a commercial basis—they are charities and they have to cover their costs—but it is a bit sad that people have been asked to pay £30 or £40. As the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) highlighted, it is not just the cost of the courses that must be considered; if people travel to Edinburgh, Dundee or Aberdeen there are travel costs as well, which will be more than £40. He was right to put that on the record.

When we discuss the health service, I try to focus on the preventive spending agenda. As the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) said, this idea backs up preventive spending. If we empower parents and give them first aid training, it means that fewer people will present at accident and emergency at hospitals, and that can only be a good thing further down the line. There is a safety aspect to the argument, but also an economic aspect. The hon. Lady was right to put that on the record.

We had interventions from the hon. Members for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), for Henley (John Howell), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for Strangford. We also had two excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Moray and for Sleaford and North Hykeham. As we know, the hon. Member for Moray has become a dad recently and has joined the club of dads who are also MPs. I know that he will be having sleepless nights at the moment. I sometimes tell my wife that I come to Westminster for a rest and a good night’s sleep. I am sure he is doing that as well.

A new parent spends so much time preparing for the arrival of a child, whether it is painting the nursery or getting the pram, but we miss out something as basic as first aid for infants. We now have two children, one of three and one of six months. Jessica was born in September. I had moved into a new house and was bolting drawers and wardrobes to the wall. As I was listening to this debate, I thought about how I spent so much time thinking about how to bolt IKEA furniture to the wall and yet I have done no first aid training, which is absolutely bonkers.

The hon. Member for Moray is right to say that there is a tremendous opportunity at antenatal classes. I know that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth does not want to be too prescriptive, but it is certainly something that we should look at in Scotland, and I would be happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on making representations to NHS Scotland. He was right to put on the record the case of Dr Gray’s in Moray. Every time I have spoken in these debates and mentioned it, I get in trouble for not trumpeting the Scottish Government line on it, but as a constituency MP he is absolutely right to put it on the record. He is a powerful champion for his constituents and it is good that that is on the record again.

The hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham spoke with her professional expertise as a paediatric consultant. I have the great pleasure of chairing the all-party group on premature and sick babies—something that I will talk about later. As for paediatric consultants and neonatal staff, certainly in my experience of two occasions, we see those guys as gods when we are on the neonatal units, so it is really encouraging to have the hon. Lady in the House using her professional expertise in this debate. She was right to put on the record some of the public health messages that we as politicians can get out to our constituents, whether it is about cutting up grapes or highlighting the dangers that come up around Easter with mini-eggs.

One of the reasons I was asked by my party to sum up the debate is because I have a personal interest in the subject. I have two children, both of whom were born prematurely. On both occasions, there was a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. We had two similar but slightly different experiences, the second of which was in September when my daughter was born and spent almost a month in hospital. She came home on oxygen and is still on oxygen at six months old. She gets it 24 hours a day. Before leaving the hospital, we were given an excellent document from the charity, Bliss, “Going home on oxygen”. Before we got that document, we had done the car seat test. For my daughter to leave hospital, she had to be able to be in a car seat for an hour to make sure she did not stop breathing. The last thing that we did before taking my daughter home was to practise CPR on a dummy, which is an incredibly stark experience. On the one hand, you are there as a dad getting to take your daughter home. You have been on the neonatal unit and have put all of your trust in the staff, but you have to go home. As I was preparing for this debate, it struck me that it is good to provide CPR training and to practise on a dummy, but even now we are not yet at the stage where we have had the full infant first aid training course.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth on securing this debate and moving the issue up the agenda. There is much that we can do, even if it is simple things such as making sure we use our voices as politicians to encourage training. Her asks are very modest and she certainly has our support to further the agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate. The subject has had a lot of attention in the news recently, but not much attention in this place. Having listened to the speeches and talked to colleagues across the House, I do not think there will be much disagreement here today. The fact that there are not many Members here says more about the subject than it does about any other business in this House, important as it is: any Member seeing the title of this debate might say, “It’s a no-brainer. What is there to talk about? Of course it is something we support.” It is important to put these things on the record.

Members have talked about their personal experiences as parents and grandparents—I am sure we all want to congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on the new addition to his family. People have spoken movingly about their own children and grandchildren. As a parent and a grandparent—I am going to be a grandparent again next week—I am reminded of how important the subject is, and we ought to give proper consideration to it. This debate gives us that opportunity, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing it.

As the hon. Lady rightly says, a lot of people have spoken from personal experience, but we as MPs have a role far beyond that—we are champions in our own constituencies. Does she not think that we should take the lessons learned and go out and make these points very forcefully in our constituencies?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention. I shall certainly speak with a loud voice about the subject in my constituency, and I encourage all Members to do the same.

The other point made by the hon. Member for Moray was that access is not easy. In preparation for this debate I checked up on access to training courses for my constituents and found that, even though I represent an urban community, it involves a 60-mile drive or a long train journey on a slow, rickety train line. That presents a massive barrier to my constituents accessing such training. I totally take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I agree with him entirely.

The safety of our children is and always should be paramount, and it is therefore important that, in the event of an obvious health emergency, parents have at least a basic knowledge of first aid so that they can take action before professional help arrives—actions that might save the child’s life. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth made a strong point about how it is important that parents are trained to recognise the symptoms of what can be serious diseases, such as sepsis and meningitis. It would be useful if parents were equipped to recognise the symptoms before they decide whether to call 999 or take their child to hospital, because knowing how to spot the symptoms really does save lives.

First aid, as the term suggests, is the first medical attention that a person receives after an accident or during a medical emergency. Despite what many people have been led to believe, first aid does not have to be delivered by medical professionals—we have established that. A person’s chances of surviving a medical emergency are increased dramatically if a member of the community can respond with first aid immediately. What happens in the crucial minutes after someone dials 999 or the NHS’s 111 and before professional help arrives can be the difference between life and death. The British Red Cross reported that close to a quarter of infant deaths could have been prevented had there been a qualified first aider on hand, and who better to be trained than the parent?

A few weeks ago I was walking to a parliamentary event across the square, and I came across a man who was unconscious and not very well. When I called 999 for an ambulance, I noticed that the ambulance operators who answer the phone provide detailed and step-by-step advice to callers about what to do. That is a beneficial thing to note.

That is an important point. I have been on the receiving end of that with a family member, waiting for an ambulance and listening to instructions. Nevertheless, I appreciate that having the confidence to follow those instructions, particularly with a young child, might go a little beyond that.

This is about re-teaching people about what they think they know. There is a lot of so-called knowledge out there among people who think they know first aid, but that is often based on what they have seen in the media, which sometimes puts style before substance. In fact, procedures shown for dramatic effect often bear little resemblance to safe first aid. Furthermore, carrying out procedures without proper training might do more harm than good. First aid for babies is also vastly different from first aid for adults and other young children. Such important matters should be regarded as key parenting skills.

All parents, irrespective of their ability to pay, should have access to high-quality first aid training as a priority. Access to first aid training is about more than skills; it is also about building confidence and resilience. The British Red Cross surveyed a group of people it had trained in first aid, and asked whether they felt the training had contributed to their personal wellbeing. Three quarters of the respondents said it had made them more capable and more reliable in an emergency, and half said it had made them more determined and better at finding their way out of difficult situations.

Ahead of this debate, the British Red Cross shared with me the case of Leanne, a young mum from Swindon. When her baby, Maia, was six months old, Leanne took a baby first aid course with the British Red Cross. When Maia was 18 months old, she had a febrile seizure. Using knowledge from her first aid course, Leanne was able to save Maia’s life by instantly recognising the signs, taking steps to cool her down by removing her blanket, and placing her on the floor so that she did not injure herself during the seizure. After the seizure was over, Leanne further reduced Maia’s temperature by stripping her down to her vest, and she placed her in the infant recovery position. Leanne’s quick thinking saved Maia’s life before the paramedics arrived, and Maia is back to her playful, happy self. Leanne was able to do that only because she recognised the signs of a febrile seizure from her baby and child first aid course.

A seizure can be a terrifying and violent event for a parent to witness, especially when they do not understand what is happening. Febrile seizures are not unusual in babies and children between the ages of six months and three years. However, the Red Cross reports that, when questioned, 66% of parents had not been taught to recognise a febrile seizure, and 65% did not even know what one was. The baby and first aid course gave Leanne the knowledge and skills to act, but most importantly it also gave her the confidence. She said:

“I’m grateful that I had attended a baby and child first aid course which meant I knew what to look out for and how to deal with a febrile seizure.”

Because of her first aid knowledge, she felt calm and able to act for her daughter.

We have heard many examples of such events, and we are grateful to the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for sharing her expertise. People in the wider public often talk about MPs living in a bubble or ivory tower, but the hon. Lady’s expert and practical knowledge demonstrates yet again that Members of Parliament are in touch and know what is happening out there. As the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said, it is right and proper to use our position to spread that knowledge and champion causes such as this.

In 2014, Mumsnet sponsored 20 mums to take part in British Red Cross baby and infant first aid training. All the mums rated the training highly, and one said:

“I really enjoyed the course as every single thing discussed could easily relate to me and my children. All the videos of real-life scenarios really brought it home how easily these things could happen, but now I feel confident and that I could make a real difference to the outcome, and would feel so much more knowledgeable on what to do in an emergency situation.”

As we have heard, there are many different providers of first aid training for parents of infants. I specifically mentioned the British Red Cross, and other hon. Members have mentioned St John Ambulance, which offers first aid courses designed specifically for babies and children. There are also local providers, such as the one championed by the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth. In addition, the NHS provides an online app to support parents with first aid for their infants. One parent said:

“Although you could read everything on the app and watch the videos for free, I think doing it in a class environment really makes you take it all in. It will also make you feel more confident if you were ever to need to help someone or your own child.”

As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care often reminds us, technology in the NHS is helpful, but it is not a substitute for services delivered by real people. In terms of first aid provision for parents, such apps can be useful to reinforce training given in a class setting, but they should not be seen as a substitute.

The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. Does she agree that both technology and face-to-face contact have their benefits and can be combined? A “sim” dolly is an electronic version of a resuscitation dolly, and when supervised resuscitation is provided to a baby, it provides electronic feedback on whether compressions are deep or fast enough, as that can be measured electronically by the dummy itself.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her expertise in that technology, and such things can be used in combination with a class setting and training to support existing knowledge. I agree that, on specific occasions, such technology has an important role.

In terms of treatment, we lack consistency of provision and access. We have already spoken about distances to, and charges for, courses being a barrier for some parents. Shockingly, research by the Red Cross showed that 95% of parents did not know what to do when shown three examples of life-threatening medical emergencies. Surely it is time to ensure that training is available for every parent in every region. I take the point that we ought not to be prescriptive, but in leaving things to local providers, we must ensure that no one falls through the gaps and no parent is missed.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has warned that UK infant mortality levels are among the highest in the developed world. There are many reasons for that, but cuts to local child services, community health projects, and community midwives and health visitors have undoubtedly not helped. It is clearly desirable to ensure that this important provision is adequately funded, but a significant proportion of deaths could be prevented by ensuring that all parents are equipped with important first aid skills.

Of course, a parent first aider is no replacement for a health visitor or paramedic, but they can be the first line of defence when it comes to helping their children live longer and healthier lives. Informed parents can prevent unnecessary trips to the GP and inappropriate hospital admissions, and it is a shame that despite the support that community and parent first aiders provide to the NHS and families, they are barely mentioned in the NHS long-term plan. That is important because if the Secretary of State is serious about making the NHS the best health service in the world, and about having an NHS that promotes health and wellbeing through a focus on prevention, the Government must make first aid in the community a priority. Equipping parents to look after their infants is a good and important step.

Will the Minister take action to ensure that universal first aid training forms part of the antenatal care available to parents? This is about providing families and communities with the skills to step forward in an emergency so that tragedies can be avoided. Learning such skills can be the difference between a life saved and a life lost.

I join all colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for bringing this important subject forward for debate. She has brought to it her characteristic good sense and made her case extremely well. I join colleagues in paying tribute to her work as a Minister. I must say that I had to work with her regularly when she was Minister for Disabled People and I miss her terribly, but if today is anything to go by, I am sure she will keep me busy from her position on the Back Benches, and I thank her for that.

I thank all hon. Members who have participated today, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who brought his perspective as a new parent. If he will forgive my saying so, as he was articulating some of the things he learned, it brought home to me how new parents can be a bit like rabbits caught in headlights, thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve got this fragile thing, what am I to do?” Again, that brings home the need for parents to feel confident in looking after their newborns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) gave a forensic exposition of the risks children face, and reminded us that we are equipping people with good, common-sense practical skills for things that can happen to anybody. She made her arguments extremely well. It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden); again, he brought the subject to life beautifully with his own experience and spoke excellent common sense.

I am surprised to hear that the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) is a grandmother, but that probably explains why she speaks from such a well-informed perspective. I am glad that she shared Leanne’s story, because it was a perfect example of how going through a course made that parent feel confident about how to deal with a child in distress, and helped her to understand exactly what the condition in front of her was.

Faced with such evidence, we can only do more to spread the news to parents that it is a good idea to equip themselves with first aid skills. From an NHS perspective, as the hon. Lady mentioned, if parents know more about their children’s conditions, there will be fewer visits to A&E and fewer visits to GPs, and that will make the NHS more effective. In a sense, what is not to like?

There are many providers of such products in the market. We have heard about St John Ambulance, the Red Cross and other local providers, and I would not want to favour one or other of them, beyond highlighting that those courses are available, as well as material on the NHS app. I hear what the hon. Lady says—that that is no substitute—but I tend to see these things as complementary. Today’s new parents are of the smartphone generation and want to access material via apps, and we must ensure that we have a good spread of information available to parents.

The death of any child is a tragedy, and the more we can do to support people to be the best possible parents, the better, because it is vital to the longer-term outcomes for the health and life chances of their children. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth brought her experience from her campaign to raise awareness of sepsis, which she referred to in her speech. Sepsis is a silent killer, and probably one of the most preventable causes of death, if we can identify it quickly enough. It is important that we continue to raise awareness so that people, and particularly parents, can spot the signs of sepsis and make decisions and interventions that will help sufferers.

Reference has been made to where we have these interventions and who can give new parents advice on first aid. I see midwives and health visitors as being on the frontline of doing that. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray explained that antenatal period when we are building a relationship and lapping up the information. The trust parents have in midwives and health visitors is a special relationship and presents a powerful opportunity for us to make an intervention to improve health outcomes for all. I see them as the cornerstone of ensuring that parents have the knowledge and skills they need before, during and after their baby’s birth, and that they have access to all the information they need.

There is information on the NHS website with tips for new parents, including information on the signs of a serious illness in a baby or toddler, but it is important that health visitors talk through common conditions with parents. It is a question of confidence; it is about making parents feel confident that they know what is happening to their child and that they can do their best to help them.

That was brought home by the account my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth gave of Rowena’s story and the fact that Rowena felt able to take someone’s child and help them because she had had that grounding. Such things can obviously go the other way, and none of us wants to be in the position of thinking, “What if?” or, “If only”. There is clearly every reason to encourage as widespread training in first aid as is possible.

My hon. Friend has a simple ask: she wishes the Government to fund a pilot project to generate evidence for a further roll-out of the project she has witnessed locally in Cornwall. The National Institute for Health Research welcomes funding applications for research into any aspect of human health, and any application will of course be judged in the normal way. Awards are made on the basis of the importance of the topic to patients and health and care services, value for money and scientific quality, so I encourage her and the team she is working with to apply for such a grant so that we can, as she says, demonstrate that the training has an impact on outcomes and provides better value for money for the NHS. It seems to me to speak for itself, but I encourage her to go through that process.

Can the Minister assure us that, if funding is achieved for such a pilot and the training is shown to be beneficial, the Government will commit to universal provision?

That will come down to the evidence base. The hon. Lady raised some questions about prevention in her speech. Following the long-term plan, we are working up our wider proposals for prevention, and we see interventions in the early years and childhood as extremely important, so we will look at what measures we need to take in that context. At this stage, I am not able to commit to universal provision of a particular product, but we need to look at how we can best equip parents with the tools to look after their children as well as they possibly can.

Every parent wants their child to stay safe. Frankly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham scared me to death with the risks she highlighted, because they illustrate just how easily any one of us could fall victim to an accident, and for a child that is especially the case. We know that unintentional injuries are one of the main causes of premature death and illness for children in England. To put a figure on that, every year in England 55 children under the age of five die from injuries in and around the home, which is 7% of all deaths of children aged one to four. That is pretty stark. We can factor on to that the 370,000 visits to A&E departments and 40,000 emergency hospital admissions in England each year because of accidents at home among under-fives.

Preventing accidents is part of Public Health England’s priority of giving children and young people the best start in life, and is an area to focus on. I was struck by the reference to choking, because that is a situation where knowing what we are doing can be the difference between life and death; by the time an ambulance has been called, it will be too late. There is much more that we need to do to educate people on how to deal with a child who is choking, because it is something that can happen to any child. We have all seen children excited and gobbling their food down, and with that obviously comes the attendant risk.

As I mentioned, health visitors are accessible to all parents and provide a trusted source of knowledge, advice and information. I want to make sure that we take full advantage of health visitors in that space. Through our work on early years, we are looking at what more we can do to support them, to make the most of that intervention. I am confident that if we make better use of that workforce, we can take a lot of action in this area, not least because parents find engaging with their health visitor less intimidating than they perhaps find medical professionals or anyone else; it is a relationship built up in the home. Health visitors are also the part of the scheme that deals not only with mum but with dad and the rest of the family as well, which is so important. Health visitors lead and support the delivery of preventive programmes for infants and children from nought to five years old through the healthy child programme, including by giving regular advice on accident prevention and links to wider community resources.

The hon. Lady will be aware that there has been a fall in the number of health visitors, following a peak in 2015. I am extremely committed to making sure that we have an ample supply of health visitors, because they are on the frontline of early intervention; they are an army. She will know that the NHS long-term plan, recognising that local authorities have borne the brunt of fiscal discipline in this area, explicitly says that we will strengthen the relationship between the NHS and local authorities in this space, because that is clearly good for health outcomes. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady.

I could go on for much longer, Mr Hollobone, but I do not want to stretch your indulgence unduly. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth for all her work on this matter and on raising awareness of sepsis. We will continue to co-operate in this area. I can tell her that Public Health England very much has this area on its radar, in terms of giving advice to parents on how best to look after their children. We will continue to work with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to establish a single, England-wide paediatric early warning system to improve the recognition and response of healthcare services to deteriorating children or young people across England in primary and community care, including in the ambulance service and hospitals. Information and advice to help parents recognise and respond to signs and symptoms of ill health are freely available.

We must continue to champion and promote this cause. I thank midwives and health visitors for their tremendous work—they play such an important role in this—as well as providers of first aid courses. I look forward to engaging with my hon. Friend further on this matter.

I hope, now that we are at the end of the debate, that the words on the Order Paper are beginning to make a bit more sense. It has been a fantastic debate, and I am grateful to the many Members who have come along today, particularly as there has been so much about Brexit in the main Chamber. That people have chosen to spend time here this afternoon underlines how important this issue really is.

It was great to hear from the parents in the room, including my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who I congratulate on becoming new fathers and on being prepared to speak so personally and eloquently about their journey as parents. If as a result of this debate we have done nothing more than to make sure than they sign up to courses and tell all their friends who are also young parents to go out and do those courses, we will have achieved something.

I also thank the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for reminding us of the important contribution of grandparents. More than ever, grandparents care directly for babies and children, so it is important that they are also trained and feel confident, because things change over time. It is good to hear a grandparent’s point of view.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly reminded us, we are all champions in this place, whatever our personal experience. Whether we are like my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), who brings huge professional expertise, or we are unqualified but passionate advocates for our communities, we have a very important role. I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Member for Henley will join my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and the hon. Members for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in leading campaigns in their constituencies to raise awareness of the courses and training that are available, so that more parents feel confident and able to identify the signs of serious illness or injury and to take appropriate action.

I am grateful to the Minister, whom I thoroughly enjoyed working with; I miss working with her. I will certainly take up her kind offer to follow up on the debate. I was particularly interested in her point about the NHS long-term plan and the important future for health visitors. I agree: when I was a new mum, the health visitor arriving each day was a really valuable service. That support from the health visitor was essential in starting me off on my parenting journey. I understand that the Minister is personally committed to developing that workforce, not only in numbers but in their range of skills, and that she is looking at what further roles they may play in providing this important training to new parents. Her suggestion that we work on that is really positive.

I will certainly take up the opportunity to evaluate the first aid courses that are available in my community in Cornwall and the impact that they are having not only on families, but on our local NHS. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham warns me that the forms can be very long and that it can be an arduous process, but we will certainly give it a go. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Minister to do what all of us in this room want: to make sure that parents of any age get the best possible support in starting that amazing journey of being parents, so that all their children grow up to be healthy and happy, and we avoid all preventable deaths and injuries.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered infant first aid training for parents.

Sitting suspended.

Non-stun Slaughter of Animals

[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered non-stun slaughter of animals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is of concern to me personally, as well as many of my constituents and the wider public. I thank the British Veterinary Association for campaigning on this issue and its guidance ahead of this debate. I declare that I am an honorary member of the BVA, for which there is no reward other than regular contact, which is available to all hon. Members. Many constituents have contacted me on this subject, including quite a few from the farming community.

Like many other people I am a consumer of meat and an animal lover, and I do not believe those two positions are mutually exclusive. A discussion of the non-stun slaughter of animals must be based not on strength of feeling, but on evidence. Having considered some of the evidence, I feel that there is a strong case to be made for the banning of non-stun slaughter. The BVA believes

“that slaughter without pre-stunning unnecessarily compromises animal welfare and that animals should be stunned before slaughter.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation could be vastly improved in the short term by changing our labelling laws and requiring products to be labelled to show whether stunning has taken place? Does he further agree that one benefit of leaving the EU is regaining control of our food-labelling laws?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on both of those points. I will come on to say more about the former point; I suspect that I will be called out of order if I go too far down the latter.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I eat red meat regularly and I am also an animal lover. However, I do believe we can accommodate people. If we had the labelling to indicate whether stunning was used, people would have the opportunity to choose whether to buy that meat.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Pre-stunning renders animals immediately unconscious and insensible to pain before they are slaughtered. In the absence of stunning, animals can feel the pain of the neck cut, experience a delay to loss of consciousness and experience the pain and distress of aspirating blood into the respiratory tract. While there is no nice way to end an animal’s life, many would agree that that is a particularly distressing account of the last moments of an animal’s life.

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying about stunning, but unfortunately, it does not always work. Something like 26,000 cattle, 100,000 pigs and 9.5 million chickens are mis-stunned each year. How do we solve that problem?

My hon. Friend raises a good and important point. I do not pretend for one moment that the practice is absolutely perfect. It does need to be improved, but the objective should be to go down that road, rather than have animals slaughtered without stunning. He raises a perfectly good point.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on many occasions stunning involves sending a very strong electric shock to the animal, which can suffer for about 20 or 25 minutes while it is being made unconscious, causing excruciating pain?

I will give way as often as I am requested to do so. However, I am not yet on my second page. I am sure you will agree, Sir Henry, that time is limited as this is a half-hour debate and we have already used five minutes. I will give way to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), then the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and then my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann).

I will be brief. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one way to deal with this issue is to look at labelling from the potential of blockchain technology, which could provide complete traceability within the system and help to identify those abattoirs that are identified as having those issues, thus putting consumer power at the heart of the process?

Many of my constituents have contacted me about this issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the traditional methods of slaughter, which are used in the Muslim and Jewish religions, are in fact more humane than some of the modern practices, which either do not work properly or do not give due consideration to the welfare of the animal?

That point has been raised with me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has seen appendix one to the briefing from the BVA, which gives quite a bit of distressing evidence about the non-stun slaughter of animals. Let us try to move on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate and taking my intervention. Does he agree that many residents in my constituency want proper labelling—as has been mentioned—so that they can make a conscious choice about how their animals are killed? I am a great believer in labelling, and I hope that the Minister is listening. We should push for better labelling for slaughtered animals.

I agree entirely. That may be the compromise we settle on for now.

I do accept and understand that this is an emotive and sensitive issue, because it can overlap with religious belief. However, this debate is not about preventing people from practicing their faith. I do not want to incorrectly conflate non-stun slaughter with religious slaughter.

There are some misconceptions. For example, many people think that halal meat is all non-stunned. It is difficult to get exact figures, but I am advised that less than half of halal meat falls under that practice. However, shechita, the Jewish religious method of slaughter is solely non-stun. I am not concerned about expressions of religious belief, though I do think that our beliefs sometimes have to be tempered by the fact that we should not cause another living thing harm when that can be mitigated.

Are we not aiming for a civilised society in which we honour the meat that feeds us by giving it a good a life and as painless an end as possible?

I agree entirely. My concerns are therefore completely grounded in animal welfare. This topic is just one element of a wider debate we should be having on animal welfare at slaughter, including ensuring that the existing animal welfare standards that we have in place are met. I hope that we can encourage a sensible debate on this issue.

As a nation, we are increasingly concerned with animal welfare on a broad range of issues, and rightly so. The Government have an excellent record on animal welfare, responding to demands for mandatory CCTV in slaughter houses, addressing plastics in the oceans and tackling the illegal ivory trade. Today, we had a ten-minute rule Bill on animal sentience that will impose a duty on public bodies to have due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating or implementing policy. The Government are committed to doing that, so I ask them to consider some of the things that I am suggesting.

Consumers are rightly concerned about the quality of life of animals before slaughter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) said. That also extends to concerns about the ending of animals’ lives, which is a concern for farmers across my constituency, who feel strongly that the animals they have carefully bred should not suffer unnecessarily in their final minutes. I therefore suggest that the Government look at banning non-stun slaughter, if they feel that the evidence points that way and that it would be appropriate. That is a position based on scientific evidence and supported by the BVA, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is saying this, but does he agree that the truth is that the debate about banning slaughter has an impact on, and is correlated with, the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism? It is used as a tool by Tommy Robinson et al. and by newspapers to propagate headlines such as “Halal secret of Pizza Express” and “Brit kids forced to eat Halal school dinners”. It goes into that area.

I am glad the hon. Lady excludes me from any suggestion of that. If anybody takes up the issue on that basis, they are completely wrong and ignorant of the debate—including the reasonable debate we are having in this Chamber.

Action has been taken by several countries, whether through a ban, clearer labelling or ensuring that production is based on demand. Slaughter without pre-stunning has been banned in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. Other countries such as Austria, Estonia, Finland and Slovakia require post-cut stunning immediately after the incision if the animal has not already been stunned.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I have been a vegetarian for 20-odd years, which is why I support banning this method because of the animal rights issue. Does he agree that we must ensure that there are strict customs checks on animal products imported from third countries into the UK and that those products have the same high standards as we require from our farmers?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s important point.

As I was saying, a range of approaches are being taken and a ban would not be unprecedented. As we have already heard, there is considerable support for clearer labelling and for preventing the production of non-stunned meat beyond the needs of our domestic market. I ask the Government to consider the full range of approaches that has been taken across the world and, if they are not prepared to consider a ban, to investigate those other options.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while we are having the debate, we must ensure—I cannot speak for the other countries that he named—the religious freedom that our democracy is so proud of? In this instance, we are talking about two religious communities, the Jewish community and the Muslim community, which are directly affected by the debate and what he is proposing.

I made it clear at the beginning that the debate is about animal welfare, and I certainly do not want to suggest what is right and wrong with regard to religion; the debate should not be seen as that in any way. I have given way an awful lot, so I will have to move on a bit. I was going to go through the EU law on slaughter, which is contained in a Council regulation, but I will have to speed up, otherwise the Minister will not have a chance to respond.

In response to the hon. Lady’s point, as I have mentioned, while some slaughter practices do not allow pre-stunning, in accordance with religious rites, some halal authorities consider that pre-stunning is permissible, provided that the stun does not kill the animal and that the animal could have theoretically regained consciousness. That is an important point, because many consumers of meat may not buy it if it is signified as halal because they believe it is from an animal that was not stunned. That represents an unnecessary loss to the market.

I ask the Government to address the evidence being put forward by organisations such as the BVA and RSPCA. There have been a number of stark illustrations, which I referred to earlier. I will not go through them all again, but I am happy to send hon. Members copies of the BVA submission if they would like.

In the absence of a ban, we could move forward in other ways. The first way forward is to look at over-production. If non-stun slaughter is to continue, I ask that we ensure that supply only meets demand and does not exceed it. For example, in Germany, abattoirs are permitted to slaughter animals without stunning only if they show that they have local religious customers for the request. To obtain that permission, applicants need to fulfil several requirements, including on slaughter procedure, species and the number of animals. I ask that the Government take steps to require abattoirs to illustrate levels of demand and issue licences on that basis.

A second way forward is to ensure that the supply of non-stunned meat is for domestic demand. I ask the Government to examine export patterns and consider whether the export of non-stunned meat from the UK reflects the intentions of the derogation from EU law. Again, I could give figures on how the export of non-stunned animals has increased considerably over the past few years, but time does not permit it.

A third way forward relates to the important issue of labelling, which several hon. Members have raised. It is essential for a number of reasons, including the misconceptions that people may have about certain products such as halal, and on the basis that consumers have a right to know where their meat comes from, how it was reared and how it was slaughtered. There is a wider issue about food labelling, and many people want the country of origin of food to be labelled more precisely and accurately. That can form part of the discussions about labelling.

I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. If we introduce labelling on stun and non-stun meat in this country, will that not also send a message to countries where the actual torture of animals is a regular part of the slaughtering process? I speak of some of those places where dog meat is regularly consumed.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it could make a difference. I have cut short my speech considerably to allow other hon. Members to join in, which I certainly do not object to doing, but I could have provided more evidence for my points if I had had time—never mind.

There is a divergence of opinion on the issue, so I ask the Minister to consider holding a number of roundtable meetings with stakeholders, such as religious groups, farmers, vets and anybody else who has something useful to contribute, including perhaps hon. Members. I ask him to engage in the discussions about the process —I am sure he is already taking it seriously—to see whether we can find a way forward. No matter what people’s backgrounds, religions, or anything else, they do not want to see the unnecessary suffering of animals. I am sure he will engage with the subject, and I hope he will get people round a table to talk about it in great detail and see what progress we can make.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. It is good to be involved in another well-attended animal welfare debate. I am mindful that I am spending more time with hon. Members—if not on Brexit, then on animal welfare—than with members of my family, but I would like to put it on the record that it is my daughter Jenny’s 13th birthday. I had to do it somehow; I called her this morning as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing the debate and on the tone with which he discussed the topic. It is an emotive issue, as we know, and I am grateful for the way in which hon. Members have sought to talk about it in an evidence-based way, whether raising opinions from a welfare or a religious perspective. That is to be welcomed.

I thank the Minister for giving way and I also thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who secured the debate, especially for his explicit and helpful statement at the outset that he did not intend in any way to impact on religious freedom or expression. Will the Minister confirm that, regardless of the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, the rights of the Jewish and Muslim faiths to have meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs will always be protected?

Yes, I can confirm that, but it is important that we have a discussion about these issues and I will come on to say how we can do that. However, since the 1930s we have had a tradition of respecting the religious rights of both the Jewish community and the Muslim community, and we will honour that tradition.

Let me try to make some progress, because I have heard a lot of people’s points and I want to respond. Of course, if there are interventions I will take them, but there is quite a lot to come back on from the interventions that have already been made. Perhaps I can try to rattle through and answer as many questions as possible.

Of course, the focus here is animal welfare concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) contributed, and although I do not think that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said anything, I know that she is here with the hat on of concern about animal welfare. I am very proud that we have so many MPs who are interested in this issue, but the fact is that we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world, and as we leave the EU we will improve them further.

The Government are taking action in a number of areas to further protect and ensure the welfare of animals, for example by increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty tenfold, from six months’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment. We are also banning the use of electronic shock collars and third-party puppy and kitten sales, and we have already banned the online sale of puppies.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I will be very brief. I just want to commend the Government for what they have done regarding animal rights over the last few years. The Minister himself came to the Dogs Trust event that I organised last year. I am proud to be a Conservative because of the way the Government champion animal rights, and I thank them for that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am really pleased that the Conservative party is interested in this issue, and I am really pleased that the Labour party and the Scottish National party are taking an active interest too. This is a cross-party issue. We are trying to push through so much legislation and I know that there is frustration about just when we will be able to make it happen. I share that frustration, but hopefully hon. Members know, after all the debates that we have had in recent days, that we are working very hard to try to make these things happen.

Let me come back to the point about religious slaughter. On non-stun slaughter in particular, I restate that it is the Government’s preference that all animals are stunned before slaughter. However, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain)—this relates to the comments made by the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah)—the Government respect the rights of Jews and Muslims to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs. Therefore, we allow religious slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews intended for consumption by Muslim and Jewish communities, in keeping with their traditions.

The Government believe that this is an important religious freedom. There is a long history of upholding it in legislation, dating back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933. We remember from our history books what was going on at that time in the ’30s. Important decisions were made in relation to that Act, which contained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims. Since then, the rules governing religious slaughter have developed to provide additional protections to animals that are slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, while still permitting non-stun slaughter for Jews and Muslims.

When we discuss religious slaughter, it is worth bearing in mind that often in the case of halal meat the relevant Muslim authorities are content that the animal is stunned. Although we produce a significant amount of halal sheepmeat in this country, two thirds of it is from sheep that are stunned before slaughter.

Today there are both EU and domestic regulations that protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing. Within that legislation, there are additional rules for those animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, specifically for the production of halal or kosher meat. The primary aim of the welfare at slaughter regulations, which are based on a body of scientific evidence and advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is to ensure that animals are spared avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing, which was one of the key points that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury made in his very important speech.

The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015— WATOK—imposed stricter national rules for religious slaughter and provided greater protections than those contained in the EU regulation, which sets baseline Europe-wide standards. For instance, we prohibit the inversion of cattle for religious slaughter, which some member states, such as France, still allow. This ban followed the 1985 report of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which recommended that inversion be banned.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised concerns about mis-stunning. The official veterinarians of the Food Standards Agency will take enforcement action against mis-stunning.

I thank the Minister for mentioning mis-stunning. Will he ensure that if there is going to be labelling, we are told on the label exactly the methodology adopted in the stunning?

That is an important point. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, there are so many things that I would like to talk about to try to reassure people here. I will skim through them and then come back to that point about labelling. If I may, I will make that the last intervention, then I think I will be able to answer the other points that have been made.

My brother is a meat inspector; I will just make that clear. There is CCTV in all slaughterhouses now. Is that eliminating cruelty? Are the Government monitoring the footage?

That is spooky, because the next point in my speech was to say that one of the key things we have done in recent years—adding to the list of things that we have talked about already—is to add CCTV in slaughterhouses. That is a major step forward and it helps to deal with all the welfare issues that we have talked about today. It was introduced in May last year and I think that it is now effective in all slaughterhouses.

Let me just try to get to the most important part of my response to the debate. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) talked about animals being imported into the UK and asked whether they should be slaughtered to UK standards. Yes, they should; it is a legal requirement.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) talked about blockchain technology and whether we could use it to improve traceability. Yes, I think the industry should consider that; indeed, it probably will consider it, as it considers how to move things forward.

The heart of the discussion today has been about labelling. [Interruption.] I know, but I am just trying to answer the question, so I do not lose track of that point. We know that concerns have been voiced about meat from animal slaughter without stunning being sold to consumers who do not require their meat to be prepared in that way. The Government are clear that we want people to have the information they need to make informed choices about the food that they buy. The Government believe that consumers should have the necessary information available to them to make an informed choice about their food, and the issue of revised labelling is something that the Government are considering in the context of the UK’s exit from the EU, as I set out in a speech at the annual dinner for the BVA back in February.

It is important to note that there are other groups that want to know not only whether the meat is from a stunned or non-stunned animal, but what method of slaughter has been used. That will need to be considered in the wider review of labelling.

As I begin to wind up, it is important to recognise that the labelling of meat is something that we want to take a closer look at. I set out earlier that that will be part of a much wider review of labelling, which will include consideration of welfare standards, sustainability and, of course, safety for consumers. I also highlight that we want to go on respecting the rights of Jews and Muslims to eat meat that is prepared in accordance with their beliefs. However, in seeking to address the welfare standards and issues that have been discussed today, we will continue to explore ways to further improve the welfare standards for all animals, including when they are slaughtered.

Our next step—this relates to an important point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury—will be further discussion with a range of interested parties across the debate at a forthcoming roundtable meeting to talk through many of the issues that have been raised today. I think that that is the way we need to do things: talk about the issues and see what we can do to improve welfare, but at the same time respect religious rights. Labelling will be key, but we will continue to encourage an active dialogue with all interested parties as part of our wider objective to enhance our already world-leading animal welfare standards.

I will leave it at that, but I thank hon. Members for their important contributions to this vital debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Veteran Suicide

I beg to move,

That this House has considered veteran suicide.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.

“I love my family but hate my life. I need help. I’m scared now it hurts.” Those are the words sent in an email to the mental health services by David Jonathon Jukes, who served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan. David Jukes was incredibly brave, as is his wife Jo, who has given me permission to share his heart-wrenching story. Despite what he did for his country, Dave was let down in his time of need. He was let down in 1997, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but still deployed to a war zone. He was let down in 2012, when he returned from Afghanistan and was not properly diagnosed with a personality disorder. He was let down in 2018, when his priority need was not properly recorded and he was forced to wait weeks to see a doctor.

I am horrified to hear that David was deployed if he had been diagnosed with PTSD. I am really surprised that that happened; I would not have thought any commanding officer would have sanctioned that. If the hon. Gentleman says that happened, so it did, but they should not have allowed him to deploy, because someone with PTSD can be a really big problem for his friends who he has to protect, as they have to protect him.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will carry on with my story, and explain a bit more about this personal case.

David was let down by the crisis team that turned him away because he was not in its records, and he was let down when a two-hour stand-off with eight police officers and two negotiators did not result in his sectioning for his own safety. He was let down by the home treatment team when it did not respond to 26 phone calls made by his loving wife, and refused to come out to support him. On 9 October 2018, David Jonathon Jukes, a veteran of five conflicts and a hero by anyone’s standards, took his own life. That truly harrowing tale is indicative of many other instances of veterans being passed around by Departments without any kind of tailored approach to their mental health services, and that is why we are here today.

There are about 5 million members of the armed forces community in the UK, and about 15,000 men and women leave service each year. It is important to stress that the majority of those individuals do not experience a decline in mental health upon their transition to civilian life, but we are here to talk about those who do. Last year, 58 veterans took their own life. That is a shocking statistic—but most important, a shocking loss of life.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. While the official figures state that there were 58 veteran suicides last year, numbers from the third sector and supportive organisations suggest that there were closer to 100, if not more. Is it not the case that one challenge with this issue is that we do not have the data we need to assess the scale of the problem?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is something I will be coming on to later. This issue transcends party politics, and for me, today’s debate is about cross-party co-operation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate; we can see from the number of Members present how this topic touches people’s hearts. He has made the point about 58 veterans taking their own life. Does he agree that the mental health of our brave veterans should be a top priority for Government, and that the Ministry of Defence and the NHS need to work more closely together to ensure that veterans get all the support they need and to treat those who risk so much to protect us and our country?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and she is absolutely right. There is more that the NHS and charities across our country can do, and I will say more about that later on.

I look forward to hearing views from colleagues across the House and working with them to improve the care given to the brave men and women who, day in and day out, put on their uniforms to keep us safe. I welcome today’s announcement of a £700,000 investment in veteran mental health in my Portsmouth constituency, following a long-running campaign by the Portsmouth News and local campaigners—a really good example of partnership working making a difference. However, there is much more that we need to do. No other job exerts the same control over a person’s life; no other job asks them to go into the line of fire. Our approach to veterans’ care needs to reflect those facts.

This morning, I received a very heartfelt and upsetting email from two women married to two former British Army infantrymen. Both men have been admitted to psychiatric wards in the past six months; both have attempted suicide, or caused serious risk to their health. The women described the shortfall in health resources and the lack of specialist expertise in dealing with combat trauma as “catastrophic”, and they say they are fighting with all their might to keep their husbands alive and for the future happiness and life prospects of their families, especially their children. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as supporting our brave veterans, we need to do everything we can to support their brave families?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. We should not have to fight for people to get the support that they need; it is imperative that they are given that support in their hour of need.

We need an approach to veterans’ care that reflects a number of facts. Exceptional grassroots organisations such as Forgotten Veterans UK and All Call Signs—representatives of which are here in force—have said that we need tailored, bespoke mental health care that is in line with the experiences of brave men and women like Dave, who have put themselves in harm’s way for our benefit. That is mirrored by the advice given by organisations such as Combat Stress.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on veteran suicide. In the past decade, the number of new referrals to Combat Stress, the excellent organisation that he mentioned, has doubled; its helpline received more than 12,000 calls just last year. As my hon. Friend will be more than aware, it is estimated that one ex-serviceperson commits suicide every seven days. Does he agree that it is ridiculous that the Government currently refuse to collect any data on this widespread problem, so we cannot identify its full scale?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right: we need that data so that we can understand the extent of the issue, and then do something about it.

I have recently been approached by two veterans who live fairly close to the barracks in my constituency, and who are very concerned about this issue. Dr Walter Busuttil, who is the consultant psychiatrist and medical director at the charity Combat Stress, has said:

“In the UK, coroners are reluctant to call something a suicide unless it is obvious. They will often go with a narrative verdict…Other countries record more accurate suicide studies.”

Is it not a fact that many suicides in the Army and in other forces are not recorded because of narrative verdicts?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. There is a stigma around this issue, and it is crucial that we learn from our allies; we can learn a lot from them.

The need for tailored care is exemplified by a survey commissioned by Help for Heroes, which found that nearly 30% of veterans are put off from visiting mental health services on the grounds that they believe civilian services will not understand their needs. Serious funding issues are also hindering the provision of care to veterans: only 0.07% of the £150 billion NHS budget is allocated to veteran-specific funding.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is so articulately putting forward the findings of the Defence Committee’s report on mental health services and the needs we have. I am interested in the fact that only £10 million of the NHS budget was spent on these issues last year. One of the biggest challenges that Help for Heroes has identified is that the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to look after veterans for only 12 months after they have left the service, but some veterans are only coming forward with these challenges five years later. Does my hon. Friend agree that the MOD’s responsibility for veterans’ care should continue for five years after they have left the service?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank her for her valuable contributions to the Defence Committee, which has raised a number of the issues. That figure that I mentioned is less than it costs to buy two Challenger tanks. That is what we are dealing with today. How can we expect to provide care for veterans like Dave when such an insultingly small amount of money is on the table? It is not just funding that is damaging development in this area; we are lagging behind in so many other ways.

I am going to carry on. Canada, New Zealand and America are our allies and have similarly structured militaries and political systems. One thing we do not share with them is that their coroners record veterans’ suicides. How can we begin to address the problem if we do not know its true scale? Currently only one out of 98 coroners across England and Wales records the detail that the deceased in a suicide case is a veteran. That means the scale of the problem is unknown. Since my election, I have been working with experts in the field, such as All Call Signs and Combat Stress, which have been calling for the recording of veterans’ suicides. I hosted a summit on the matter in my constituency late last year.

Despite the cries from those who know best, the Government have repeatedly refused the requests, whose importance cannot be overstated. Current estimates project that the true figure could be as high as one ex-serviceperson killing themselves every seven days, but the problem is likely to be far worse, given that we do not have detailed recording. General Sir David Richards, former head of the armed forces, and Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander in Afghanistan, have called for coroners to start logging veterans’ suicides. That is absolutely right. As the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), has said that

“the Government could do better on tracking suicide rates among veterans”.

Grassroots expert organisations have been highlighting the importance of tracking those rates since their inception. As we heard earlier, the Defence Committee made it one of their key recommendations. When will the Government listen to the voices of those who know best and when will the Minister ensure that coroners begin to record the data? The disorganised, disjointed and disorderly approach to determining who is responsible for treating veterans, highlighted by Dave’s case, is an extension of the Government’s own ambiguity and confusion. When I tabled this Westminster Hall debate, that was exposed. Within 24 hours, two Departments had called me to express why they would be answering my questions, followed by an email stating:

“I believe there has been some confusion from our side and it’s confirmed that the MoD will be responding to the debate.”

With an issue of this magnitude, the Government should at least know who is responsible.

We can start making a change now. We cannot afford not to. The Government have initiated an inquiry into veterans’ mental health, but we need changes at the coalface now. We cannot afford to lose more of our servicepeople. I am committed to my party’s policy of a social contract for veterans, which incorporates a rounded approach to care that includes support for mental health, housing and retaining. That would begin with officially logging the numbers of veterans who take their own life and would see veterans given priority when it comes to mental health services.

I started my speech by telling Dave’s story, and I will finish by quoting someone to whom the issue could not be closer. Dave’s wife, Jo Jukes, said:

“If coroners began recording veterans’ deaths, the MoD would be forced to accept there was a problem and have to do something. It is a major failing. We need a far more joined up approach to veterans’ mental health care.”

It is clear that the Government do not know how big the problem is because they do not have the data. Some have said they are hiding behind their ignorance. I hope the Minister will take on board the comments in this debate. I look forward to his response.

Before I call the next speaker, I note that we have nine applications to speak. I urge Members to keep their speeches as short as possible—perhaps three minutes to start with.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for securing this debate. I agree with much of what he said. He is right to say that, historically, there has been a disconnect between what the MOD and the NHS do in providing better care for veterans. When I was a Health Minister, I worked with the then Minister of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), to improve mental health support, first aid training and other support and help available to armed services families. We also worked to support the MOD in better tracking veterans immediately after discharge from the services. I entirely agree with the point the hon. Gentleman made about one year not being enough.

To put the debate in context—it is important that we have the right evidence and data to support the making of informed decisions about veterans’ care—overall suicide rates for those serving in the armed forces are low, with the exception of males in the Army aged between 16 and 19. Evidence suggests that elevated suicide rates among 16 to 19-year-olds are related to issues such as Deepcut-type events and difficulties adjusting to life in the armed forces, as opposed to being deployment-related.

In the US, veteran suicide rates are definitely higher than population suicide rates, but just as in the UK, and perhaps surprisingly, they do not appear to be deployment-related, and there is much speculation as to why higher rates of suicide are experienced by US veterans, as compared with UK veterans.

Soldiers who are between 16 and 19 can deploy on operations only for two of those years. I totally understand that there will be other reasons involved, but soldiers cannot go on operations until they are 18 years old.

I defer to my hon. Friend’s considerable experience as a long-standing and distinguished soldier with a long-standing and distinguished record of service in our armed forces. I had the pleasure of serving in the NHS with a number of Ministry of Defence or armed forces doctors. I certainly know that they pay particular attention to these issues now, and the MOD has put a lot more into the training and support available to their doctors to better support veterans.

We have good data on suicide rates among Falklands veterans and veterans from the 1991 Gulf war. There is no evidence to suggest that the rates of suicide among that group of veterans are any higher than those in the rest of the armed forces; in fact, there is evidence that the rate of suicide among those groups is lower than expected population rates.

We do not have reliable evidence for the more recent Iraq and Afghan conflicts—the hon. Gentleman alluded to that in his remarks. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and evidence emerging from coroners’ reports, but anecdote is not hard evidence. We need to work much harder on that to ensure that we have the hard evidence to make the right decisions.

In terms of gathering that hard data, the announcement by the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), that the MOD has agreed to carry out definitive research by tagging all those who have served in Telic and Herrick is very much to be welcomed. That work is starting with defence statistics, but it is difficult to know how and when it will be completed—these days, it is challenging and bureaucratic to get data out of the Office for National Statistics, and that is hampered by general data protection regulation issues. However, the work that Professor Simon Wessely and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience are doing with the MOD will happen and should give us the answer. Hopefully it will build a strong evidence base for improving veterans’ care in future.

Finally, we need better to join up what happens when veterans leave the Army and register with the NHS. The current situation is not right, and we need to improve it. The MOD should compulsorily register veterans with civilian healthcare services when they are discharged from the armed services. To my knowledge, that does not happen, but it should happen routinely, because it would help serving men and women transition back into civilian life. It would also flag up to GPs that somebody is a veteran and has a serving record.

It is important that we get the data right. Anything that the Minister can do to help with the issues surrounding GDPR, make the ONS data more speedily available for population-based comparisons and support the work of Professor Simon Wessely and the IoPPN, would be greatly welcome.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this timely debate. He made an excellent speech, and has done the House a great service in bringing this matter to our attention.

I am conscious that time is short, so I will be brief. I was reflecting earlier on the fact that it has been some time since I last wore uniform and was on operations. Over the period since, there have been many times when I have remembered with absolute clarity the faces of fallen friends. Regimental reunions, Remembrance Sunday and anniversaries all give pause for thought and cause to remember. In addition to those occasions, there are the unexpected triggers: a turn of phrase, an accent or someone’s gait when they are walking down the street. They can all prompt the memory of a comrade who is no longer with us.

That is the cost of combat and, to an extent, it is to be expected. However, what I did not expect is the roll call of new additions to that list of faces. It seems now that not a week goes by without the sad news of another veteran’s death—all too often, tragically, as a result of suicide. It is not because we are currently on major combat operations; we are not. It is because the impacts of the operations that we were on have lived longer in the memory, feelings and mental health of those who served than any of us could have expected.

On the length of time that it can take for trauma to manifest itself, we in Northern Ireland have had a number of useful research reports, some of which were authored by David Bolton, indicating that post-traumatic stress disorder, including among veterans, has sometimes not manifested itself for 10, 20 or even 30 years after active service. It would be useful for the Ministry of Defence to take those reports into account, and to learn from that experience in Northern Ireland.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. She raises an important point. The truth is that veterans who suffer from PTSD often report the trauma that they experienced serving our country many years after. It seems to me, and I think that the public would completely agree, that as a country and a society we have a lifelong commitment to those people who stepped forward and served our country. We all understand the cost of that service, and we have a responsibility to look out for, and look after, those people for all their lives outside the armed forces.

I will end by reflecting on the fact that this Friday there will be a memorial service for a great comrade of mine—someone I served alongside in my regiment—who took his own life just a few weeks ago. The terrible problem of veteran suicide has never felt more real to me than it does right now. The fact that we, frankly, do not really understand the problem, or even its scale, has never concerned me more than it does today. My ask of the Government, and of the Minister, who I know takes these matters seriously, is a simple one: please give this issue the attention that it deserves, help us all to understand it better, and let us work together to address it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and to follow the excellent contribution of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on introducing this important debate. He represents a proud military and naval city. Indeed, my connection with this issue goes back to his city, because my first job on leaving university was working in Portsmouth on the Fratton Road at the then Radio Victory, which, as its name suggests, had proud connections with the military background of the city.

That was 34 years ago—I know that colleagues will find that difficult believe. It was then that I, as a student straight out of university, started to learn about the difficulties military personnel face in proud cities such as Portsmouth, and how we as a society need to do more to help them. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution illustrated that extraordinarily well.

I stand now, though, as the Member for North Devon, and I will proudly speak about the connections between our county and the armed services. Devon has the highest number of veterans as a proportion of its population of any county in the UK, and we are extraordinarily proud of that. An estimated 100,000 veterans live in Devon, many of them in my constituency, where we have a proud historical connection with the military.

North Devon is, first and foremost, home to Royal Marines Base Chivenor. I am delighted to say that, in the last few weeks, the Minister announced a reversal of the plan to close that base, so it will remain home to the Royal Marines and a number of other armed forces personnel. We are extremely pleased about that in North Devon. Until recently, we also had an Army base at Fremington. In addition, there is a military establishment at Instow, and Barnstaple is home to the Royal Wessex Yeomanry. So we have active serving personnel, as well as a large cohort of veterans.

Sadly, it is estimated that almost one in six of our veterans has complex mental health needs—an issue that will no doubt grow in importance in the coming years. Mental ill health often presents itself in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but—this is one of my main concerns—it is, in many cases, an invisible condition. Not only do we, the state and the Government need to take greater notice, but society needs to change its attitudes too. That is something in which I take a particular interest—an interest that ranges across not just our former armed forces personnel, but many others who live with mental ill health.

I welcomed the Defence Secretary’s pledge last year to increase funding for armed forces mental health services to £220 million over the next decade. As we also heard last summer, NHS budgets across the board are increasing. That is a good start, but it all comes down to targeting. We need to be able to recognise those who need to receive that help and support, and we need to improve our understanding of the long-term impacts of active service and the changing nature of our veteran communities, which creates a further challenge.

As well as the work being done by the Government, an enormous amount of extraordinarily valuable work is being done by voluntary groups, charities and third-sector organisations. I will mention one in particular: the Veterans Charity, which is based in my constituency but does work very much across the country. Every May, the charity hosts an event called the “Forces March”, which has so far raised nearly half a million pounds to help the very people the hon. Member for Portsmouth South is seeking to raise the profile of this afternoon.

I say to the Minister that I recognise that a lot of good work has already been done. We need to keep working on this, and we need, as a society, to talk with pride about the service of our veterans, recognising that we owe them all the help and support that they need because of the service they have given us.

I congratulate my fellow dockyard MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), on introducing the debate. There are certain parts of the United Kingdom in which the prevalence of our veterans is at its greatest. Plymouth has nearly 20,000 veterans; as the son of a submariner, I myself am the son of a veteran. It is important that we recognise that veterans are not uniformly spread throughout the country, and that support systems for them are much better in some parts of the country than others. In places such as Portsmouth and Plymouth, the armed forces covenant—that bond between the communities, veterans and those who serve—is not something that gathers dust on a shelf, but a living document which people live and breathe every day. In looking after our armed forces veterans, we need to engage with it much more.

We need to talk about men’s mental health, because the vast majority of veterans who take their own life are men. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women but less likely to ask for help or get support. Those who have served face additional barriers and stigma when they try to access support.

I support the call that several hon. Members have made for data collection, because it is hard for us to come together without understanding the true extent of the problem. In localities such as Plymouth—I imagine that it happens in Portsmouth as well—we collect the data on a local level, but it is hard to know how it feeds into the wider national picture. Data collection is not simply about ticking a box to say that someone is a veteran—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I was talking about the scale of the problem of suicide, which affects men in particular. We must realise that, in many cases, suicide is the end of a process. Many veterans are caught in ruts of homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, relationship breakdown or insecure work. We need not only to look at how we collect data about veteran suicide, but to understand the steps towards that, and equally, how we can get support to veterans when they need it most. It is right that veterans have access to and, in many cases, come to the front of the queue for mental health support, but when the queue is already months long, being at the front is no good at all. Huge steps forward need to be taken.

I know the Minister is passionate about this issue, and I believe sincerely that some good options have already come out of the debate. I look forward to hearing his response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on bringing forward the debate. I declare an interest: I was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army for 14 and a half years.

I fully understand why veterans feel so out of kilter when they leave service and return to civvy street. I believe sincerely that we must do more to help smooth not simply their occupational transition, but their social transition. Robert McCartney, the chairman of Beyond the Battlefield—he and I have met the Minister—constantly raises awareness of veterans’ daily struggle and of the need for more funding and support for those who have put their body and their mental health on the line for Queen and country. The fact is that they carry things they have seen with them for many years afterwards.

In a Belfast News Letter article just a few months ago, Robert McCartney said that 400 veterans attempt to take their own lives in Northern Ireland every year, and 30 of them actually do. He added that veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated suicidal thoughts often fall through gaps in the safety net provided by the NHS and service-related charities. He estimates that there are some 141,000 veterans in Northern Ireland, 12% of whom have some form of mental health problem. Some 10% of those who do—some 1,700—are currently in the health system. He said that leaves almost 9,000 veterans

“who have been, or currently are, in mental health services in Northern Ireland.”

A recent survey of 400 GPs in Belfast found that there are between 300 and 450 attempted suicides by veterans every year, and that 20 to 30 people actually take their lives. Unfortunately, coroners do not record that formally. Not all deaths related to service take the form of a culminating suicide episode; some fall into the realm of death by self-infliction—by alcohol, prescription drugs or non-prescription drugs. Although Northern Ireland makes up only 3% of the UK’s population, it supplies 7% of its armed forces personnel. Some 15% of Northern Ireland personnel have been on the battlefield in the past 10 years.

Now more than ever, we need to put this matter on the frontline. The Minister has always been responsive, and I appreciate that very much. I thank him for meeting me and the chairman of Beyond the Battlefield. Supporting our veterans is as essential as providing education or free healthcare; it is an obligation, and it must be viewed as such. We should not provide support because of the feelgood factor; it has to be more than that. I again thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, and I look to the Minister for the response we need on behalf of our veterans.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this debate and shining a light on this incredibly important issue. To be honest, it ought to shame us. The story of Dave Jukes is harrowing, and I am sure we all appreciate that it was probably not an isolated occurrence.

All those who serve our country make many sacrifices while defending our interests, and they deserve respect, support and fair treatment during and after their service. I thank all our armed forces personnel, past and present. I believe that how our veterans are treated should be a yardstick for what sort of society we are. My hon. Friend’s point about the lack of data on veteran suicides is important in that respect. If we do not know the scale of the problem, how can we begin to address it?

I would like to take this opportunity to make some practical suggestions about prevention. Like many hon. Members, I visit Veterans Day events in my constituency every year. In the light of this debate, I wonder whether the Minister could make a formal request for all NHS trusts to have a presence at such events, which are a clear opportunity to signpost mental health support. The general principle that NHS services ought to reach out and embed themselves in existing veterans services and events is a good one.

Last year, I visited the Veterans Garage project on the outskirts of Manchester, which plans to convert a world war two airport terminal building into a base for classic car and motorcycle restoration garages, alongside a coffee bar with food. The base provides support for veterans who are suffering from recent combat stress and gives them a place to meet other veterans. The project also provides mental health support, and the garage equips people with skills to increase their employability. Crucially, it is rolling out a full advice service on a whole range of issues and has a counsellor with specific experience with PTSD on site. That is exactly the sort of embedded service I believe we need to see more of.

I know that time is short, so let me conclude by saying that we can and should do more. Those who serve our country deserve the very best support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate.

Since my election, I have been pleased to attend the veterans Saturday club at the Marquis of Granby pub in Hessle. I have found the people there to be very warm, very welcoming, very robust, very opinionated, very challenging and very honest about the challenges they have faced since leaving the armed forces. In the brief time I have, I would like to mention the wives and husbands of those veterans. Care and support for them sometimes goes missing, but they, too, find it incredibly challenging when people return from service and face significant problems adapting to life outside the armed forces. Will the Minister talk about what support can be offered to veterans’ families?

Let me briefly mention an incredible man called Steve, who runs the Hull Veterans Support Centre. He is one of the unsung heroes of Hull. He is an incredible man. He is a veteran himself and is described as a father figure to so many veterans in Hull. He has given so much, at such great personal cost. He is also a cancer survivor, but that has not stopped him going out there to support veterans in Hull with accommodation and getting to appointments. He is changing people’s lives on the ground. I also pay tribute to Paul, who runs Hull 4 Heroes, and to that organisation for everything it does to support veterans to get back to some sort of normal life after life in service.

We need respect for veterans, but respect alone is not enough; warm words alone are not enough. I echo hon. Members’ calls for veterans to have access to Ministry of Defence mental health services for more than 12 months, because that is simply not long enough. I also call for those services to be made available to wives, husbands, children and the rest of the family.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate. I start by paying tribute to Irene Dennis, who runs the Grimsby breakfast club on Sunday mornings for those who are still in service and those who have been previously to reminisce, share and support one another. I am also pleased to mention Steve Baxter, a Grimsby man who was in the forces and has seen four friends die as a result of PTSD. He told his story clearly and movingly in the Grimsby Telegraph. That prompted him to set up the Veterans Still Serving group to support those suffering from PTSD.

North East Lincolnshire is a proud armed forces covenant borough. The former mayor and councillor Alex Baxter now co-ordinates our very successful armed forces weekend, which attracts families from across the country to show their backing for our armed services personnel, past and present.

I was prompted to speak today because of the impact of serving on my constituent Steven Sampher; I have had extensive correspondence with the Minister on this particular case. He is a remarkable man who, frankly, has been going through hell trying to work his way through the armed forces compensation scheme. He has been kept dangling about whether he is still employed, and he worries about the support for his family in the future.

I am concerned, as my written questions show, that the stress of going through this process, on top of his post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme pain, and now phantom pain as a result of his amputated leg, has been extremely trying for Steven and his family. Should the Government not do more to properly support veterans going through that process, to ensure that they get the compensation that they are entitled to, in full accordance with the injuries that they have sustained in the course of their service?

Finally, I will quickly mention homelessness among veterans. Unless we sort that out, the number of veterans committing suicide will increase.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this critical debate on our national life, Sir Henry. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for speaking so touchingly and movingly about the cases he has had to deal with and the impacts they have had.

I will speak from my personal experience of friends who have served in the Army and how they have been affected. I have spoken about this issue several times in the last few months, because many of my friends and people I know have been affected. Indeed we lost four Jocks from the Royal Regiment of Scotland in July and August last year through a terrible spate of suicides. We really worried about what that meant. Reflecting further, more than 70 veterans have taken their own lives in the last year, which is really worrying. The death toll exceeded the number of battlefield fatalities in 11 of the 13 years that British forces were operational in Herrick in Afghanistan. It is a worrying rate.

More than a third of those who took their lives in 2018 whose details are known had suffered from PTSD, so it is clearly something we need to deal with. I spoke to Combat Stress about the issue and most worryingly, many of those people—particularly those in the Royal Regiment of Scotland—had identified themselves. One of the men who tragically took his life, Jamie Davis, had been recording video diaries of his experiences, which are particularly haunting to watch in the light of what happened and knowing that he ended up taking his own life. The descriptions of the difficulties that he encountered are harrowing, but they are not unfamiliar from what we have heard in the debate.

It is critical that we now recognise the urgency of the situation. More than 100,000 people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. This is not about veterans of the world war two generation, but about people in my peer group—people in their 30s and 40s—who served in those theatres and have suffered terribly as a result of losing their friends. I think about some of my friends I lost in Afghanistan, and I recognise the impact that that can have. This is critical, and the care review and the mental health review that the Ministry of Defence suggests do not go far enough. We need more grip around this, we need a proper casework service, and we need proper and more robust engagement as a matter of urgency.

I am grateful to colleagues for showing restraint and being so concise, and also for making very moving contributions.