Tuesday 23 April 2019
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Hormone Pregnancy Tests
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Expert Working Group report on hormone pregnancy tests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am also pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is here to respond to this debate.
To establish the context of the debate, I will begin by acknowledging the extraordinary hard work and determination of Marie Lyon, who is here with us in Westminster Hall today. She has led the campaign on behalf of the victims of hormone pregnancy tests, and alongside her husband has travelled the length and breadth of this country, and even been to Germany, to support victims.
It has been my pleasure to work with Marie since the beginning of this campaign, alongside others including Jason Farrell, who has pursued this story for Sky News from the start; Professor Neil Vargesson of Aberdeen University; and Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Jeffrey Aronson, both of Oxford University, whose recent work is the basis of this debate.
By way of providing more background, I remind the House that Primodos, the hormone pregnancy test drug, was taken by approximately 1.5 million women in the 1960s and 1970s to test for pregnancy. The dosage contained in those Primodos tablets was 40 times the strength of an oral contraceptive that would be prescribed today. There is considerable evidence that many women who took this drug either gave birth to babies with serious deformities, or miscarried, or had stillbirths. Those babies are now in their 40s and 50s, and they have had to live a lifetime with serious disabilities.
To this day, not one Minister or one review has been able to answer some very simple questions. First, why were no official warnings issued about this drug until eight years after the first major report that indicated possible dangers? Why were some doctors still prescribing this drug for pregnant women after official warnings were issued by the Committee on Safety of Medicines? And why were some GPs able to pull out Primodos tablets from their desk drawers and hand them to women?
I secured this debate to seek answers in respect of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency-led expert working group. That was the scientific review set up on the instruction of a former Minister, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), following my Backbench Business Debate on this issue in 2015. He had clearly stated to us that this review would “thoroughly” consider all the evidence.
Such is the depth of concern about this issue that there have already been three debates on the expert working group’s review—this is the fourth. Each and every time, Members from across the House have urged Ministers to consider our concerns about the methodology, the independence of the panel members and the conclusions of the report. On each and every occasion, however, our concerns have been dismissed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the absolutely focused way in which she has conducted this campaign, with other Members here today and with Marie Lyon. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the former Minister: it is not easy for Ministers to override the advice of their civil servants, but he did on that occasion. That, however, makes it all the more concerning that, on 24 October last year, Lord O’Shaughnessy wrote my hon. Friend a letter that was rather confusing and defensive, and did not make any reference to enforcing a rethink by the MHRA.
We know that there are issues about how the meta tests are done, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will come on to that. However, at this stage does she still find it very concerning that Ministers have not grasped the nettle?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I absolutely agree with him; he can probably hear in my voice some of my frustration about the fact that this issue has not been grasped by Ministers and dealt with.
In recent months, the all-party parliamentary group on hormone pregnancy tests, of which I am the chair, has written to Ministers several times to ask for meetings so that we can discuss these concerns, but each time our request has been declined. Perhaps the Minister here today could shed some light on what exactly the Government are so intent on hiding each time they refuse the request by a group of MPs for a meeting.
Let us not forget that the review was cloaked in secrecy from the very start. As an observer, Marie Lyon was forced to sign a “gagging clause”, which, if breached, could have resulted in a prison sentence. Families who gave evidence to the panel reported being treated appallingly by the MHRA. Despite the MHRA’s insistence that the expert working group was independent, two panel members had to be removed after Marie Lyon discovered conflicts of interest.
Perhaps the most shocking fact was that this review was set up with terms of reference that stated very clearly that it would seek to find a “possible association”, but the review panel and the Commission on Human Medicines chose to ignore that and instead concluded that a
“causal association could not be found between the drug and birth defects.”
Each time that Ministers have been questioned about this review, we have been told that it was
“robust, comprehensive, independent and scientific”.
If that really is the case, I hope that the Minister can provide us with answers today as to why we now have evidence, which I will set out, that clearly proves that the expert working group review was anything but robust and comprehensive.
Last November, a team of experts led by Carl Heneghan, the Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, conducted a systematic review of all previous human studies. They discovered that when the data is pooled properly it shows “a clear association” with several different forms of malformation. The results were clear that there is an association that is significant. That tells us that the expert working group’s review completely failed to adopt the right approach for a systematic review. Why did it not pool all the data together and properly collate it to show an overall effect? I should also point out that Professor Heneghan’s study has been published in a peer review journal, whereas the expert working group’s review was not even scrutinised.
However, Professor Heneghan did not stop there. Marie Lyon obtained raw data used by the expert working group via a freedom of information request. It is worth noting that despite the MHRA’s claim of “transparency”, this data was not already in the public domain. The cynical among us might ask: why was that? Why hide it?
That raw data was then assessed by Professor Heneghan and his team, who carried out a meta-analysis on it, and again they found that there is an association between the drug and birth defects. Let me just repeat that point again—raw data used by the MHRA for the expert working group review was assessed by independent experts at Oxford University and it was found that Primodos causes deformities.
Can the Minister appreciate why that has led to suspicion that key elements of the research were removed from the report in order for the expert working group to reach its conclusion, and why campaigners feel that Ministers and Parliament may have been misled, given that it appears that key information was being withheld from the report in order to suggest that there is no link between Primodos and deformities?
My hon. Friend is being gracious in allowing interventions. Does she not consider it confusing that the group, and indeed the MHRA, seem to be reluctant regarding meta-analysis, when only recently the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence used it to reinstate surgical mesh in the treatment of prolapse? It is widely understood to be a common method—the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency have adopted it. Why are we lagging behind? Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that in her reply.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I come on to explain how other bodies use meta-analysis to carry out assessment.
Does the Minister understand why we are asking why the data was not even properly assessed? When I tabled a parliamentary question to inquire whether the meta-analysis of the studies had been carried out, I was told that it had not. Can the Minister explain why not? One of the experts on the panel, Professor Stephen Evans, recently made a poor defence of meta-analysis not being used in the review, by relying heavily on a paper called, “Meta-analysis. Schemata analysis”, which was published 25 years ago. The expert working group seems not to have considered meta-analysis an appropriate way in which to assess the data. Why not? Why did it refuse to take an evidence-based approach?
Neither the Minister nor I is a scientist, but she is aware that meta-analysis is the statistical procedure that combines data from multiple studies. When treatment effect is consistent from one study to the next, as with Primodos, it is completely appropriate and evidence-based to use a meta-analysis to assess the data. Pharmaceutical companies use it to approve new drugs. The US Food and Drug Administration uses it. The European Medicines Agency uses it for the approval of drugs, and clinicians and researchers in medicine, education and the criminal justice system use it to determine whether a treatment works. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence uses meta-analysis, and it is the cornerstone of Cochrane—previously known as the Cochrane Collaboration. The only group that discounts meta-analysis is the MHRA. Why? To say that meta-analysis was not the appropriate method is completely incompatible with an evidence-based approach.
Let me take up the matter of the independence of the expert working group. We have been told several times, by a number of Ministers, that the entire process was completely independent. It is my view that the Government are not well served by their current processes, the lack of independence and the lack of impartiality. What is in doubt is the question of whether the Government have the independent expertise required to hold Government bodies such as the MHRA to account and provide us with independent evidence with which to make informed decisions.
As the Minister is aware, in February 2018, Baroness Cumberlege began a joint non-scientific review into Primodos, sodium valproate and mesh implants, and we expect it to conclude in the next few months. Baroness Cumberlege invited the expert working group to give oral evidence to the review team, and this is how Ailsa Gebbie, the group’s chair, described herself at the beginning of an evidence session:
“I’m also the chair of the MHRA and the expert working group on hormones and women’s health that reviews all products and medicines and drugs related to women”.
What does independent mean if the chair describes herself in that way?
In 2015, the Commission on Human Medicines agreed to establish an expert working group to review the available data on a possible association between the hormone pregnancy test, Primodos, and adverse outcomes in pregnancy, and to make a recommendation. The commission appears to have commissioned the MHRA to do an independent review. Perhaps the independence of the MHRA can be summed up in its response to Marie Lyon, who in conversation with the agency had reminded it of its responsibility to the public interest. She was immediately corrected:
“No, the job of the MHRA is to represent Pharma”.
Of course, the agency is correct—it is substantially funded by the pharmaceutical industry and cannot be considered independent by any stretch of the imagination. Can the Minister explain why we are expected to have confidence in the independence of a review that was run by an organisation part-funded by pharma? How can we be expected to trust claims that Bayer, the manufacturer of Primodos, has no links to the MHRA? Yes, we had a review, but I am not sure we can call it independent. Will the Minister do the right thing and withdraw the expert working group report?
If the Minister needs any further evidence, perhaps I can point her to the testimony of Sandra Malcolm, a recent whistleblower. Mrs Malcolm worked for the manufacturer of Primodos, which is now owned by Bayer. While at the company in 1971, she discovered she was pregnant and spoke to colleagues:
“I was in reception one day and there were two guys there. One may have been a medical rep and he said to me ‘you want a dose of Primodos’ and the other said ‘I think it’s been taken off the market’, and the other one said ‘no, you can get it’. So with that information I went upstairs to see one of the doctors. I said ‘I’m a week overdue and can I have some Primodos?’ And he said ‘I can’t give it to you because it may not work and it may cause deformities’, so I thought that was a definite no.”
Mrs Malcolm said that after the conversation she decided not to take the drug “for obvious reasons” and that she assumed it was no longer on the market. However, many years later, when she saw a report about Primodos causing deformities, she was shocked to discover it had remained on the market for many years after problems had been listed.
Vast swathes of evidence clearly point to a cover-up by the drug company and the Government regulators at the time. It is utterly disgraceful that until this day the evidence has been ignored, as it was by the expert working group review.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not just for securing the debate and for the way in which she has conducted it, but for her leadership on the issue over a long period. One of the more modern—I say modern; I think it was in the 19th century —versions of the Hippocratic oath is the principle, “Do no harm”. Does she agree—and she has made a powerful case for this—that as harm has been done we should acknowledge the consequences and deal with them appropriately?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I absolutely agree with him. He may have realised what the ending of my speech was going to be, because that was a point I was going to make.
Not once did the expert working group mention the historical evidence in its review; not once did it look at those documents and acknowledge that there are questions to be answered. Primodos has been the cause of devastating effects, and much of the current suffering is the result of ongoing uncertainty. We must accept that we cannot achieve certainty in all things, but we can admit our failings. Victims of Primodos need an acknowledgement of liability, and it is time that we gave them an apology. When will the Government stop wasting time and public money by setting up these so-called independent ad hoc expert working groups each time scientific evidence clearly shows that the use of Primodos caused birth defects, just so they can dismiss the evidence and continue to cover up what one lawyer has called the biggest medical and legal cover-up of the 20th century?
On behalf of my four constituents and their families, and on behalf of thousands of families across the country and over 130 members of the all-party parliamentary group on hormone pregnancy tests, I urge the Minister to listen to these concerns, as well as those of other Members present. I urge her to be brave, and to have the courage to say “Enough is enough.” From today, let us stop putting our heads in the sand. Let us look at the evidence that Professor Heneghan has presented, and give Primodos victims the justice they deserve.
The debate can last until 1 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 12.27 pm, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Yasmin Qureshi will then have three minutes at the end to wind up the debate.
We are in Back-Bench time until 12.27 pm. Six Members are seeking to contribute, so please do not speak for more than six minutes. Unhelpfully, only one of the monitors is working—the one to my right—so to assist Members, I will gesticulate at them in a friendly way when they have a minute to go.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing this vital debate on what, for many people, has been a long journey.
Sir William Osler, an eminent Canadian physician, once said:
“Medicine is the science of uncertainty and the art of probability.”
My constituents who took the hormone pregnancy tests of the ’60s and ’70s, including Primodos—which was removed from the market in 1977—have to date been met with uncertainty. They placed their trust in those involved in manufacturing, testing, prescribing and dispensing—trust that in their view, and in mine, was betrayed. With dogged but dignified determination, they still seek to confirm the probability of a possible connection between those drugs and birth defects and/or fatalities.
I understand that Professor Carl Heneghan carried out a meta-analysis that backs up the findings of Professor Vargesson’s zebrafish study. While I appreciate that meta-analysis is a complex and comprehensive tool, my layman’s understanding is that it may be undertaken to review and reconcile multiple research studies on the same topic with different results. In doing so, it may uncover a study that has different results due to systematic error or bias in the research process. In response to a recent question posed by the hon. Member for Bolton South East, the individual answering on behalf of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care stated that the Commission on Human Medicines expert working group did not undertake a meta-analysis as part of its review, citing different designs, lack of robustness and the extensive limitations of studies as the reasons therefor.
Dan Mayer’s text, “Essential Evidence-Based Medicine” advises the reader:
“Some common problems with meta-analyses are that they may be comparing diverse studies with different designs or over different time periods.”
However, importantly, the author does not appear to suggest that such circumstances should automatically rule out proceeding with meta-analysis. Rather, he states that such apparent divergence may be addressed by incorporating various checks and balances as part of that analysis. It appears that professors at the University of Oxford who have had sight of data recently recovered through a freedom of information request are yet again persuaded that there is an association between hormone pregnancy tests and birth defects, thereby casting doubt on the robustness of the EWG’s work and the material that it has published to date.
I note that the Government’s response referred to the European Medicines Agency’s ongoing independent review of the publication by Professor Heneghan and others, and I await the EMA’s conclusions with interest. Hopefully, those conclusions will finally bring some comfort to my constituents and many others. I ask the Minister to provide greater clarity as to why meta-analysis was ruled out by the EWG, and to confirm whether the EMA’s conclusions will be published next month. Finally, I make a passionate plea—which I am sure many others share—on behalf of the victims of hormone pregnancy tests in the ’60s and ’70s. Let us introduce honesty, openness and, above all, humanity into the long-standing journey that those individuals have been on.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for having secured this important debate, and more widely for her leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on hormone pregnancy tests and her incredible campaigning on this issue. I pay tribute to all the families who, for many years, have been campaigning tirelessly to uncover the truth about Primodos, particularly Marie Lyon, who is an incredible campaigner. She has worked hard on this issue, and I hope we can do something to make sure we get to the truth about what happened all those years ago. I also place on record my thanks to Professors Neil Vargesson and Carl Heneghan, and to Sky News reporter Jason Farrell for his determination to get to the truth. Many of his reports have been seen by families who have come forward as a result of the testimony and campaigning of others.
One of the families affected by Primodos lives in my constituency. My constituent Steven Bagley was born severely brain-damaged after his mother was given Primodos as a hormone pregnancy test in 1967. Steven needs 24-hour care, cannot communicate, and suffers from a severe form of epilepsy, which means frequent seizures that have become steadily worse with age and happen throughout the night.
I have got to know the Bagley family over the past few years: Steven’s parents Pat and Ted, and his sister Charlotte, who has been a tireless campaigner for justice for her parents and brother. She has recently moved from Southampton back to Wolverhampton to help look after Steven. His parents have lovingly looked after him for 50 years, but are now in their 80s and 70s with their own health problems, and are finding it a real struggle. What I find particularly heartbreaking about the case of my constituents, which is similar to many others, is that like other mums affected, Pat still says, “If only I hadn’t taken those pills.” However, she was doing what we all do: trusting our GP and following their advice. Like many others affected by Primodos, Pat was not given a prescription, but was given the pills directly by her doctor.
It is thanks to the tireless campaigning of families such as my constituents, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East, that the Government asked the Commission on Human Medicines to set up an expert working group to examine the scientific evidence linking Primodos to birth defects. However, from the start, serious concerns were raised by the families, the APPG on hormone pregnancy tests, individual MPs and scientists about how that group went about its work. Those concerns have only grown as evidence of missing analysis has come to light, and questions have been asked about the methodology used.
I will raise four particular concerns about the expert working group. First, the group reinterpreted its terms of reference. It was asked to look at a possible association between the drugs and the foetal abnormalities. Despite that, it decided to look for a higher standard of proof of a causal association between Primodos and birth defects, even though it was not asked to find a causal link. It has never been clearly explained why the group chose to interpret and change the terms of reference in that way. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that when she winds up. If not, will she take that away, consider it and come back to us?
Secondly, the report was altered before publication in several ways. Apparently the draft report, provided to Marie Lyon, stated:
“Limitations of the methodology of the time and the relative scarcity of the evidence means it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion.”
That line was removed before the final report was published. The draft also stated that
“there is insufficient evidence to determine whether taking the medications at the doses found in Primodos tablets, for two days during the first trimester of pregnancy could have reached and had an effect on the fetus.”
However, in the final report, that was substantially changed. That uncertainty was replaced by the claim that the evidence indicated that any exposure
“was unlikely to have had an effect on the developing fetus.”
In short, the conclusion in the draft report changed from
“the evidence is insufficient to form a conclusion”,
to, in the final report,
“the evidence does not support a causal association”.
Again, there has been no satisfactory explanation for those changes. Will the Minister reflect on that in her winding-up speech or go back to the Department and convey to us why the changes were made?
Thirdly, there was no consideration of possible regulatory failures at the time Primodos was given to mothers by doctors as a hormone pregnancy test. That seems to be a huge omission. Will the Minister explain why such a vital question was excluded? It would surely help us to understand what concerns were raised or should have been raised about Primodos at the time.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. She is taking us necessarily into the past. What we know about the past is that how the drugs were marketed in the 1960s and 1970s would be totally unacceptable today. Does she not find it concerning that the context of how the drugs were delivered has not been looked at properly by the report? Some of the potential consequences of that, such as what women took as gospel from doctors, have not been addressed either.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is incredible that the burden of proof seems to rest on the families. That is what is being suggested in debates—not our debates, but others—but the burden of proof actually lies with the pharmaceutical company that made the products in the first place and did not do the testing required. The drugs subsequently had horrific effects on the babies who were born, yet we still have not got a Government or a Minister to accept that there is a link. We are looking for the truth to be uncovered.
I am conscious of time and your advice, Mr Hollobone, but allow me to make a fourth point about the expert working group. The credibility of the group has been further undermined in the eyes of the families and of the Members here today by its not including a meta-analysis—a pooling of all the data from previous studies. It is not clear whether such a meta-analysis was carried out and not divulged, or was just not done. Marie Lyon obtained the raw data used by the expert working group though a freedom of information request. Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University used the working group’s own data and found strikingly similar conclusions to his review. Both reviews showed significant associations of the use of Primodos with all congenital malformations and congenital heart defects. Both systematic reviews show that the use of Primodos in pregnancy is associated with increased risk of congenital malformations.
In conclusion, we know that Baroness Cumberlege is carrying out a wider review into independent medicines and medical devices safety. I place on record my thanks to her and her team for listening to the testimony of Pat and Ted Bagley and their daughter Charlotte. For the first time, they feel like they have been heard and listened to sympathetically. I hope that the Cumberlege review will get to the truth of what happened, but before we do that, it would be useful for the Government and the Minister to get to the truth of why the expert working group has presented the evidence in such a way and to respond to the concerns I have expressed. The sooner we get to the truth of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s with Primodos tablets—they were taken not only by expectant mums in our country, but by others in countries around the world—the better.
It is a pleasure to be involved in this debate, to be part of one of the largest all-party parliamentary groups in the House, and to look after my constituents and speak for them and the others who have been so dramatically affected. They trusted the NHS and the drug company and so thought that the drug they were taking was safe. As was suggested, these ladies may went to their GP surgery perhaps because they had missed their period or had some of the other symptoms of pregnancy. It was such an important time in their lives. Often the GP just opened a drawer, gave them the tablets and said, “This will tell you whether you are pregnant or not.” There were no pamphlets and no advice, even though the risks were known to nearly everyone, apart from those ladies who took those tablets.
In this excellent debate, we have touched on a lot of the science. I am not a scientist or a lawyer; I am just a dad who is trying to help out some constituents in this area and as part of the group. In the debate that followed the publication of this so-called independent review, I said that it was a whitewash, but it was not; it was a cover-up, and we have to discover what is being covered up. Is it the legal side of the NHS giving a drug to a woman on its premises when it knew there was not only a risk, but an effect? Is it the drug company having undue influence on the report, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Department of Health and Social Care, or a bit of everything?
I say to the Minister that this is not about this Government, but Governments. The issue was being discussed when I was the shadow public health Minister, not least by thalidomide campaigners. They were supportive of this campaign, and they had to rely extensively on evidence that was there, but that the Government and the drug companies had ignored over the years.
Is it not the case that we do not need to be lawyers or medical experts to realise that a drug that is 40 times the strength of the contraceptive pill—it was being given in such countries as Germany as an abortive—would surely have profound impacts on unborn foetuses, or children who were born after their mothers had taken Primodos?
No one in this room or anyone listening to this debate could disagree with that, unless they were a lawyer working for the drug company, the Department of Health and Social Care, or perhaps both.
Believe it or not, Mr Hollobone, 70% of me, you and anyone else in the room is the same as a zebrafish. I swim really well, but I did not realise that until this morning. We chuckle, but the point is that the effects of an experiment on zebrafish will be similar to those on a human being. There are many studies, but the link is important. Professor Neil Vargesson’s report in 2018 supported Professor Heneghan’s report. What does that mean? We all know about the disgrace of thalidomide. Through experimentation on zebrafish, it was proven that thalidomide damaged children. We do not want to experiment on humans. It appears that that is exactly what has gone on here. It is obvious that the mechanism of the action of thalidomide is the same as that shown by the Primodos tests. Everybody can read the technical stuff. There was an effect on zebrafish, who share 70% of their genes with humans. Does that mean it could have had an effect on humans? Of course it does; it is not rocket science.
The right hon. Gentleman is taking us through the history. Does he not agree with me that it is extraordinary? We need to remember the chronology. The thalidomide episode took place in the 1960s and was exposed by The Sunday Times and Harold Evans in a great step forward, but the drugs continued to be supplied afterwards. Even now, 40 years later, there is, in the statement of Lord O’Shaughnessy, doubt about whether such things should still be used. We should surely say that they should not be used.
I cannot understand how a drug company, now owned by Bayer, could know what was going on and continue to supply the drug in an underhand way to GPs. As a father—as a human being—I simply do not understand it. What on earth was going on? The MHRA, which gave evidence to us, was in complete denial. We did not ask for a cause. I was lucky enough to be a Minister in seven Departments. If I had said, “This is the review that you are going to do, and these are your terms of reference,” and those terms of reference were changed by the review group without my permission, I would have smelled a rat. I would have thought something was going wrong.
We can go through all the science, which cannot be denied. I do not blame any Minister—I can feel the special advisers’ eyes on my back—but something went dramatically wrong, and it has been covered up by several Governments. That must stop now. If compensation has to be paid, fine. Most of the families simply want an apology. Why is there no apology? Because there would then be the threat of legal action. Mistakes happen. When we make mistakes, we should admit it, no matter what Government are in power. We should sort it. We did that over Hillsborough when I was a Minister in the Home Office. It was a really difficult decision to make, but we made it, and the right conclusion was reached. That should be the case in this instance.
I am afraid I will have to impose a five-minute limit on speeches, or we will run out of time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this debate, and on all the work she has done on this subject.
In the small geographic area of Makerfield, I probably have the most constituents affected. There are at least eight, including Marie Lyon, who has been a wonderful chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and a tireless campaigner. Whenever I have tried to speak to Marie about any issues, she has been restricted by an incredibly strict gagging agreement. I have asked questions and she has said, “I can’t answer that. I can’t mention that. I can’t give you any information about that.” Why can she not give me, her Member of Parliament, the information that I need?
Minutes of meetings have been recorded, but were destroyed straight after. Marie has told me that they do not reflect her notes. Positive comments have been left out, and some of the minutes have been changed after her intervention. That is surely not normal practice.
I have heard the same story as many of my hon. Friends here: constituents were given tablets from an office drawer in the doctor’s desk. The women have lived with the consequences and the guilt of taking the tablets. One mother was told that her son’s severe mental and physical disability was probably her fault, and she had no more children. That has stayed with me, because she said to me, “We have such a lot of love to give.” She and her husband, who has sadly died, dedicated their lives to looking after their son. She is now worried about what will happen when she is gone, and that is why it is so important that we get to the truth. We want proof that she has been let down by the people she trusted. The statement made on behalf of the MHRA that families could already have had previous congenital abnormalities is appalling. The statement was made by a representative who had worked with a leading member of the expert working group and who would have been aware of his conclusions. Again, it raises issues about impartiality, independence and people who all know each other working together.
Women already blame themselves, and that is simply reinforced. Throughout the whole sorry affair, attempts have been made to shift the blame to women. It has been said that they did not want to be pregnant and used the tablet as a means of aborting. That was emphatically not the case with my constituents, who were delighted to think they could be pregnant. The study clearly places the blame where it should lie: with the manufacturers and distributors of Primodos, who were aware of the potential effects of the drug long before it was withdrawn in the UK. It was not withdrawn for commercial reasons, and the withdrawal of the indication of pregnancy was strongly requested by the Standing Joint Committee, which threatened to take Primodos off the market if the indication was not removed.
Looking at the review, I believe Professor Heneghan fully answered all the questions. His persistence shows how much he believes in the conclusions in his review, and in a demonstrable link between hormone pregnancy tests and foetal abnormalities, which obviously differ depending on the stage of development at which the test was administered. The families have been failed throughout the process, right from the moment that they were given the pill, often from the doctor’s desk drawer. There is now an opportunity to give some peace of mind and redress to the families, but yet again there is a cloak of secrecy and obstruction, and they feel let down by the agencies in place to protect them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing this hugely important debate. I congratulate her not only on winning this debate, but on the way in which she forensically exposed the failings of the expert working group—how it changed the terms of reference of the inquiry; its failure to report properly, if at all, on its meta-analysis findings; and the serious questions about the independence and impartiality of the group. She finished by rightly describing the issue as the biggest legal and medical cover-up of the 20th century, but that cover-up has individual victims.
I have met Wendy Brown, a constituent from the Isle of Mull, on numerous occasions. She knows that her disability was brought on by her mother’s use of Primodos when pregnant. Wendy has been a formidable campaigner for the victims of Primodos over the years, and last week she wrote to me, saying:
“My hands and both feet are deformed, which was very hard as a child due to the constant bullying. I also had damage to my neck at birth and was baptised at home as I wasn’t expected to live. The older I am getting the more...pain I am in, especially in my feet which can really wear me down, as no matter what shoes I get they are always painful. I am now getting a very painful wrist, which is due to the way I have held my hand in order to conceal it because it has unnatural motion. This is a growing concern for me because...I work in the Post Office in Tobermory and am not sure how much longer I could keep going.”
That is the day-to-day reality of people living with the effect of Primodos.
Wendy and other members of the campaign group rightly demand justice. We owe it to Wendy and all the other victims never to abandon them in their fight for justice. It is scandalous that the people whose lives have been so badly affected and who, day in and day out, have to live with the physical, social, emotional and psychological pain are being denied natural justice. They will continue to be denied natural justice as long as the United Kingdom’s medical establishment continues to deny the link between hormone pregnancy tests and serious foetal abnormalities.
If justice is to be seen to be done, surely it is time for a statutory inquiry, similar to that for the contaminated blood scandal, in which every single piece of evidence is examined forensically and transparently. If the Government are so sure of their case, they have nothing to fear from such an inquiry. At the very least, it would restore public trust in a system in which it is lacking right now.
The key is for evidence sessions to happen under oath. That is what we called for in the House, and what should happen now.
I wholeheartedly agree; they have to be under oath. Justice would also be served if the Secretary of State were to appear before the Health and Social Care Committee to answer detailed questions about the way the inquiry was conducted, and to explain and defend its findings.
I sincerely hope that the Government are not simply playing for time with this scandal, hoping that in time it will go away. Thankfully, there are people in this House, such as the hon. Member for Bolton South East, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), and many others in the all-party parliamentary group on hormone pregnancy tests, who will not allow that to happen.
Finally, I put on record my thanks to the members of the APPG for their work to continue to shine a light where some vested interests would rather one not be shone, and for their tireless work in advocating strongly for justice for the victims of Primodos and other hormone pregnancy tests.
I agree with all colleagues who have spoken. My friend, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), is right about a cover-up. He could have gone further; there is a danger that it is a criminal cover-up. I say that to the Minister in all gravity, because if she and her colleagues do not get on top of this issue, it will end up in the courts. The Government and the medical establishment will be defeated, and a lot of money will have to be paid. It will be a national scandal. It is one already, but it is not as well known as it ought to be. It will be on the front pages. I say to the Minister that it is time to act.
When I last spoke on this subject, on 14 December 2017, I used material from the Berlin archives, thanks to the amazing Marie Lyon and the Sky journalist Jason Farrell. I showed that lawyers and the scientific advisers from Schering knew about this in the 1960s. Minutes from meetings in ’68 and ’69 showed that they knew that there were problems, and that they would be found guilty in a court of law. I used long-standing evidence that the people involved knew there was a problem.
Today, I will focus on the science—first, on the association between HPTs and deformity, and secondly, on the issue of causal links. The 2017 expert working group report said that there was not an association. It is interesting, however, that when members of the EWG gave evidence to the review, they had a different story. The Minister needs to think about why that is. Professor Stephen Evans, for example, in evidence on 28 January 2019, at 28 minutes and 46 seconds into the video, said that
“Dr Olszynko-Gryn says this: ‘More optionally the authors’—this is Heneghan…‘the authors might consider reflecting on the extent to which the association they identify implies a causal association. An association between the use of HPTs and birth defects has long been recognised and was rarely in dispute.’ Well, we don’t dispute that; there is an association.”
He did not say that in 2017. Ailsa Gebbie from the EWG, at the same oral hearing, said:
“But everybody admits there is a possible association, and that’s why the report was carried out in the first place.”
I think it is more than a possible association.
Let us go to the meta-analysis that has been quoted, which is where lots of studies are brought together to see whether together they tell a consistent story. I am not a scientist or a mathematician, but I have spoken to academics who really understand this. They say that when the studies are brought together, their homogeneity, and the consistency of the findings, is extraordinarily striking. They all show an association.
The EWG wants to dismiss that. Professor Evans does not want to accept that methodology. As we heard from the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), Professor Evans is going against the Food and Drug Administration—the US authorities—the European Medicines Agency, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and clinical researchers in this area across the world, who accept meta-analysis for this type of risk analysis. The Minister needs to ask her officials why the EWG refuses to accept the analysis, because it is strong, overwhelming and proves the case, I personally think, in legal terms, beyond reasonable doubt. The Minister must leave the Chamber knowing that there is an association, because that is what the science shows.
We have heard about the desire for a causal link to be shown. I urge the Minister to ask her experts and officials what is needed to prove a direct causal link. That test is very rarely met. If a recognised poison that is known to be lethal is given to someone, they will die; that is a binary issue. However, most other pharmaceuticals and drugs are not like that. The balance of probabilities is the test that is normally used. All the evidence that we have shows that, on the balance of probabilities, there is no doubt that there is a link.
It is sometimes difficult to show causalities. It has been suggested to me that I mention the Fairchild case, to show how difficult it is to establish causation. The Fairchild exception is a relaxation of normal tests for causation. A mesothelioma victim can prove that a particular exposure to asbestos caused the mesothelioma by proving that the exposure was such as to create a material increase in risk of the victim contracting the disease.
Has a material risk been proven? According to the meta-analysis, there is a 40% increase in risk of all malformations from taking HPTs. There is an 89% increase in risk of congenital heart malformations—more than a doubling. I say that because a doubling of a risk is material in court. There is nearly three times the risk of nervous system malformation. There is a 224% increase in risk of musculoskeletal malformation, and a 747% risk of vertical defects. That is what the evidence shows. I bring that to the Minister’s attention. She must know that. She should go back to the Department and challenge her officials, because they are getting this wrong and letting people down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I give huge credit to Marie Lyon and all the campaigners from the Primodos group; I have got to know them very well in the four years since I was elected in 2015. I have rarely met a more tireless and dedicated group. The same goes for the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). She, with her staff, has run the all-party parliamentary group with incredible veracity and determination, and it is a pleasure to be part of that. I also give credit to Jason Farrell of Sky, who recently did a documentary on the impacts of Primodos, shining a light where no one else, frankly, has gone.
I have campaigned for my constituent Wilma Ord and her daughter Kirsteen, who was born deaf and with cerebral palsy. Like so many women, as many Members have mentioned, Wilma believed that the deformities that her child was born with were her own fault. Let us call it out for what it is. As the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) said, there was a criminal cover-up. Some 1.5 million women were treated as human guinea pigs for the pursuit of profit by the company Schering, now Bayer. I hope that it is listening today.
I know that the Minister and the Government are listening. There is clearly consensus, the likes of which few of us will have seen, across the House on this issue. We are not going away, the campaigners are not going away, and this issue is not going away. Until I am no longer the elected Member of Parliament for Livingston, I will campaign on this issue and pursue it, as I know everybody in the Chamber will.
I, too, am pleased that this debate is happening, but I am really sad and frustrated to be here. I have re-read my speech from our October 2016 debate, at which I think all hon. Members in this Chamber were present. I spoke about two constituents who had been affected.
Most of the speeches in that debate articulately raised such cases, but basically they were asking for a process to find answers. Three years later, we have fewer answers and most of us are more suspicious and angry. On that basis alone, this cannot be the end of the matter. I thoroughly agree with the hon. Lady’s comments.
I absolutely agree. I share the hon. Gentleman’s despair and sadness that we are in this position so many years after the group was set up—a process into which the Government put public money and in which medical experts took part. As I have said, we are not necessarily criticising the people in the expert working group, who are medical professionals, but they have fallen victim to a process that was at best opaque and at worst corrupt, given the influence of the companies involved.
Who knows why we ended up in this mess? On the day the report was due to be published, the hon. Member for Bolton South East and I went to an event that we thought was supposed to be public—or at least open to Members of Parliament. We were stopped at the door; some of the press were allowed in, but we were not. We know that there was due to be a press conference and a public event, but they were both cancelled.
Members have spoken passionately about the lack of independence and impartiality, the gagging clause that Marie Lyon had to sign and the heavy-handed approach taken, all of which have caused serious concerns. What does it say to those in the medical community who may be invited to be part of future Government working groups that a group that was supposed to be open and transparent and get to the truth of an issue has turned out to be a cover-up? It raises serious concerns that their credibility will be called into question. That is a very dangerous situation.
As well as looking at the wider issue, we need to look at the mess that the expert group became, so that we can give confidence not only to the families and to our constituents, but to medical professionals.
The hon. Lady points out precisely the contextual things that we need to learn. Does she agree that there seems to have been an element of Jekyll and Hyde in the Government’s approach over the past three years? On the positive side, I have confidence that Baroness Cumberlege—with whom I have served on another all-party group—and her team are moving in the right direction. However, everything in the statement that the then Secretary of State made in February 2018 was about the future:
“drive forward…the recommendations of the expert working group…offering the families…a full and up-to-date genetic clinical evaluation…better training and support for obstetricians”.—[Official Report, 21 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 165-166.]
Those are all good things, but they do not address the past 40 years, offer an apology or express any sense of regret, nor do they address any of the issues raised in this debate. Would it not be a good idea for the Minister to go back to the Secretary of State and say that we need to look again at that 2018 statement, go back to that context and make the necessary decisions? People will not put up with just a broad range of recommendations —we need to get to the heart of the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. How many times must the families and the victims of Primodos have their hopes built up and then completely dashed? Is it not bad enough that they have gone through the trauma, the blame and having their children live with deformities and disabilities—as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) so precisely and devastatingly highlighted in the case of his constituent—without also having their hopes built up for a review that turns out to be a whitewash? That gives people no confidence at a time when, let’s be honest, confidence in politicians and the political process is not particularly good. We have an opportunity here to do something good, to do it well and to do it properly.
I have to say that my exchanges with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and with the expert working group have not been good. I wrote directly to the chair of the expert working group about people’s feelings and concerns, but the response that I received did not fill me with hope.
I am pleased that Baroness Cumberlege has taken on her new role of looking at hormone pregnancy tests, sodium valproate and medical mesh, but when she sought evidence, she did not include Scotland. I have now written to her, and that issue has been rectified, but it is important to remember all the devolved nations of the UK and ensure that they are appropriately included. We know what the academic studies have shown—the work of Carl Heneghan and Neil Vargesson has been exceptional—but there is now new evidence and we should ensure that it is included in any future plans or reviews.
What we need from the Minister is an acknowledgment of the power of the views across this Chamber and across both Houses, and of the serious impact of this issue on people’s lives. How many parents need to die without knowing what happened to their children because of a pill that they took? As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, these were women who believed that they were in the care of the NHS, that they were being given something that had been properly medically checked, and that they were not being put in danger. However, their health and the health of their unborn children were put in danger. Let us not forget that many women miscarried—there are many children who were not born because their mothers took this pill. This drug was used in Germany as an abortive and in another country as a pregnancy test. It does not take an expert to work out that that was absolutely wrong.
We have a choice, and we have an opportunity. There is a very powerful body of medical evidence that needs to be properly looked at. The Government also need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and think very carefully about why the expert working group failed so badly and why its terms of reference changed part of the way through. They need to make sure that that never happens again; that the victims of Primodos, including my constituent and all the constituents mentioned today, never have to go through any more pain and suffering; and that those victims will get truth, justice and answers to their questions. Do they need compensation? Yes, absolutely, but what they really want is an apology and an acknowledgment.
As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said, when something goes wrong, the right thing to do is put your hands up and say, “Do you know what? We got this wrong.” It is about time that that happened. I hope that now the Minister and her Government will finally do the right thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like other hon. Members, I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing this debate. I also thank Marie Lyon, chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests. Without those two strong, brave women and their pursuit of justice, truth and answers, we would probably not be having this debate. I think we can all agree that the personal stories that we have heard today are very powerful indeed, and that these people and their families deserve definitive answers to their questions, especially after so many years.
Although I am pleased that the Government have committed to the ongoing review, I hope that on this occasion all available data will be analysed and all research will be taken into account, so that the review’s conclusion can satisfy those who have campaigned so vociferously for so many years. It is alarming to read the report from experts at Oxford University, led by Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine. The report appears to identify huge gaps in the expert working group’s 2017 study.
To find that huge areas of research were left untouched is nothing short of an insult to the campaigners who have devoted their lives to seeking justice. Some reports suggest that key elements of research were removed on purpose to support the conclusion and mislead Government and Parliament. If so, we as parliamentarians must do our utmost to right those wrongs; I hope that today the Minister will pledge to do just that. Indeed, the Prime Minister herself said in January that she would
“listen very carefully to any recommendations that come out of the review”.—[Official Report, 16 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1160.]
The results of animal testing from a 1979 study released by the pharmaceutical manufacturer Schering, now owned by Bayer, found strong links between the drugs and malformations, as well as the death of embryos, and yet the expert working group in 2017 declared that those results provided insufficient evidence. The expert working group examined human studies, and the majority similarly favoured an association between Primodos and deformity, but still the working group felt that the evidence was not strong enough. Was the evidence not properly assessed, or was it simply omitted? Either way, that conclusion has undoubtedly prolonged the agony of those who have lived for 50 years without answers.
There has been much talk about whether meta-analysis should have been used by the expert working group in 2017. When Professor Heneghan carried out a random-effects meta-analysis, the results were opposite to that of the expert working group report and found that there was an association between the drug and the malformations, which was consistent with his own study.
I think I am right in saying that when the raw data that the expert working group had used was rerun by Professor Heneghan, it showed that if the expert working group had done that, it would have reached similar conclusions. That makes the group’s conclusions even more worrying.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which gives further credibility to the view that the review by the expert working group was completely insufficient.
One thing that I have been utterly appalled about during my research on this subject is the inhumane and patronising way in which women were treated and spoken about during the period that Primodos and other hormone pregnancy tests were available, and subsequently, when a possible link between the drugs, early abortions and birth defects was identified. As the chair and founder of the APPG on women’s health, I am often asked why I feel it necessary to have a group that looks exclusively at women’s health. This is a prime example of the inequality that women have faced over the years when they have sought help on major health issues.
One senior medical officer from the Committee on Safety of Medicines said in 1969:
“It is somewhat difficult to summon up enough enthusiasm to place a high priority on this, when so much other and possibly more important work is pressing.”
In 1968, Dr N.M.B. Dean, of the Royal College of General Practitioners, stated:
“With regard to the rather high incidence of abortions in the Primodos group, I think it must be borne in mind that women going to their doctor for this type of test often hope that they are not pregnant and it is not impossible that these women took other steps to terminate their pregnancies”.
Those quotes are breathtakingly horrific. My constituent gave birth in the late 1960s to Steven, who had severe abnormalities thanks to Primodos, and she then went on to conceive two healthy daughters. My constituent wanted to be pregnant, and she wanted a family.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Time has not been a healer in this case. We need to understand what has happened and we need to get answers for the affected groups.
The quote from Dr Dean goes on:
“In view of these findings tentative though they are, it would be my own view that, since there is in any event no very sound medical reason (in my opinion) for the use of such hormonal preparations, Primodos should be withdrawn from use.”
To suggest that women going through the pain of dealing with a miscarriage had perhaps taken steps to terminate their pregnancies is nothing short of abhorrent, especially given that Dr Dean went on to suggest that Primodos should be withdrawn from use. That indicates that he did see a link between the drug and the miscarriages. Sadly, the suggestion was completely ignored.
Then there are the poor women whose babies had such severe health issues that they did not survive. Reports from those women include the following:
“1971: the words ‘Monster child’ were written on my medical notes. My baby was born alive. I was not allowed to see her. I was drugged. My baby was taken away. I never saw her again.
1971: Anencephaly. Stillborn 2 weeks early. No funeral allowed. Not allowed to name her. My daughter was put in a coffin with a stranger. Searched for 18 years to find where her remains had been left.
1973: I was 16. Just married and excited about my first baby. Just before my baby was born the doctor said my baby did not have a properly formed head. She had no skull and no brain and would die at birth. I was then heavily sedated and my waters broken. I tried to wake up when my baby was born and begged to see her. They refused as her birth defects were too distressing to see.”
I am sure we all agree that those reports are nothing short of heartbreaking. They are incredibly demeaning for the women involved.
To be put through the most horrendous of situations and made to suffer for all these years without answers has been like a life sentence for some, and those living with complex disabilities face an uncertain future without carers or financial support, should their loved ones die before them. If Primodos and other pregnancy hormone tests were to blame, the answers need to come now, and financial support needs to be given before it really is too late to help those living day to day with the effects of innocently taking a drug after putting their trust in clinicians and drug companies all those years ago.
On listening to stories from those affected and researching the issue, the greatest point that sticks with me is the uncertainty that surrounds all the reports that have been published—the lack of evidence used, the lack of research analysed, the lack of questions answered. I think 50 years is long enough for campaigners to wait. I hope that the Minister will today pledge that she will ensure an end to that wait, and that she will make sure that the findings of the latest review, when published, are acted on thoroughly and comprehensively.
I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate, with real passion and determination to get to the truth. I fully accept the perception held by all Members present that we have waited a long time for answers.
One of the reasons I have pushed so hard for the Cumberlege review is exactly because of those arguments that have been made here this morning. It is important that everybody who has been affected is able to get answers. We have heard lots of talk today about a cover-up, and there clearly needs to be confidence in the review’s outcome. That is why I wanted Baroness Cumberlege to take an objective look at exactly what has happened, as well as recognising that the way in which the regulatory system has dealt with concerns has seemed very inhumane, process-driven and extremely insensitive to patients. The response on issues of patient safety must be improved. I am really looking forward to receiving Baroness Cumberlege’s recommendation in that regard, because so many people’s experiences have been entirely unsatisfactory. I know that she has considered the evidence brought to her by Marie Lyon and Jason Farrell. I will be taking the recommendations extremely seriously and I hope that she can draw some conclusions on where everything has gone wrong.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and others raised the issue of the independence of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. It is entirely appropriate that regulators are funded by the community that they regulate, through fees. That in itself does not lead to questions on the regulator’s independence, but we need to offer some challenge in order to see whether the processes have sufficient integrity in terms of the response on issues of patient safety. I do not think we tackle the question of independence solely by shifting the funding on to taxpayers. It is entirely appropriate that the industry should meet the cost of regulation, but the review will bring some conclusions on whether that medical regulation is operating properly.
While we await the review’s conclusions, we have had the expert working group. It is clear that hon. Members are not entirely confident in the processes and conclusions of that group. To put the work in context, the group gathered evidence from around the world and met seven times over an 18-month period. It concluded unanimously that the totality of the data reviewed did not support a causal association between Primodos and adverse pregnancy outcomes. It also did not conclude that there was not, and we clearly need to consider any further evidence when it is brought forward.
I appreciate the comments that the Minister is making. She must recognise that the MHRA had ultimate control over what the expert working group saw, and that many documents that Sky’s Jason Farrell had uncovered in Berlin and which Members have cited were not included in the work of the EWG. We need a fully transparent review—as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said—under oath. Does she agree that that would be sensible?
I come back to my opening comments: we brought forward the Cumberlege review to give an independent challenge to what is currently being done by a regulatory system. We need to look at whether that system is appropriate, given the concerns.
The Minister is being very generous with her time. She is seeking to persuade us, perfectly reasonably, that she and the Government have been acting in a measured way to try to look into all these things. As I have said, we welcome Baroness Cumberlege’s report. Has the Minister at any time asked the members of the expert working group why they changed the definition that they were given?
I am not satisfied that that is actually what happened. When we receive drafts of reports that are circulated to committees, they often go through amendment.
Let me continue going through the chronology of events. As I said, the evidence did not support a causal association, nor did it disprove one. We will of course continue to review evidence as it arises.
I think this is a really fundamental point. I apologise if it seems like I am going to give the Minister a hard time, but I am. They were not asked to look for a causal link; they were asked to look for an association, and we have now seen evidence that they knew it was there. I know what happens when the notes are written for the Minister. They were not asked to look for a causal link, but for an association. They decided among themselves to change what they were supposed to look at, which is why they came out with the results that they did. That is a really fundamental point.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says. There has to be some element of cause, otherwise there is no scientific basis for a judgment. I will have to agree to disagree with him on that point.
I have to intervene on the Minister on that point. In many cases, drugs are looked at on the probability of risk, not on causality. Causality is a much stronger test. In science, it is very difficult to prove. If her officials are telling her that about a causal link, they are wrong. I urge her to get separate independent advice on that.
The drugs are no longer available because of association, due precisely to that balance of risk. The issue that we are looking at now is to what extent that was understood at the time, and to what extent there is a liability. That is what the group is ready to look at.
The Minister is being very generous with her time. I refer her to the evidence that was in the Berlin archives, which goes back to 1968 and 1969, and to the meta-analysis, which proves that on the balance of probabilities there is no doubt. That became known not this year, but years ago.
I am answering on behalf of the working group. That is an independent process and I will try to do my best. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the meta-analysis and the suggestion that Parliament has been misled about why that was not done. The expert working group discussed the merits of doing a meta-analysis at its fifth meeting. In its view, the studies were very different, not sufficiently robust and suffered from extensive limitations. The group concluded that conducting a meta-analysis was not the most appropriate way to analyse this type of study. Instead, the group developed a set of quality criteria and presented its assessment of each study in a series of plots. To reconfirm, the data was not considered sufficiently robust for meta-analysis to be used. One of the real problems we have is that we are talking about data that, as we have mentioned, is 50 years old and not sufficiently robust.
There have been some suggestions that the expert working group has been less than transparent. In line with the Government’s commitment to publish the report of the review and all the evidence considered by the group, all documents have been available for public scrutiny since November 2017. We have been very grateful for the involvement of Marie Lyon throughout that process.
There has been some criticism of the lack of an external peer review of the expert working group report. The Government’s independent scientific advisory body on the safety of medicines, the Commission on Human Medicines, acts as the peer reviewer for all expert working groups. It reviewed the draft report on two occasions before it was published. I know that Baroness Cumberlege will be looking at whether there has been sufficient peer review of that report, and I look forward to receiving her recommendations. As with any issue, new evidence can emerge in the meantime. I reassure the House that the Government have made a commitment to review any important new evidence, and we have honoured that commitment.
The Minister said a moment ago that the crux of the matter is what was known at the time about the balance of risks. Will she look at international comparisons? In other countries, this hormone pregnancy test was banned much earlier than it was in the UK.
I hear what the hon. Lady says. We have taken this work forward with the working group and have been looking at the totality of evidence around the world, particularly in Europe. Last year, Ministers asked the MHRA to convene a group of experts who have been completely without any agenda on this issue in the past, to consider the work by Professor Vargesson and ensure that it was sufficiently independent. That work, which has been referred to, concluded that Primodos caused malformations in zebrafish embryos. We have also asked for an independent European-level review of that evidence to be undertaken, so that everyone can have more confidence in the outcome. Both the UK and European reviews concluded that the results of the zebrafish study had no implications for the conclusions of the expert working group’s report, and the findings of both reviews have been published.
I turn finally to the data published by Professor Heneghan. Although this analysis does not contain any new data, it found the use of hormone pregnancy tests in pregnancy is associated with a small increased risk of certain congenital malformations. The Government have therefore asked for a completely new expert group to be convened in order to consider Professor Heneghan’s work, and for a review to be conducted in parallel with the European review. Those reviews are ongoing, and I look forward to receiving that advice.
I appreciate that I have not been able to satisfy all the representations made by hon. and right hon. Members this morning. As I said, the Government will continue to review evidence in this area. We are still considering the evidence from Professor Heneghan, and we look forward to implementing any recommendations that Baroness Cumberlege brings forward in this regard.
I thank the hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and the right hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for his helpful interventions.
I am very disappointed with the response the Minister has given. The questions and interventions that my colleagues have voiced suggest their disappointment as well. She has said what all the Ministers have been saying, which is basically reading out the civil service line—Sir Humphrey speak. We have raised a number of serious questions. We raised the constitution of the expert working group—the people who sat on the panel. In meetings I had with the then Minister—the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—and civil servants, we sat and discussed what they would to be looking at. They assured us that all the documents and available evidence would be looked at. Clearly, some of it has not been looked at, yet there is no promise to look at all the evidence in this case.
The scientific studies by Professor Vargesson have been mentioned. As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said, the human body shares about 70% of the genetic code of the zebrafish. They were found to be damaged. Most of us listening to the Minister are just gobsmacked by what we are being told. None of the issues that have been raised today has really been taken on board.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Waste Water Treatment Works: Odour Nuisance
I beg to move,
That this House has considered odour nuisance from waste water treatment works.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I recognise that it could be the source of some humour to be discussing a somewhat malodorous whiff or a pungent, noxious odour in the air—that is not a reference to this place, obviously—but I have received a number of complaints from residents in my constituency of Great Grimsby, particularly in the West Marsh ward. Frankly, their lives are being blighted, on an irregular basis, by repeated unfortunate smells coming from the Pyewipe sewage treatment plant a few hundred yards from their homes.
I want to talk about some of the issues that my constituents have raised with me, and some of the general problems relating to standards and enforcement in the water treatment industry, which I am sure affect Members from across the House, particularly if they have water treatment works in their constituencies.
None of us would want to experience the smell originating from sewage treatment plants, even for a short period. I was knocking on doors in the area only about two or three weeks ago, and the smell was overpowering. People did not want to open their doors, not because I was knocking on them—it is completely the opposite when I knock on their doors—but because of the smell. People are completely fed up with it. It was so noticeable and present that I thought I had perhaps stepped in something unpleasant, but that was not the case. Perhaps, I thought, it might be because of the increasingly warm weather, and it might be coming from the river that runs alongside the area—a very pretty river, now that the Environment Agency has cleared up that space—but it was not coming from there either. The only place it could have been coming from was the water treatment works.
Council environmental health officers are obliged to investigate complaints of nuisance smells and take action if they adjudge them to be a statutory nuisance. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in reports of odours from Anglian Water-managed Pyewipe sewage treatment centre. Records that Anglian has shared with me show that there were no reports of odour between 2014 and 2017, which I find remarkable; fewer than 10 reports in 2017; fewer than 15 in 2018; and fewer than five in 2019. Given that we are only coming towards the end of April, that is quite a significant number. That leads me to question whether the reporting mechanism for local residents is well known. I suspect that one of the reasons why there were no complaints between 2014 and 2017 is that people were not aware of how they could make complaints.
Nuisance smells affect residents’ ability to open their windows on hot days, enjoy their gardens and walk along the River Haven. They make them feel uncomfortable about inviting friends or family to visit their homes. Ultimately, they make our streets and communities far less open and enjoyable, as people choose to stay inside to avoid the odour, try to mask it with air fresheners or avoid the area altogether and go elsewhere. It is not right that my constituents are forced to put up with putrid odours in their homes, which can have a negative effect on their lives. We should take that seriously. I remember talking to two constituents, one of whom had been undergoing some form of cancer treatment. They wanted to make sure their home was properly ventilated, but it became impossible to open their windows, and they were incredibly frustrated about that.
Water companies and environmental health departments must make it a key aim to ensure that water plants do not create nuisance smells, and that any reports of a smell emanating from one of their plants is dealt with in a serious and timely manner. Unfortunately, the experience of one of my constituents suggests that that is far from the reality for those suffering from nuisance smells in our area.
After corresponding with representatives of Anglian Water and visiting the site, my constituent sent a spreadsheet to Anglian Water in July 2018 that recorded all the times he had experienced a bad smell. Anglian’s figures say that there were fewer than 15 odour reports in 2018, but I am fairly sure my constituent had more than 15 entries on his spreadsheet. I am not sure how that recording is done, but I will take it up with Anglian Water.
My constituent sent Anglian the spreadsheet in July 2018, having done what it requested him to do, but he attended one of my surgeries in January to seek my help in getting a reply because he had received absolutely nothing from the company—certainly nothing looking like any kind of solution. That is why he found himself visiting his MP to try to resolve the situation. People come to see their MPs as a last resort when they have been unable to get any kind of resolution through the normal channels. For an issue like this, the normal channels should be easily accessible, not surrounded by a kind of wall of bureaucracy that makes it impossible for individuals to get answers to simple, straightforward and genuine questions.
After my office chased Anglian Water for nearly a month, it finally replied to my constituent’s concerns last month—eight months after his original complaint. That is wholly unacceptable.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Depending on the wind direction, the issue could also affect my constituency. She referred to West Marsh ward but, as she will acknowledge, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, Freshney ward or—over the border in my constituency—Wolds ward could equally be affected.
This has been a very long-running issue. In the years I spent on Grimsby Council and North East Lincolnshire Council, it was almost an annual event. I sympathise with the hon. Lady’s constituents, and I fully support all actions that she is taking. I urge the Minister to lean on the responsible authorities.
I thank my constituency neighbour for raising that issue. He was a member of the local authority in its various guises for a number of years, so has vast experience of this issue. If it has been going on for this long, why has it not yet been resolved? The responses that Anglian Water sent recently to councillor colleagues responsible for the ward, Gemma Sheridan and Karl Wilson, have been dismissive to say the least, which is incredibly disappointing. This issue clearly comes up time and again. Why cannot Anglian get a grip and sort it out, to make the lives of people in the vicinity of its treatment works much more pleasant?
The reply that Anglian Water finally sent to my constituent said that, although the Pyewipe centre does produce odours, there are a lot of industrial sites around the area, and that he should report problems to the council’s environmental health team as they occur. To my mind, that is passing the buck. It is a significant and particular odour. It is not one of general industry, of the very well-known fish processing industry or of farming. However, when my office contacted North East Lincolnshire council’s environmental health department —as Anglian Water advised my constituent to do—we were told that an agreement had been made with Anglian Water that the company would be the first point of contact for odour-related complaints and that constituents should get in touch with it.
That means that my constituent was told by Anglian Water, the responsible body, to go to the local authority, which said, “No, no, no! We already have an agreement with Anglian Water. That’s where the complaint should be issued.” None of that excuses an eight-month delay when somebody lodges a formal complaint with an organisation, whether Anglian Water or a local authority. Frankly, residents do not care; they just want their concerns responded to.
That is far from being an isolated incident. Some streets of West Marsh are particularly negatively affected by the smells from the site. It has taken tireless work by local councillors Gemma Sheridan and Karl Wilson to chase and follow up residents’ concerns about the nuisance and get some kind of response from Anglian Water. After those concerns were raised, Anglian invited the councillors over. On that day, miraculously, there was no smell, no issue and no problem. If that can be done for the councillors’ visit, it can be done the rest of the time.
It is not good enough for my constituents to be passed from pillar to post when they try to report a problem that has a real effect on their lives and on their enjoyment of their communities. I understand the economic benefits for both parties of a first-instance reporting agreement between the local authority and Anglian Water, but that cannot come at the expense of constituents, who pay the cost of poor responsiveness and a lack of accountability and responsibility for sorting out the nuisance odour to which they are subjected.
In response, Anglian Water and North East Lincolnshire’s environmental health team have agreed to meet me at the start of next month to try and sort out some of the problems in the system—I am very grateful and thank them for that. The experience of my constituent, however, as well as the fact that my office and local councillors have had to get involved so that the council’s environmental health team and Anglian Water discuss the problem together, speaks to some fundamental problems with the governance of nuisance smells from sewage treatment centres and how that is allowed to function across country.
Although some level of casual, voluntary or first-response enforcement may be used efficiently within environmental protection enforcement against nuisance, it is no substitute for creating an accountable and fair system. Any system of that type needs checks and balances from the regulator to ensure that the companies operating them carry out the work up to a required standard and behave in a responsible manner. Clearly, that has not happened in the case of Pyewipe sewage treatment centre. The company should not take eight months to respond to a detailed complaint about odour nuisance, and nor should the council or Anglian Water simply pass the buck rather than work together to solve the problem.
What can the Government do to help take action against such companies, which have a responsibility to local communities? Perhaps the Government will consider issuing guidance to local councils that use private-public voluntary partnerships in the environmental sector about how they can effectively ensure that the agreements that they make with companies to comply by environmental standards are actually met. Will the Minister also examine how much such schemes can be divorced from the accountability of official local and national bodies, without having a negative impact on the communities that pay the cost for mismanagement?
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) raised the issue of strong winds. That is exactly the response that Anglian Water gave to one of the councillors when the issue was raised three weeks ago. It blamed the wind and the direction of the wind, rather than getting to the heart of the matter and using the technology that I know is out there to solve some of those problems.
The situation is not the fault of the local council or environmental teams. When we talk about environmental enforcement, we cannot ignore the impact of the massive budget cuts experienced by councils across the country since 2010. I recognise that when councils have to choose between statutory duties such as adult social care, anti-social behaviour, homelessness, children’s social care and libraries, that comes at the expense of non-statutory functions, such as enforcement or, in this case, an environmental health team that is stretched across numerous responsibilities. That team makes sure that the air that we breathe is safe; deals with fly-tipping complaints and safety and hygiene standards in the food sector; and ensures that home and businesses do not contain major faults and hazards. That is a lot of responsibility and many duties for a small team of people.
Although there are a number of solutions, which I will raise with Anglian Water and the enforcement team when I meet them next week, can we look at what actually counts as a statutory nuisance? I understand that there has to be a certain frequency and level for something to be considered a nuisance, but a lower threshold might encourage companies to take their responsibilities more seriously. Can something be done to ensure that water companies are required to use the most up-to-date technology available to deal with these problems or, if they are going to blame the direction of the wind, to provide a barrier to prevent that smell spreading across a wider area?
Anglian Water’s response to me, which gave the figures for the complaints that the company had received, said:
“We recognise that these figures demonstrate there has been a recent increase in odour reported to Anglian Water at this time, with a particular spike during summer 2018. We are aware that the long, hot dry spell may have contributed to a temporary increase in odour on the site.”
I do not know whether others enjoyed the Easter weekend, but it was the hottest on record, and last year’s was the previous hottest Easter on record—there seems to be a pattern. A number of the people currently in Parliament Square would tell us time and again that we are likely to experience a pattern of increasingly lengthy dry spells. The whole of London has been brought to a standstill over the last two weeks by climate change protestors, which tells us that there is a steady increase in temperature. That means that there will be increasingly lengthy and hot dry spells. If that is the case, the problem will only get worse, and local residents will continue to suffer if Anglian Water does not take action.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes has dealt with or recognised the problem for the last 15 or 20 years—
Even more than that!
Forty or 50? If so, the issue is longstanding and needs to be resolved before the weather plays an increasing role and the problem becomes uncontainable. I saw in my research ahead of the debate that if the problem remains unresolved, it will limit how people live their lives, down to not being able to open their windows, have visitors or rent out properties. If residents cannot sell their homes because the area becomes undesirable, that presumably leaves them in a position to seek some form of legal action or compensatory claim. That would be the worst of all worlds: I do not think that anybody wants that outcome.
I ask the Minister to point me in the right direction and suggest some pointers ahead of my meeting with Anglian Water and the local authority, for the sake of the West Marsh residents on whose lives the issue has a significant impact and to solve the problem once and for all.
The debate can last until 1.30 pm. We go from the fragrant hon. Lady to the sweet-smelling Minister.
It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, in particular with comments such as that, which do not happen often—thank you very much. I am sure that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) also feels the benefit of your kind remarks.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is a formidable spokesperson for her constituency and works hard in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. It is good that she was able to secure this debate on the odour nuisance from waste water treatment works on behalf of the many constituents whom she represents. It is also good to hear the authoritative voice of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) who has, dare I say it, decades of experience. He does not look old enough for that, but he smells sweetly enough to represent those views.
I sympathise greatly with the residents of West Marsh. The issue is clearly unpleasant and, as the hon. Lady described, distressing. It significantly affects their quality of life, and I particularly appreciate the concerns expressed about the potential for the problem to become worse in the summer when residents need to be able to ventilate their homes. Both Members highlighted concern about the summer, so it is important that we get to grips with the problem as quickly as possible.
Statutory nuisance legislation provides the mechanism for communities to raise concerns of this nature with their local authority, requiring it to investigate and, where necessary, to take measures to resolve the issue. Section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 places a duty on local authorities to inspect their areas from time to time to detect statutory nuisances, and to investigate complaints made by local residents about issues that could be a statutory nuisance. Smells from industry, trade or business premises, which include waste water treatment works, are among the statutory nuisances listed under the Act.
To be a statutory nuisance, an issue must either unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises, or injure or be likely to injure health. It is not essential for local authorities or environmental health practitioners to witness the nuisance themselves—that point was made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby because, unfortunately, when they came to visit with the councillors, there was no smell—but they need to be satisfied that the statutory nuisance exists or is likely to occur or recur, as seems to be the case with the issue raised by the hon. Lady.
Any decision will take into account a number of factors, including the reasonableness of the activity, the time of day of the occurrence, and its duration and frequency. Local authorities and environmental health practitioners need to decide whether they have enough evidence to justify a view that statutory nuisance exists before they take enforcement action. It sounds as if many of the hon. Lady’s constituents are taking the right steps, and we must ensure that the information is being provided not just to the local authority but to Anglian Water—we will come on to that.
The decision as to whether a particular issue constitutes a statutory nuisance is normally made by the local environmental health practitioner on a case-by-case basis. Section 80 of the Act imposes a duty on local authorities to serve an abatement notice where they are satisfied that a nuisance exists, or is likely to occur or recur in that area. The notice may require whoever is responsible to stop the activity, or to limit it to certain times to avoid causing a nuisance, and may include specific actions to reduce the problem.
It is an offence not to comply with an abatement notice without reasonable excuse. Someone who does not comply with an abatement notice can be prosecuted and, on conviction, in the case of industrial, trade and business premises, fined an unlimited amount. If local residents experience an odour problem that they believe might constitute a statutory nuisance, I urge them to contact their local authority without delay, describing the nature of the odour and providing any other details that might be helpful.
If it should prove to be the case that the odour nuisance that is the focus of our attention now originates from the waste water treatment works, the hon. Lady should be assured that we have strong rules in place not only to protect and improve water quality in England through proper collection, treatment and discharge of waste water, but to prevent unacceptable odour. Certain activities at waste water treatment works are regulated via appropriate environmental permits, depending on the nature of their operations. Conditions attached to the permits include those regarding odour. In 2018, the Environment Agency received 21,600 reports of odour pollution—I am pleased to report that not all of them were in the constituency of the hon. Lady—which were investigated by the agency where it regulated the activity. The remaining cases were investigated by the relevant local authority.
I understand that a significant number of industrial premises in the West Marsh area have the potential to cause odour, including waste-management and fish-processing facilities, and it may therefore not be straightforward to establish the odour origination point, although the hon. Member for Great Grimsby seems to have a pretty good idea of that—she has been forthright in her view. The local authority, in this case North East Lincolnshire Council, is responsible for identifying the sources of the odour that is causing a nuisance in the local area, and for issuing an abatement notice where it concludes that a nuisance is occurring. The Environment Agency has been working with North East Lincolnshire Council and Anglian Water to support improved odour monitoring, including a joint site visit and training for the council staff. The agency has also worked to facilitate effective local communications between the two parties.
The hon. Lady made an important point about reporting mechanisms. Local residents with ongoing concerns about odours associated with the treatment works at Pyewipe operated by Anglian Water Services should contact the main number, 0345 714 5145, in the first instance. If necessary, they may then contact North East Lincolnshire Council to follow up. I trust that Anglian Water is listening to and following the debate. Eight-month delays are completely unacceptable in any public body. It is absolutely clear that any approaches to a complaint and follow-up action need to be transparent and easy to use. I hope, if nothing else comes out of the debate, that it will become clear where the first point of contract should be—Anglian Water.
While being odour-free in all circumstances may not be possible, nevertheless there are many options for abating odour nuisance. I therefore encourage the hon. Member for Great Grimsby to continue to work with the local authority and Anglian Water to establish the exact source of the odour and to ensure that action is taken to mitigate it. I understand that Anglian Water is happy to convene a meeting with the hon. Lady, the local authority and the Environment Agency to discuss the concerns that have been expressed and to identify a way forward. I am pleased to hear that that meeting has been arranged for 1 May. I also gather that there is a desire on all sides proactively to improve communications and to resolve the situation as far as possible in advance of the summer months. The timing is good.
It is not the role of Government to intervene in local nuisance cases of this kind, but I assure the hon. Lady that the local authority has all the powers necessary to tackle the problem. I hope that this debate and my words on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will assist her in her efforts to resolve the issue and to address the concerns of her constituents, whom she seeks to serve well with all her dedication.
Question put and agreed to.
Proportional Representation: House of Commons
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proportional representation in the House of Commons.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I begin by thanking the House of Commons digital engagement service for its work in preparation for this debate. It engages with voters on Facebook to great effect. Between 15 and 23 April, its Facebook post on proportional representation was seen by 29,448 accounts and had 7,936 clicks and 1,803 engagements. Of those engagements, 496 were Facebook users who wanted to comment on the issue, clearly demonstrating that there is a lot of interest—such is the interest that the debate is being streamed on the House of Commons Facebook page. I was impressed by the quality of insights made on the post and humbled by the number of them, and I thank all those who took the time to share their thoughts on proportional representation on Facebook.
In trying to do justice to the online discussion I can do no better than to begin by admitting that for many years I remained stubbornly resistant to the arguments for proportional representation, but no longer. Recent events have forced me to rethink my stance. In other words, I am happy to admit that I was wrong to defend first past the post for so long. My epiphany came in the wake of the 2017 election, when it became painfully obvious that the current electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. That was the third general election in a row in which our voting system failed to secure the strong, stable government that we all see as its key strength. It gave the Tories just under 50% of the seats available, with 42% of the vote. According to the Electoral Reform Society, 22 million voters had no impact on the result because they remained loyal to their tribe, despite knowing there was no chance whatsoever of securing victory for their candidates.
Many online respondents felt despondent and angry that living in a safe seat could mean that their vote counted for nothing. One respondent, Jamie, said:
“No one could possibly condone a system that essentially makes hundreds of thousands of voters redundant, and even worse reinforces the feeling of apathy that puts many people off from participating in the political process in the first place.”
On the other hand, 6.5 million voters decided to vote tactically in order to empower their choices, to give themselves a small but nevertheless important opportunity to help shape the outcome of the election. The situation was summarised beautifully by one of the contributors to the Facebook page, Adrienne, who said:
“I would like a proportional representation system so that I could vote for the party whose policies I agree with. At the moment my choice is either to vote tactically for a party I don’t want but whose policies I object to less, or to ‘waste’ my vote on the party I like—I live in a safe seat and can’t ever see my preferred party being successful. I think this question is more pertinent than ever following the political mess that has been Brexit. I have lost all faith that my voice will be heard in the current system.”
At this point, many hon. Members will be thinking, “Yes, we’ve always argued that the current voting system is unfair.” Quite fairly, they would accuse me of having remained willingly blind to its iniquities. I have believed throughout my adult life that first past the post is justifiable because it promises strong government and a democratic basis for the implementation of the winning party’s manifesto. However, as I conceded, the key defence of first past the post has crumbled and is no longer credible, leading to my road-to-Damascus moment.
Three elections in a row failed to deliver strong government. Why? What is going on? Let us begin with the deep and ongoing crisis afflicting the two biggest political parties. Brexit is seen by many as the cause, but I would contend that it is a symptom of a newly emboldened populist discourse that has fractured our politics. As a consequence, both the Tory party and the Labour party are struggling with widening ideological divides that threaten to become an existential threat. That development is important because in a two-party system, voters need to be sure that the party they support is capable of delivering the realistic, pragmatic politics vital to the effective governing of the country.
There is a strong sense that both major parties are failing to maintain an approach to policy making based on consensus within each party and with the electorate, because the broad churches they represent are evaporating in the face of a blistering assault from the far reaches of the right and the left. We face a serious and possibly terminal decline in the ability of the two major parties to process political options, sift them and present them as a meaningful choice at an election. It is no wonder that long-term trends in voting behaviour indicate that the case for reform of the voting system is getting stronger, not weaker.
The hon. Lady makes some powerful points, but the only time that the British National party has ever been elected was through the d’Hondt system of proportional representation in the last European elections.
I do not intend to go through the different PR models available, because I am establishing the principle, but I believe there are models of PR that prevent the accession of small extremist parties to a parliamentary system. Germany has such a system.
The recent British Social Attitudes survey found that only 8% of voters identify strongly with a political party. Polls regularly report not only diminishing support for the two parties, but a sense that “none of the above” is an increasingly attractive choice for British voters. That is best expressed by a gradually reducing turnout. In 1950, 84% of voters cast their preferences at the ballot box. In the 2017 election, turnout was 68%. There is other firm evidence that voters are losing confidence in our representative democracy. The report by the Institute for Public Policy Research on the 2015 election established that less than half of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared with nearly 80% of those aged 65 and over. That is a worrying trend.
The past 30 years have seen the emergence of a dramatic divide in how people vote, especially as far as the age demographic is concerned. The evidence is clear: voters increasingly demonstrate that they no longer trust the two main parties to manage the democratic process. Both Labour and the Tories have traditionally held a huge responsibility under first past the post. In an electoral process that offers only limited opportunities to change the political colour of a constituency, we have relied on the two major parties to provide candidates who are capable of taking on the coveted role of Member of Parliament, and to provide a well-thought-through programme for government that is realistic and promises to meet the needs of the country. Increasingly there is a feeling that both parties are failing to take those responsibilities seriously, to the extent that voters are no longer content to be managed by political parties. They increasingly seek plurality, so that they can sift for themselves the range of policy choices available in any given election. Voters no longer want to be patronised by the democratic process; they want to be empowered by it.
I commend the hon. Lady on her speech and on the candour and force with which she makes her points. What she says is true not just of national government but of local government. May I offer her the example of local government in Scotland where, since 2007, councils have been elected under the single transferable vote? We have seen the end of single-party monoliths across Scotland, and that has been absolutely rejuvenating for local democracy in Scotland.
I completely accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I restricted this debate to Westminster, but that does not mean that I believe these principles do not apply to local government—they do.
Our 19th-century voting system is unfit for the 21st century. As one respondent wrote on the Facebook page accompanying this debate, the system acts as a straitjacket, denying voters the multiplicity of choices they crave. Another respondent, Benny, commented that PR
“would make sure that every vote counts, enabling all voters to feel more involved in the democratic process.”
If we are serious about changing our politics, we must start with how we elect our Parliament. We need reform to ensure fairness and integrity in the electoral process, and that means acknowledging the case made by events in the past few years for a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Will she tell us which system she favours? There are a number of systems we could use, but it would be very interesting to know which appeals to her.
What I will say is that I do not favour a system that removes the constituency link. We must have a system that keeps the constituency link in place. One of the reasons the alternative vote referendum failed is that AV is not proper PR. We need proper PR, but we need the constituency link.
If we win approval in Parliament for implementing a new PR system, we should begin the process of establishing a proportional system by holding deliberative discussions—citizens’ assemblies—across the country to develop the right option for our country. That is the way we should do this. I am not going to say which system I want to see. That is not for me to decide. The country has to decide which system suits us best. That is the best way of approaching the implementation of a change in the voting system.
As I said, we need a more pluralistic system that gives back control to voters. That is what the democratic process is about. The days of patronising voters and managing their choices for them are over, and we need to recognise that. No longer can excuses be made to avoid change. Indeed, every new legislature created by this Parliament uses some form of PR. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the London Assembly all use proportional systems. STV, Mr Evans, is even used to elect the Deputy Speakers of this House.
I am convinced that change is coming. It is overdue. I apologise for my tardiness in acknowledging the strength of the argument for PR, but better late than never. Let’s get on with it.
Order. Members can see how many people are standing. The wind-ups will start at half-past 5, so please show enormous constraint—just make your points and then allow others to get in. I call Vicky Ford.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am one of the few parliamentarians to have been elected under both the first-past-the-post system, as a Member of this Parliament, and a proportional representation system—I was elected twice to the European Parliament.
Some people say proportional representation will lead to a more consensual approach to decision making. I have seen that consensus sometimes does occur more in the European Parliament than people occasionally perceive to be the case here, but in my experience from the past couple of years, there are many areas of Westminster in which decision making happens along consensus lines; I think especially of the work we do in Select Committees and on all-party parliamentary groups. On the other hand, I have seen fundamental flaws in the proportional representation system, and we should be very careful when thinking about adopting changes to our system.
Let me take Members back 10 years to 2009, when European elections were held at the height of the expenses scandal. The turnout was very low, which meant people could get elected with only a very small number of voters turning up to support them. Two members of the British National party were elected, with fewer than 3% of the voters supporting them. At the time, that party would not allow someone to join as a member unless their face was white. Those people were given seats in the European Parliament. They were given credibility and respectability.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that part of the problem with that election was the closed-list d’Hondt system, which discriminates? In certain regions it allows extremist parties to get through, but in other regions it requires parties to reach a much higher figure. Would it not be better to move to a national form of proportional representation for European elections, such as the one that the French use?
We could use the German system—a national system with a national list, which means that a candidate needs 0.7% of the vote to get a seat. My point is that, especially as turnout is low, a very small number of votes can give people with quite extreme views credibility, funding and access to support, so we should be very wary.
In my experience, proportional representation also really changes a Member’s relationship with their voters. Because there are multiple Members for each seat, there have to be wider constituencies, meaning that Members do not have the same close relationship with their voters. [Interruption.] I will not give way, I am afraid, because lots of people want to speak. Under proportional representation, Members do not have the same intimate relationship with their voters, in which the voters know, “That is my MP; I can hold that person responsible,” and the Member knows they are responsible to those people. Proportional representation breaks the link between the voter and the elected representative. I would be very wary of doing that to our democracy.
Democracy, as Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government, apart from all the rest. Trust in our politics is very low, but I do not believe that changing our electoral system is a miracle cure or a silver bullet that will solve that problem.
I am extremely grateful for the hon. Lady’s brevity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As I represent a Scottish constituency, I work alongside Members of the Scottish Parliament who were elected under both constituency-based and regional-based systems, as well as local councillors who were voted in under the STV system, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned. We come from a culture where there is reasonably fair cohabitation of proportional representation and majoritarian systems.
I am fairly open-minded about the idea of different electoral systems. The key thing is for us to agree that there needs to be a thorough constitutional convention. It is high time that every aspect of the entire structure of Westminster’s governance was reviewed. I am sure we have a litany of ideas about reform of the structure—not just the electoral system, but the second Chamber and the way Westminster interfaces—and that is certainly what the Labour party advocates.
There are certainly problems with the way the Scottish Parliament’s structure works. Combining regional lists and constituencies creates an imbalance between the different types of MSPs, which often leads to problems. When we talk about PR, we have to take cognisance of the fact that there are different methods of PR. The system can also lead to distortions. Even in the last Westminster election in 2017, Labour gained 27% of the vote in Scotland but only 11% of seats. That is a clear imbalance. The Scottish National party achieved, I think, 36% of the vote and won 59% of the seats. Those clear imbalances could be corrected within regions under a more proportional system.
I supported the alternative vote compromise, introduced as a condition of the coalition Government agreement. That would have maintained the benefits of the constituency link, which have been mentioned, while allowing at least a majority to be established in support of electing a Member of Parliament. That seemed a reasonably sensible staging post towards a further review, but it was a great disappointment that that was rejected in a referendum.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend did A-level politics as I did, but we were always taught that the current system delivers stable and clear results. However, two out of the last three general elections have shown that it does not. The current Government are the least satisfactory of all, with £1 billion given to the Democratic Unionist party; pulled votes; meaningful votes that were anything but; and indicative votes that were far from that. Does he not agree that all that points to first past the post being past it? The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” does not hold. It is broken and it should be fixed.
I am sympathetic to that point. Indeed, who voted for first past the post? Was a referendum ever held on that? Why is it assumed that the burden of proof must lie with those who oppose the existing system? We need a thorough root-and-branch review of the entire structure of our politics as part of a constitutional convention and national conversation. Hopefully we can achieve some consensus among the parties about what needs to change. That could be delivered through a manifesto and a general election.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis, and that a national debate, as he suggests, with a constitutional convention and citizens’ assembly, might help our broader understanding of how the country operates, and ensure greater democratic participation? The problems around low turnout were highlighted by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford); surely changing the system, following a national debate, would raise turnout.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. This is the issue with referendums: they present simplistic answers to very complex questions, and binary referendums in particular often lead to contentious and unfortunately hostile arguments being made. A spirit of conflict rather than consensus envelops such contests. We must cut across those points and develop a much more consensual method.
In Ireland, the referendums on equal marriage and abortion rights, which were preceded by a constitutional convention and citizens’ assemblies, are widely thought to have delivered such decisive results because of the deliberative democracy that took place in advance. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that on this issue, a citizens’ assembly or constitutional convention preceding a final decision would be the best way forward?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that important point. It is critical that that spirit underpins any test in a plebiscite. Another example is, of course, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish constitutional convention. She may say that the Scottish National party was not always supportive of that process, but in the end we arrived at consensus and an overwhelming result in the 1997 referendum, and we delivered a Scottish Parliament in 1999. It is a tried and tested model. That is in stark contrast to the rather more contentious referendum in Scotland in 2014 and across the UK in 2016.
We must think carefully about how referendums are framed, how they are delivered and how they are presented to the people for discussion. If they are unnecessarily contentious, we see no resolution and no popular consent; if we get a very narrow result, a large cohort of the population feels that it has been cheated.
I am open-minded about what we could arrive at in electoral system reform. The current system is clearly not fit for purpose, but I am not hung up on any one model. For example, there are problems with the Scottish Parliament system, which could be reformed and further enhanced. The combination of the list and the constituency link is not entirely coherent, and after 20 years of devolution, that question ought to be considered. The fundamental thing we must all agree on is an urgent need for a constitutional convention across the UK, to provide a root-and-branch review of our entire political system. Hopefully, through that, we can arrive at a system that is fit for this century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I rise to speak in support of the motion. Undoubtedly, this country’s current voting arrangements do not adequately reflect the diversity of opinion that there now is among the electorate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for raising this issue for debate.
There are many different forms of proportional representation, some of which have been touched on briefly. We had a referendum on AV, in which AV was universally defeated—rightly so, because under that system the candidate who comes fourth could become the Member of Parliament if they were the least disliked. That may be an argument in favour of AV, but those who believe in a constituency link find it difficult to argue that the person who came third or fourth should eventually go on to become a Member of Parliament. We also have single transferable vote, and then we have proportional representation.
We have talked a little about the merits of first past the post. It was traditionally argued that that system tends to deliver strong government—arguably, that is not the case at the moment. It maintains a constituency link, but some forms of proportional representation also do that. It also—this is the strongest argument in its favour—tends to be a bulwark against the entryism of extremist minority parties. In the 2015 election, even though the UK Independence party received 13% or 14% of the vote, it gained only one seat, which to my mind shows at least some benefit, in that first past the post keeps some of those minority parties out.
Is not one of the issues that because UKIP got something like 4 million votes but did not get many Members elected to this House, tensions boiled up? We saw that, with a Member of Parliament having been murdered before the EU referendum. Is not the fact that we do not look at having a fair, proportional representation system part of the issue?
I do not entirely disagree. Certainly that 13% or 14% of the electorate may have felt disenfranchised by the result to some extent, but during that election I think we all recognised the extremist nature of some of the views held by that party and some of its candidates.
The hon. Gentleman is correct on the broader issue. We now have a much more fractured politics than we did half a century ago, when there was a stronger argument for first past the post, and many groups do not feel represented in their constituencies. For example, I received more than 60% of the vote in my constituency at the last election, but consistently about 15% to 20% of that electorate have voted for the Labour party. Indeed, in Suffolk as a whole in 2010 and 2015, 25% of the electorate voted for Labour and yet seven Conservative MPs were returned. That is not representative of the general feelings of Suffolk residents.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he recognise that proportional representation is about more than electoral outcomes and that, actually, proportional systems change political culture in a way that delivers more effective social outcomes? Societies with PR are more likely to have lower income inequality, better developed welfare systems, higher social expenditure, better distribution of public goods and better environmental controls. It is a much wider issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Broadly, there is a strong case and good evidence that in countries with proportional representation, or a more proportional system, there tends to be more consensus government, which tends to recognise certain common goods. Today, there is an urgent question in the main Chamber on climate change. In many other countries in Europe, climate change’s importance in the legislative agenda is reinforced by that sort of consensus politics.
For example, the work done by the former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the latter part of the last decade, was broadly supported across the House, but if there had been a sudden lurch to a Government who perhaps did not believe in climate change, a lot of that work could have been undone under the British system. That is much harder to do under a proportional system, under which there has to be much more work through consensus between political parties. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point about the sort of politics that many of us here would like to see.
I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, so I will be very quick. In my view, if we are to have a PR system that is effective, it has to maintain the constituency link. It also has to ensure that we deal with the issue of having a potential threshold, even under PR, for election, be it 5% of the electorate in a particular area or whatever. The best way of doing that, I believe, is by doing something broadly along the lines of what we have currently for the European elections—perhaps not on the basis of a large-scale region, but on a county basis or a city-regional basis. That would allow people in, for example, London, where boroughs identify together, to elect from those boroughs a proportional number of MPs from different parties, according to how those electors voted.
That strikes me, in comparison with our current political settlement, as a much fairer way of electing people. It certainly would have given a voice in 2010 and 2015 to the 25% of constituents in Suffolk who voted for the Labour party but did not have any MP to represent them. I hope that, going forward, it would also give rise to the more consensus-based politics on the big issues of the day, such as climate change, and other forms of policy making that all of us here, I hope, believe in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I start from the point of view that our electoral system is not one that I could, hand on heart, say is democratic perfection. It is clear that our winner-takes-all format means that millions of people feel that their vote does not count, and of course there is the unquantifiable number of people who vote for something other than their first choice because they see the vote in their area as a choice between the lesser of two evils, rather than as a positive vote for the party that they want to support. Proclaiming that I have won an election because I am the lesser of two evils has not yet made it into any of my acceptance speeches, but I have been called a lot worse, particularly recently.
As politics in this country is in crisis, it is not surprising that the news that a comedian has won the Ukrainian elections has been met by comments in this country that we had beaten them to it. Such is the contempt that people feel for us all now that it would not surprise me to see, if we had an election soon, more than a few of us being replaced by unlikely candidates: having no previous political experience is definitely a selling point right now. What I am talking about is not just a new name for old faces, but a new type of politician, an anti-politics politician, the likes of whom we have seen springing up all over the world in recent years.
It is evident at every election that millions of votes end up counting for nothing and some votes, depending on where they are, can literally be worth their weight in gold, so I want reform of the current system. However, I am sceptical about constitutional changes coming forward from the existing set of politicians, because there is almost always going to be some element of political calculation with such proposals.
Let us take the 2011 AV referendum. I voted in that referendum to change the system, but I was under no illusions: the only reason why it came forward was that it was politically expedient for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at the time to hold a referendum to keep the coalition agreement going. I appreciate that AV is not the purest form of PR and that it is possible that in landslide years it can exaggerate the winning party’s dominance even more, but at least in that set-up everyone should be able to vote for their preferred choice, at least in the first instance.
However, the real attraction of AV for me is the retention of the constituency link. I believe that the best element of our current system is that each Member has to answer to his or her constituents at every election and that there is no hiding place for the decisions that they take. PR systems and lists remove that vital link and can lead to a lack of direct accountability between voters and those who represent them.
I wonder whether the 2016 referendum result would have been different if MEPs had individual constituencies to represent. Obviously, the factors behind that vote were many, and it would probably be stretching things too far to say that the outcome would have been different, but it is clear that one reason why leave won was that people did not think that the European Parliament was representing their interests. The lack of an identifiable local representative was part of that.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point about the constituency link. That is a critical thing that ought to be protected. Since the Scottish Parliament was created, the number of constituencies in Scotland represented from Westminster has been reduced, so the size of the constituencies has increased. My constituency takes in two Scottish Parliament constituencies, so there are two MSPs. Having to cover the same ground as the MSPs often means that it is very difficult to maintain the same degree of link with the geography. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a flaw in the system that needs to be looked at if we are proposing to move to a more proportional system?
Yes, I do agree. Of course, one weakness in the Government’s proposals to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 is that that would create very large constituencies that in some cases were unmanageable and did not have geographical communities of interests.
On the subject of MEPs, although we have some excellent hard-working Labour MEPs in the north-west, the track record of people sent by this country to represent us in the European Parliament is not a great advert for PR. Of the 73 MEPs elected in 2014, 25 are no longer in the party that they were in when first elected.
We have had a few defections in this place, but on nothing like the scale that we have seen in Europe. More than one third of all the UK MEPs no longer represent the party that they were elected to represent. Let us be clear: if one third of Members in this place swapped parties, that could easily lead to a change of Government. Any system that allows so many politicians to denude the voters of their voice needs to be seriously challenged. Of course, politicians can change party under first past the post—we have heard today from some Members who have done that—but at least they have to face their constituents when they do it. Under PR, those people who ride under one banner of convenience can easily find themselves on the list for their new party at the next election with no apparent consequences for their actions. That does not sound like a democratic system to me.
Whatever system we have, we also need to look at whether this place is truly representative of the people whom we wish to represent. According to the Sutton Trust, 29% of MPs were privately educated, compared with just 7% of the general population. That is an improvement on the 32% from the 2015 election, but there is still a long way to go.
In conclusion, we need a massive overhaul in how politics is conducted in this country. How our economy and society works has massively changed in the last decade. Any item that we desire can be ordered from the comfort of our own home and be on our doorstep the next day, but our political system, both in the way elections are held and in the way Parliament operates, is stuck in a time warp.
One of the most commonly used arguments in favour of first past the post is that it enables there to be “stable” majority government. In recent times, that theory has been tested to destruction. Every day that we spend here without making any progress on the big issues of the day is another day closer to a far more radical change to the way we do politics, which will come from outside, not from in here.
What will happen with all the excellent arguments that we are hearing in favour of different systems today? I will tell you, Mr Evans: nothing will happen. Nothing will change. Nothing is changing. Parliament seems incapable of changing anything, incapable of tackling the big issues that we face in this country. That is why we all need to wake up and fundamentally challenge the way our democracy works—not just how we vote but, more importantly, what we actually do once we are elected.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I recognise that there is a need to look at our electoral system and to explore electoral system reform. Why do I believe that?
I first stood for election in 2009, in the midst of the expenses scandal. We cannot blame this system for the expenses scandal but, despite having never been in this place before, I knew what it was to face people who had completely lost trust in MPs and the system that elected them to this place. As a result, ever since I was elected, it has been important to me that we find ways to restore trust in politics. The problem is that that has not been very successful; since that time, we seem to have continued to erode trust in British politicians and the democratic system. We have a job to do and we need to look at whatever is necessary to restore trust in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with all our history and heritage and all that we stand for, for the future.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government that they would do well not to ignore this issue. I have tried to raise it a few times and, although I do not want to be unfair, it is kind of dismissed because there are more important things to be doing. However, we exist at a time in this place when huge chunks of our constituents have almost given up on us and what we stand for. It is really important for the United Kingdom that we do something about that. I urge the Government not to ignore the issue and to look at what can be achieved.
As has already been said, it will not be for the main political parties to come up with the answer; that will not restore trust either. I recommend that the Minister and the Government find a completely independent means of looking at what answers, options and opportunities there are, and to consider them when the time arises. As we are in the middle of Brexit, I suggest that that time is not now.
I agree that votes should matter. Since I have been elected, an organisation called Make Votes Matter has sent representatives—in fairness, not a huge number. As they have spoken to me, I have recognised that they do not feel represented or that their voices are being heard. In Cornwall in 2017, sadly, many of the smaller parties, which did reasonably well in 2015, felt that there was no purpose in even putting forward candidates, so they refrained from even standing. That meant that the three main political parties shared about 98% of all the votes that were there to be had. It was a shame to me that people across Cornwall, including my constituents, felt there was no point in engaging in the 2017 election.
People must have the opportunity to feel that they have a stake in their democracy, as well as a voice. Once we are elected as MPs, we must work to make sure that people have a voice. I never use the word “Conservative” in constituency work—not because I am ashamed of it, but because I know full well that I represent every single person. I work hard to get that message across to people who might think I would have no interest in what they care about or what affects their lives. I work hard to make sure that I am approachable and accessible, and I want to make sure that my constituents’ voices are heard.
I met representatives of Make Votes Matter to under- stand what an alternative voting system could and would look like. I agree that serious consideration should be given to electoral system reform. When I discuss the subject with people, I make it clear—and it has been made clear here this afternoon—that we must retain the local constituency link. We could jump from a situation where people have lost trust in their politicians for whatever reason, but at least they still can go and see them on a Friday or Saturday, to a point where they no longer have access.
We have referred to MEPs this afternoon. Since the Brexit referendum, very few MEPs have been anywhere near Cornwall; when they have been, some—although not all—have taken part in anti-Brexit meetings. At the moment, we have lost access to some of our MEPs, which is a real shame. It is important that if we move to another system we maintain that constituency link and the ability for people to come and speak to us, and effect change.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is making a thoughtful speech. Has he considered the single transferable vote system? He rightly says that the constituency link is important. We use that system to elect local councillors in Scotland. The link is maintained, but there is also greater proportionality.
On the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies, would he accept that the two-party dominance of the first-past-the-post system is being stretched to breaking point, with broad churches forming that are beyond having meaning? Part of the problem that we are seeing in our politics is down to the voting system itself.
In Cornwall, the Conservatives polled about 49% in 2017 and the other two parties each had about half of the remainder, so I agree with the hon. Lady. There could have been a different way of representing Cornwall, although I probably would not have been elected if that had been the case.
If there were a general election in a few weeks’ time, it would be interesting for us on both sides of the House to find out what we could agree on in a manifesto. When people say to me, “Do you think there will be a general election?” I say, “I hope so, because at the moment I don’t know what the manifesto would even look like.” The hon. Lady is right; we need to clarify again what we stand for and give people a reason to believe. I agree with her and I welcome her intervention.
It is important to maintain the constituency link, and I will give an example of that. As a Back-Bench Member, I was encouraged early on by one of my colleagues in Cornwall to get as many Back-Bench debates as I could, mainly in this Chamber. I have done that. Every single debate that I have sought to secure has been driven by a conversation with a constituent who has come to see me. It has been a privilege to meet someone 300 miles away and talk about an issue that matters to them, and then bring it to the Floor of this House.
I am talking about important issues: community pharmacy, which was raised by a pharmacist who told me about changes to funding that would affect rural areas and which became my first ever debate; the post office network, which is a big issue for rural communities; fuel poverty, which is a concern in my constituency; the environment, which as we know from the last couple of weeks is important to many people and about which I have recently secured a debate; horse and rider safety, which was raised with me early on because where I live people on horses take their lives in their hands when faced with cars coming around corners; and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We need to maintain the opportunity for people to turn up and say, “Can you raise this on my behalf?” and for us to get on and do that.
Our system encourages conflict and aggression; people are shocked to see the adversarial nature of this place. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) that proportional representation or any type of electoral system reform will not be the silver bullet that some believe it would be. However, something must be done to secure a more constructive and productive, and less adversarial, Parliament. I would love that: as a Back-Bencher, I find that working with colleagues across the House, through Select Committees or all-party parliamentary groups, can be really constructive. The idea that we sit opposite each other, trying to pull the most curious faces that we can, seems peculiar to me.
As I have said, it is not for the main political parties to sort this out. I suggest to the Minister that the Government find an independent means to review our current system and see what opportunity exists to improve public trust and public engagement through electoral system reform. It is right that we look at this seriously, that we take voters seriously and that we listen to what they have to say. I believe there is a sea-change in Great Britain and a desire to find a different way of moving forward. The time is not now, but I imagine that in the near future we will be forced to look at doing things differently. It would be better for the Government and the main Opposition parties to be ahead of the curve.
There are four people wishing to speak, so if they all stick to about three minutes, we will get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I confess right away that I am not a recent convert to PR; there has been no damascene conversion for me. One of the reasons why I joined the Liberal Democrats when I did was that it seemed obvious to me that the current system has a fatal flaw. That was obvious to me from a young age, because my parents lived in a safe seat, but did not vote for the party that won every single time for as long as that party existed, until 2015. I learned at an early age that first past the post does not represent everybody.
I am not one of the Members in this House who has been elected by proportional representation, although there are many. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) was elected to the Scottish Parliament by proportional representation, as were many Government Members, yet this place remains the only national Parliament in the EU that uses first past the post. We often get caught up in talking about percentages, representation and types of PR, but if we look at first past the post, there is only one figure that really matters: 44% of the votes cast are meaningless. Those people are failed by a system that sets one party against another.
Living as I do in Scotland under a PR system at every level—except the Westminster level—I see the difference. I see the difference in a Scottish Parliament that has had, with one exception, minority Governments, and has been forced to find consensus and a way that suited the majority of the people represented in that Parliament. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who is just leaving, we also have PR at council level in Scotland, and a direct link between the voters and their representatives.
Next time we find ourselves in deadlock in Parliament, where one side cannot win over the other—I am sure it will not be long in the current political climate—we should think how different it would be if we had a proportional representation system, in which we all had constituencies and constituents watching what we were doing, but also had a way of being forced to find consensus, and had more than two big power brokers that had everything at stake and no reason to listen to anybody else.
Earlier, when I counted the Members standing, I did not notice that Chris Heaton-Harris was one of them. We will allow three minutes each for those who are standing, which will eat very slightly into the winding-up speeches.
I am sorry that I did not stand at the last point, Mr Evans; I thought there were more people behind me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on the way she introduced the subject, and I welcome the Minister to his seat in this room, and to his new post as a Minister in the Department. I wish him all the very best.
I stand to speak because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), I was a Member of the European Parliament, so I was elected twice by proportional representation. I was also a student union politician and was elected once by single transferable vote—thank you very much indeed, Socialist Workers party, which managed to flip six votes into my pile at one point to get me elected. I want to raise some points of criticism—constructively, I hope—in this debate.
I understand that democracy has to evolve. It always will, and it absolutely should. I am slightly wary of raising this, but there is an elephant in the room: 52% of people voted in a referendum quite recently, and the democrats in this room are now ignoring it. I would say that is a bit of a problem. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) talked about 44% of votes cast in the last general election being meaningless, but at this point, I think that 52% of people are feeling that way about their vote in the greatest expression of a democratic vote. As democrats, we should be looking to work out how we can represent people.
I am not in favour of proportional representation. I am in favour of more direct democracy. As a Member of the European Parliament, I saw how proportional representation of a type meant that Belgium could not find a coalition Government for more than a year, because it could not find the group of people who would sit with all the other groups of people in a room to form a proper Government. I sat in a European Parliament to which fascists had been elected because of the type of list system. I sat in a European Parliament where I knew that everyone in the place, including myself, was probably talking to their selectorate, rather than their electorate, because of the way people are selected for list systems under all types of proportional representation.
I fear for the constituency link that so many of us in this place prize. One of the reasons I desperately wanted to get into this place was to represent a community I lived in and truly love. There are other systems that can evolve democracy. I like direct democracy. I have no problem with referendums, though I think we have probably seen the last of them in my lifetime. I have no problem with the California system, or with the direct democracy that the Swiss have. There are other ways of evolving our democracy; proportional representation is not the only one.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on initiating this debate. I will try to make three quick points in the three minutes that I have.
First, while I do not want to repeat the points made in favour of proportional representation—hon. Members can take it as a given that I agree with them all—the big problem, which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned, is that our system is a two-party system. It is essentially rigged in favour of two parties. That worked, one could argue, in a Britain of a different age, when our country was essentially divided between the interests of business and capital on the one hand, and the interests of labour on the other. We cannot divide up our country in that way in this day and age. I do not see how two political parties can possibly do justice to the modern tapestry that is Britain, and to the range of interests within it. Traditionally, the response to that argument has been that they are closed coalitions of interests in any event—that they are broad churches. They are not broad churches. I know, because I used to be a member of one. They are straining to keep those divisions and different interests in one place.
We therefore end up with the absurdity that on an issue as crucial as the national security of our country—“What would you do with the future of our nuclear deterrent?”—we have a whole group of people in the Labour party, which I know well, who are committed to retaining the nuclear deterrent, but a leadership and a potential Prime Minister saying that they will never use that nuclear deterrent. I use that simply to illustrate the unsustainability of the system, and how impossible it is for the two main parties in British politics to do the job in the way they used to.
Surely it is better and more honest to have open coalitions governing together. Perhaps each of the two main parties in this country should become two or even three parties. In practice they might govern together, but at least everybody would know where everybody stood and people would not have to pretend that they agreed with each other when they did not. It would make for an altogether more honest system of politics.
Secondly, the other problem with the system is that millions of people in this country vote for a party not because they want to, but because they think they have to in order to keep the other lot out, or because it is the least worst option. How can we go on with a system that forces people to make that kind of choice? If I am wrong about that and people do want to vote for those parties, why does poll after poll show that when we have the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and “Don’t know” lined up as the options available to people, “Don’t know” scores much more highly than any other option? Thirdly—
Order. I am sorry, but your three minutes is up. In fact, you have gone over the limit.
Can I finish the sentence?
Go on, then.
I am very grateful. Thirdly, to address the point about extremism, we can get around that in any system of proportional representation—as they do in Germany, where they know those dangers all too well—by having a threshold that parties must exceed in order to be able to stand in an election. That is all I wanted to say; I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Evans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I am a Lib Dem partly because I believe that we need extraordinary change in our political system. I am delighted by the damascene conversion that has happened, but as hon. Members have eloquently said, when someone is under the umbrella of a party that helps to deliver the safe seats, it is all too easy for them to forget that they are not necessarily representing everyone in the constituency. While I appreciate what some have said about ensuring that they as MPs are there for everyone, I think we all know of Members of this House who do not always behave that way, and who, because they are in a safe seat, choose instead to campaign to and speak to only the part of their electorate that they feel will deliver them the next election. Whatever proportional system we end up delivering, it must fundamentally challenge that situation.
I say that having won a marginal constituency at the last snap general election. We were nearly 10,000 votes behind the Conservatives in Oxford West and Abingdon. I will be perfectly honest: I did not think I would win. When I found out the election was happening, I called up a future employer, with whom I had taken a job as a deputy head—it was my first deputy headship, and I was really excited—and said, “If you want to make some money, put a bet against me. There’s no way I can make that up in one election.” I am sorry to say that they lost money, but I will go to their prize-giving in a few weeks’ time, so that is the quid pro quo.
The question is how we did it in Oxford West and Abingdon. Anyone who has ever campaigned will have seen Lib Dem election leaflets saying, “X can’t win here,” and that is what we did in my constituency. The Labour party vote came over. I was in a pub the other day, having a pint with some of the chaps who are often there, and one said, “I’m a member of the Labour party, and I can’t tell you I voted for you, because I’d get thrown out of the party.” He should not have had to make that confession. He should not have to hide that from people. The fact is that we won because of a broad church of voters. I appreciate and understand that I was not his top choice, but he was happy to say, “I’m proud to have voted for you anyway.” We had to get to the point where the Green party stood down in Oxford West and Abingdon to send that message, so that we could win. Yes, we made up that difference. I live in a marginal constituency, and am I happy about that.
What kind of system would I want? I advocate something like alternative vote plus. A lot of work was done on this a long time ago. We need a root-and-branch reform of the whole way that we do politics. That should cover not just proportional systems, but overseas electors and votes at 16. We need a proper look at the entire convention on how we do politics in this country—not just the x in the box, but everything, including how we campaign and how we represent people. That is why we need a more proportional system.
I will give two examples of proportional representation working and helping democracy in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) pointed out, I served in the Scottish Parliament. Both before and after I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I was a highland councillor. When I was first a highland councillor, I was a single member for a ward, and I had the ward discretionary fund—a pot of £40k or £50k—which I could dish out to good causes in my ward without really checking with anyone at all. It was like having the power of a medieval prince.
When I became a councillor again after having been in the Scottish Parliament, there was this thing called the single transferable vote, and I had to share the ward with two other members. Oh, horror! How difficult! My favourite charities did not necessarily get the money I wanted to give them; I had to argue it out with the other two members of the ward. To me, that is an improvement in democracy and in the representation of the people. I was more accountable under the wider PR system than before. That was my experience of local government.
In between those times, I was an MSP. I was an additional Member, elected under PR. I will give two slightly off-the-wall reasons why that system is good. First, anyone who knows about Scotland, and anyone who was in this place long enough ago, will remember one Margo MacDonald. She graced Westminster and Holyrood. She was a member of the Scottish National party, and also went independent. She was elected in Edinburgh through her own merits and her own character. Holyrood would have been a much poorer place without Margo. I have waited a long time to put that on the record. She was a splendid lady, and I feel greatly enriched to have known her.
Secondly—I will shut up in a second, to make it easier for you, Mr Evans—the 1997 election had a result that I am sure gratified many people, including people like me in Scotland, but did not gratify others: the Conservative party got precisely no seats north of the border. It was wiped out. That was bad news for those now on the Government Benches. However, in 1999, under PR, the Conservatives came back with 18 seats in Holyrood, which was a bit of a shock to me and others.
I will continue to argue to my dying day that although I do not approve of the good fortunes of the Conservative party—no offence to the Minister—PR rescued the Tories in Scotland, and that, for those who believe in plural democracy and the right of different sections of society to be heard, was a good thing. At the end of the day, that will be one of my concluding and strongest arguments as to why PR worked: I did not like the result, but it was good for democracy in Scotland that the Tories came back.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. Before I start, on behalf of the Scottish National party, I offer my warmest congratulations to English colleagues here, and wish them a happy St George’s day.
All of us in this room consider ourselves democrats, although we may have different interpretations of what that means. For me, two things stand out. First, the elected Parliament ought to, in the broadest possible terms, represent the people who take part in elections to it. Secondly, the country ought to be governed with the consent of a majority of its citizens. By any test, the current first-past-the-post system fails palpably on both counts.
I say that because I note that others who have spoken are from minority parties in the Chamber. They rightly feel aggrieved because they have been punished and penalised by the first-past-the-post system and are under-represented in the Chamber. I say that the system is wrong on behalf of a party that has probably been, in recent years, the greatest beneficiary of the distortions of first past the post. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) referenced the 2017 general election results, but remember what happened in 2015 when, with 50% of the vote, the SNP took 95% of the available seats in Scotland. I cannot defend that as a democratic system. My only defence is that we did not make the rules, and that we were playing by the rules that we were given. However, that is clearly not a sustainable system.
There are other drawbacks, as people have mentioned. First, many people living in a seat that might change hands—a swing seat—feel under a great deal of pressure to vote tactically, which means that they compromise their vote. They do not vote for the person or party who they think represents them, but for somebody who they agree with slightly more than the person they are trying to keep out. Those people do not, under this system, have the opportunity or right to express their political aspirations in an election. Of course, it is even worse in safe seats, where people feel that their vote is simply wasted—that there is no point to it. They could go out and vote for a lifetime—some do—and the party that they vote for will never represent them in this Parliament.
All that would be bad enough, but it cannot go on, because as more people see that this is not the natural order of things, and that people elsewhere in the world do things differently, it begins to fuel great disillusionment with our entire political process. In some parts, that results in people being apathetic and not taking part in the system. However, much more worrying is the building resentment that people feel about the futility of the system and the way in which it denies their democratic expression. That is why it is urgent that we begin to review, and to consider change.
I am pleased to note that, in comparison with many constitutional debates in Westminster Hall, this is a relatively well-attended discussion. It is also a thoughtful discussion, in that colleagues—I note, in particular, from the two major parties—have spoken about the need to consider change, and have said that things cannot continue as they are. Before we debate the practicalities of what system might replace the current one, we have to agree on the principles. I always find it strange that when we state the principle that a party’s representatives in Parliament ought to be in proportion to the votes cast for that party in the election, nobody disagrees; they tend to say that it is a noble idea, but that for various practical reasons, it will never work, so we should never bother doing it. If we believe that that principle is worth defending, it is incumbent on all of us, cross party, to begin at least looking at whether we could change the system in order to express that principle in our constitutional arrangements. I think that we could.
Some arguments about practicalities, when examined, are not the great hurdles that people pretend. People talk about a break in the constituency link, for example. There are proportional systems that explicitly maintain a direct link between a constituency and its representative. Indeed, we have that system—the additional member system—for the Scottish Parliament, and it works. One representative in the Scottish Parliament for the area where I live is Kezia Dugdale, an MSP for the Labour party. She is elected on a Lothian-wide list along with seven other people, but she has no hesitation in describing herself as the MP for Edinburgh, and in popping up everywhere, trying to represent and advocate on behalf of the city. That works with other parties as well. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, STV was a lifeline for the Scottish Conservative party, allowing it representation that it would not otherwise have had.
The argument is put about that PR leads to unstable government, but the last few years have shown that the current system does not do very well in that regard either.
I will be very brief, Mr Evans. The hon. Gentleman and I have long been on the same side on this issue, and I agree that it is heartening to see support growing for the case for reform. However, it is not only the last few years that have shown the fallacy of the strong government argument for first past the post. If we dip into history, there is the 1970s and the Lib-Lab pact, or the relationship between Sir John Major’s Government and the Ulster Unionist party. It has not been the case that first past the post has delivered stable Governments for the UK. Where it has been stable, it has not always been good government, when that majority has been artificially put in place.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point well, and I agree with him.
First past the post does not allow for political dialogue and discussion, but keeps it under wraps and prevents it. Compromises are made behind closed doors within major parties and are not expressed in public debate. That seems very unhealthy for our democracy. It is also unsustainable, given the 24-hour news cycle; people need only pick up their phone to find out what is happening in every aspect of their life, in great detail. Those arrangements might have been satisfactory for the 19th century, but they certainly are not for the 21st century. I think they have to change.
Let us get the political debate out in the open; that is what a proportional system would allow. There would be more parties, and they would have to form alliances in order to govern, but it would be transparent. People would see what deals were being made and what policies were being jettisoned in order to allow others to come through.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I have only two minutes left.
Others have remarked that all these practical obstacles to PR suggest that nobody has ever tried it, but the truth is that we have proportional representation systems—not just in Scotland, but in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in this city, for the London Assembly. It does not lead to the catastrophe that many suggest; indeed, it works fairly well.
I want to suggest what we can do. I welcome this debate. I am sure that the Minister will take a good stab at defending the Government’s position, but I know what he will say, if I am honest. I am more interested in what the Opposition spokesperson will say. All the opposition parties in this Parliament of minorities need to begin a dialogue among themselves, because if the Government will not offer change, we need to prepare to see what a new election and a new Parliament might do. That dialogue needs to happen. In that regard, I commend the work of Make Votes Matter, which has begun to focus on not just particular systems, but the guiding principles behind the systems, so that we design a system to achieve our objectives. I hope that the Labour party will join the other minority parties in this Chamber in advocating those principles.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), to his new position, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) all the best on her maternity leave. I am sure that he will ably cover her post.
Before addressing proportional representation, I want to highlight the feeling, which has come up in the debate, that the current political system is in need of change. The Minister will be getting to grips with the brief, but he will be well aware that our electoral laws are out of date and need looking at as a matter of urgency. Millions of people are missing from the electoral roll, dark money is influencing politics and public trust is at an all-time low.
This debate is about proportional representation. It is important to acknowledge that, as with every electoral system, there are pros and cons to first past the post. Simplicity is the key benefit of first past the post, because it gives the electorate one vote for the candidate or party they support. The other great benefit is the constituency link. As Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood, when I go out and speak to my constituents, as I did over Easter, many of them greet me by name—they know me. I do not think they have the same relationship with their MEPs, whom they probably could not name and would not recognise if they fell over them in the queue for the bus.
I have outlined the advantages, but there are cons to first past the post, which have been outlined by many speakers in this debate. The current voting system has been under growing scrutiny. A traditional argument in favour of first past the post was that it had a history of returning stable single-party Governments. That has been well and truly debunked since 2010. Analysis of the 2017 general election also demonstrates the limitations of our voting system. That election saw a rise in marginal seats: 11 seats were won by fewer than 100 votes. Analysis by the Electoral Reform Society found that less than 0.0017% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservative party a majority.
Moving on to proportional voting systems, proportional representation has a number of good arguments in its favour. It is right for Parliament to reflect the political will of the people—who would not argue that a country should have a Parliament that looks like the politics of its people. I do not think that anyone can disagree with that principle. A proportional voting system would give voters the opportunity to vote for people they believe in, rather than voting tactically to stop the party that they like least.
I am sure that every political party taking part in this debate has at some point or another said to a voter, “Please support me, because if you don’t support me the other guy will get in.” As well as smaller parties standing aside in some seats at the last general election, the Electoral Reform Society estimates that 6.5 million people voted tactically. As I said, they were voting for parties that were not necessarily their first choice in order to stop the party that they perceived to be more likely to win in their area.
PR is of course well established in the UK. There are forms of it in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and here in London, for the Assembly elections. They all use proportional systems, which means that most voters in this country at some point have used more than one electoral system. In Scotland, where STV is used in local government elections, voters have demonstrated that they are capable of using more than one system and more complex systems than first past the post. Finally, all the UK-based proportional systems—except for the closed lists used in European elections—have the strong constituency basis that is incredibly important for any voting system.
Personally, I am on the record supporting PR. However, a major constitutional change such as this must have the support of the public. For example, in the 2011 AV referendum, to which I am sure the Minister will refer in his speech, 32% of voters supported AV, but the vast majority rejected it. AV is not, however, a form of proportional representation, and public opinion may well have changed since then. What has not changed is that our democracy is still fundamentally broken. I do not believe that changing our voting system alone is some magic wand that will fix the problems or mend the disconnect felt by so many voters in this country.
Millions of people across the UK feel that politics does not work for them, and it is not hard to see why. Communities are often affected by decisions over which they have no say or, even when they think they have a say, a Government can come in to override it, as in Lancashire in the case of fracking. Many people feel that what goes on in Westminster is a world away from the reality of their lives. Research published by the Hansard Society found that the UK public are increasingly disenchanted with the system of governing.
To move on to Labour’s position, Labour is committed to root-and-branch transformation of the archaic political structures and cultures of this country which work for the few and not the many. At the last general election, our manifesto committed to establishing a constitutional convention to examine and advise on reforming the way in which Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on the convention’s forms and terms of reference, and invite recommendations on extending democracy. The convention will bring together individuals and organisations from across civil society, and will act as the driving force behind our democratic agenda.
As well as looking at different voting systems, the convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, and will consider the option of a more federalised country. Of course, a constitutional convention could look at other issues to do with democratic accountability, including whether MPs who change parties and cross the Floor should face by-elections. This is about where power and sovereignty lie in politics, in the economy and in the justice system, as well as in our communities. The convention will build a popular mandate for the deep-seated political change that this country needs.
As I said, it is important that we look at different voting systems as part of a wider package of constitutional and electoral reforms, to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain. That is the change that we must see.
In welcoming the Minister to his place, I ask him to leave at least one minute for the proposer, Angela Smith.
Thank you, Mr Evans. I will make sure to follow your guidance and leave a minute at the end. I thank hon. Members, particularly the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), for their warm wishes for my first debate in this role.
The Government welcome this debate and the opportunity to address the important issues that have been raised by hon. Members, as well as the online engagement around the debate. Unsurprisingly, hon. Members have made their arguments eloquently, but given the time, I will not have a chance to analyse each individual point—not least given the myriad systems that have been suggested, which could take some time to explain. Ultimately, how we select our representatives in Parliament is of fundamental importance and hon. Members rightly have strong views. The voting system used by voters is central to that concern and goes to the heart of our democracy. The Government are committed to ensuring that the laws governing our elections are clear and accessible, and generate the greatest degree of confidence in the outcome of elections.
Under the first-past-the-post system, electors select their preferred candidate for their constituency. The candidate with the largest number of votes wins and the party with the largest number of elected candidates may form the Government, if they achieve the confidence of the House.
Does the Minister accept that people are often voting for someone who is not their preferred candidate? Under first past the post, they are voting for someone they like best and who they think can actually win, which leads to large numbers of people feeling as if they have been cheated of their first preference.
Everyone has a choice as to how they use their vote. Even under the alternative vote system, which the Liberal Democrats argued for in the referendum seven years ago, people would find themselves having to make a decision when they got to their second or third choice, and in fact, their vital choice might be the fourth or fifth one, which they did not believe would necessarily be the vital one.
People have a choice and they know the impact of their vote and how it might choose a Government. Under any voting system, people have a choice to make about how they wish to use their vote: do they wish to vote for a major party that may select and put forward the Prime Minister or for a minor party so that it can be represented in the House of Commons? I do not think that any voting system, particularly if we want to maintain the constituency link, which many hon. Members have said is important, or if we have single-Member constituencies and a Member of Parliament already secures more than 50% of the votes cast, will change the overall outcome.
The first-past-the-post system is a clear and robust way of electing Members of Parliament. It is well understood by the electorate, and they know how their representatives in Parliament are selected and the impact of their vote. Crucially, it ensures a clear link between elected representative and constituent in a manner that proportional representation systems do not. That ensures that MPs can represent the interests of their constituents when debating national issues. The Government therefore do not support proportional representation for parliamentary elections because they consider it to be more opaque and complicated without delivering the clear benefits of the first-past-the-post system.
I welcome the Minister to his place. One point that I do not think has been made is that first past the post gives a clear link between the elector and not only the individual, but the manifesto, so people can see whether that is delivered.
I agree that first past the post creates a clear link that sometimes proportional representation systems do not.
As we committed in our manifesto to retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections, we have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. As we have touched on, under first past the post, individual Members of Parliament represent electors in a defined constituency. The link between hon. Members and their constituents is a core feature of our parliamentary democracy.
Constituents have a distinct parliamentary representative who is directly accountable to them and can be clearly seen to represent them. The representation is less obvious when someone is elected under a proportional representation system where larger multi-Member constituencies are used. In such circumstances, smaller communities are likely to be subsumed into a larger area and there is a risk that their particular interests and concerns will not be fully taken into account.
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Furthermore, proportional representation systems can still result in outcomes that many deem undesirable. A party that does not win the poll, and that potentially even loses seats, can still end up forming the Government, so voters have a Government that they did not vote for. Under proportional voting systems, voters may not really know what policies they end up voting for, as the successful parties will be those best able to negotiate a deal in a coalition after an election, rather than necessarily those that secure the most support from the electorate.
Crucially, given the party of the hon. Member who secured the debate, party list systems give parties and their leaders the most control over the make-up of lists of candidates, and ultimately, who will end up in this place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said, that can result in elected representatives who are more focused on the selectorate than the electorate, compared with single-Member constituencies under first past the post.
First past the post provides for a clear and straightforward count that usually needs to be conducted only once, or repeated only if it is tight, and that produces a clear outcome on the evening. Electoral systems used to achieve a proportionally representative outcome are often more complex than the first past the post system, which makes the impact of one person’s vote less clear. Systems such as the single transferable vote require ballots to be counted multiple times to allocate seats, which potentially obscures the impact of each vote on the result.
The ability of the first-past-the-post system to produce an uncomplicated and accurate count means that a result is produced more quickly, normally during the night following the poll, with an overall result early the next day. A timely, clear and secure result is in the interest of all parties and the country as a whole. Given the significant advantages of a first-past-the-post system, there would need to be compelling policy reasons for the Government to embrace a system that is less clear for voters and more complicated, and that could see someone’s third, fourth or even fifth choice for their constituency being the crucial choice they make, as I have touched on.
The current closed-list voting system for European Parliament elections was first used in 1999 and the turnout at that poll was 24%. That was significantly lower than the turnout of 36.4% at the previous European Parliament election held under the first-past-the-post system. Although turnouts have increased in more recent European Parliament elections, that is because they have been combined with first-past-the-post local elections taking place on the same day. It is clear that just shifting to a new voting system does not necessarily boost turnout, despite the arguments in 1999 from people who stated that the system would do that.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, given the time. I want to allow time for the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) who secured the debate.
The first-past-the-post system is well established in the United Kingdom. Consequently, elections using first past the post produce lower numbers of rejected ballot papers compared with other systems, including proportional representation systems. For those reasons, the Government support the continued use of the first-past-the-post system for the House of Commons.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, given the time. I want to allow time for the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge who secured the debate to wind up.
In 2011, the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on whether the voting system to elect Members of Parliament should be changed from first past the post. The system on offer was the alternative vote system, which would allow electors to rank their candidates in order of preference, and if one candidate received more than half the votes, they would be elected. The point was made that it was very similar and would not affect seats where people already had more than 50% of the vote.
Electors voted overwhelmingly against changing the system. More than 13 million people—more than two-thirds of those who voted—voted in favour of retaining first past the post. It would be hard to justify ignoring the democratic verdict in the referendum, and equally hard to make a case for a further referendum on a more radical reform such as proportional representation, when that more modest AV proposal was defeated so resoundingly.
This has been an interesting debate and I thank hon. Members for their contributions. Hon. Members from all parties have talked about the importance of ensuring popular engagement, transparency and integrity in our electoral system. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. There is work to be done to ensure that people feel engaged in our democratic system—that they feel they have a stake and a voice in it.
I tentatively say to hon. Members present that one of the times when people felt they had a direct say in the future of their country was when they voted in the June 2016 referendum and every vote in every part of the United Kingdom counted for exactly the same. Many feel that the way to restore and introduce trust to our electoral system is to deliver the result of that referendum.
For now, the Government have no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons. Although the debate has been of interest, the Government will focus their time on other areas to build wider democratic engagement and the faith in our democratic system that we all wish to see.
This has been a thoughtful and good-humoured debate, to which it is impossible to do justice in one minute. Various hon. Members have contributed and I have listened carefully to what has been said.
On the points about extremism and our electoral system, I will say just this. No electoral system can resist the power of ideas indefinitely. We can put thresholds in place, as in Germany, but in the end, nothing can stop it. With an open, honest approach, however, we can at least fight extremism at the ballot box, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) pointed out.
What do we do if the two major parties in a two-party system are captured by the extremists? What does the voter do then? They are left powerless in the system that we have. That risk feels more real to me now than ever in my lifetime. It is time for change, and we need to deliver it now.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Mental Health Services: Leeds
I beg to move,
That this House has considered mental health services in Leeds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.
I requested this debate with some reluctance, because I did not want to believe that mental health services in my city—a city that I have lived in for 40 years and which I have been privileged to represent for the past 22 years—were so appalling, especially when compared with other cities and regions in this country. Sadly, however, when I met my constituent Charley Downey two months ago at a routine advice surgery, the evidence that she presented to me on behalf of her husband was so damning and shocking that I felt that there was no other option than to bring their concerns to the attention of this House and hopefully to the attention of the Government, so that appropriate action could be taken to put right a gross injustice being done to so many of my constituents, as well as those of my seven fellow Leeds MPs from across the House, and those of MPs in the broader area, such as York MPs.
The Government have acknowledged on many occasions over the past few years that mental health services across the country are under-resourced and they have promised remedial action, but one of the biggest problems is the uneven distribution of funding, as I have mentioned. The waiting list for treatment in Leeds is approximately 48 to 52 weeks, once a patient is actually put on the waiting list. However, that requires a prior diagnosis by a qualified nurse, or a “formulation”—because nurses are not permitted to make diagnoses. If a patient is suicidal, then even a few hours on a waiting list may be too much, or in the worst cases possibly fatal, but to wait for a year is simply appalling. Compare that waiting-list time with, say, that of East Lancashire, which is 12 weeks, or that of the London Borough of Hillingdon, which is six weeks, or that of Cheshire, which is nine weeks, and I am sure that the Minister will understand my concern and the deep anxiety of my constituents.
Andy Downey first attended his GP’s surgery on 8 November 2016 with serious concerns about his depression. He was given a leaflet about a service called “Improving Access to Psychological Therapies”, or IAPT, and he had a blood test, which subsequently showed that he had a folate deficiency, for which vitamin D supplements were supplied.
Ten months later, in October 2017, with his symptoms worsening and the supplements failing to help, Mr Downey attended his GP’s surgery again. A week later, after suffering a full panic attack and breathing difficulties, he was referred back to his GP, who suggested that Mr Downey refer himself to the IAPT through a website called Mindwell. The problem was that Mindwell has no mental health content or referral option to the IAPT, apart from a phone number. Andy rang that number, which went straight through to voicemail. His GP had told him that Mindwell was the only way to get a referral to the IAPT, but when Mrs Downey phoned the mental health trust—the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust—she was told that the GP had given her husband the wrong advice, and the trust accepted Mrs Downey’s request for treatment as a referral. Therefore, Andy’s initial assessment meeting finally took place on 5 February 2018. Charley Downey has provided me with almost four pages of information about dates, times, meetings, appointments and lack of outcomes, all of which I can make available to the Minister, if she so wishes, or to the trust, which should already have this information.
When I first met Charley on 16 February, I was appalled not only at the way in which her husband had been treated but by the state of mental health services in Leeds, which this case seemed to typify. On 19 February, I wrote to Dr Sara Munro, chief executive of the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, to express my concerns about the case of Andy Downey and to raise the issues of underfunding for mental health provision in general across the region.
I asked Dr Munro what her perspective was on the difficulty of accessing mental health care through the NHS at present and why the trust had decided to use online tools rather than face-to-face therapy, when it seemed to me—purely a layman—that mental illness is one area in which human interaction and sensitive expert clinical judgement might be essential.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and my fellow Leeds MP for bringing this important issue to the House; we all have constituents who have suffered in a similar way to his constituent.
Recently, I visited Morley Newlands Academy in my constituency during mental health week. I, for one, think we need to tackle mental health issues at a young age. Representatives of Place2Be, a charity, were there, having come into the school to offer a variety of services. I saw the value of raising the awareness of mental health at such a young age. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to ensure that children in schools, even primary schools, receive the support they need, and that we also support the charities involved, to ensure that they get the funding to continue their good work?
I thank my hon. Friend—if I may call her that—and my colleague from Leeds for her intervention, because she makes a very important point, namely that we need to begin at the earliest possible age. It is tragic to me, and I am sure to every Member of this House, that an increasing number of young people are showing signs of depression and other mental health problems, and that is evident in our schools. The role of charities is very important, but so is the role of the national health service. Although we need to support those charities, as she rightly says, we also need to ensure that we have the resources within our NHS too.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, because the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust lost the main contract with our clinical commissioning group as the result of a litany of failures in my constituency, including ignoring three Care Quality Commission reports, which put mental health patients in my constituency at serious risk. My question today is this: will the Minister review the licence of that trust to operate, or not, in light of the consequences of its actions and the harm it has caused?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. York is a city that I know well, and of course York and Leeds are united together through the partnership trust. I will now go on to detail my own experience with the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, because my experience is similar to the experience that many of her constituents have discussed. The points she makes are very valid and I would be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response, not only to her intervention but to what I am about to say.
The reply to my letter to Dr Sara Munro, the chief executive of the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, was dated 1 March, and it was written by Samantha Marshall of the complaints team, who said she was
“sorry that you have reason to make a complaint and, as a trust, we have failed to meet your expectations.”
Bear in mind that I had written on behalf of my constituent and that I had raised other issues. Ms Marshall went on to say that the trust has had no contact with Mr Downey since he was referred to the IAPT, which is provided by Leeds Community Healthcare, and that she would forward my letter to LCH if I wished. However, no reference was made to any of the other more general questions that I had asked Dr Munro, questions that I believe are highly pertinent to the treatment that my constituent received, and to the treatment that many of my fellow Leeds MPs’ constituents have received as a result of the severe underfunding of mental health services in our area.
My hon. Friend from Leeds North East is making an excellent speech. I had a similar case with one of my constituents, who visited her GP on 31 December 2018 to say that she felt suicidal. She was asked to go home and told that the crisis team would contact her. The crisis team did not contact her. Four hours later, she returned to her GP and then had to go by ambulance to Jimmy’s—St. James's University Hospital. She waited in accident and emergency for 20 hours. Eventually, the acute liaison team gave her a leaflet. That was the level of intervention that she experienced. It was not until my office intervened with the IAPT that she got a referral, and by then she had already made another suicide attempt. That is how the services in Leeds were delivered in the case of my constituent.
I thank my hon. Friend, whose constituency is next door to mine. As I suspected when I requested this debate, there are cases all over the city of Leeds—probably all over the country, but certainly in the Leeds and York area —that highlight the inadequacy of mental health services and the maze that people have to navigate if they need them. That is a source of huge concern.
A couple of years ago, I had a memorable case of a gentleman who was suffering from horrific mental issues and had attempted suicide several times. On one occasion, after he had slit his wrists, he went to A&E. There was no joint communication; his GP, who was supporting him, did not even know about the incident. Does the hon. Gentleman think we need to ensure that the NHS systems talk to each other a lot better and that there is a much more joined-up approach?
Yes. I thank the hon. Lady for her point. That is one of the problems: it is a maze. If people are told to refer themselves through a website, which can then refer them to another organisation that is supposed to allow them to make an appointment, and they then leave a message on voicemail and it is never responded to, that is shocking in itself. The example my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) gave of the ambulance and the waiting in A&E, and then the lack of credible resources and assistance from the mental health services, highlights the scale of the problem.
After the date for this debate was published, I was contacted by Healthwatch England, which told me that Healthwatch Leeds was about to publish a report on mental health in Leeds and that it would be happy for me to use some of the report’s data and conclusions in the debate. Unfortunately, owing to unforeseen circumstances, the publication of the report has been delayed, but to show that Andy Downey’s is not an isolated case, here is a quote from one of the 697 people in Leeds—I do not know his or her name—who gave evidence for the report during the first three months of 2019:
“I do not know what is wrong with the entire Trust. I had waited since February for a referral to the CMHT”—
the community mental health team—
“I was seen in August. I was discharged, told to talk to IAPT. IAPT has its own waiting lists. As a result of not being able to prove I accepted, I lost everything. I DID NOT REFUSE TREATMENT!! NONE WAS OFFERED!! Today I phoned the crisis team in tears, and they said ‘contact your GP in the morning’. I have no job, I have no money, I went through over 6 months waiting for a simple appointment. I am struggling, and the best the crisis team can do is say ‘contact your GP’. My GP referred me to the CMHT because I was suicidal. Can’t believe the crisis team said ‘tell your GP’. I have been telling my GP, who couldn’t handle it, so he sought help. Today I found out I lost my job, and I will soon be homeless, because my home is provided by my employer. I was suicidal and depressed before today... can’t the crisis team show some empathy and realise some things are a tipping point?”
I am not a Leeds Member, but what the hon. Gentleman has highlighted in that moving passage is the need for GP training in this area, right across the country. Is it not time that we got that training right?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention. He is absolutely right. It is clear from what I, and all of us, have seen that all GPs need far better training in how to deal with mental health issues.
It seems extraordinary that it is not compulsory for GPs to be trained in mental health. That is something that the Royal College of General Practitioners would like to change and something I hope the Minister will be able to pick up and work on. On the capacity in Yorkshire and the Humber, general and adult psychiatry at ST4 in 2017 had 20 places for trainee psychiatrists, only six of which were filled, and for dual general adult and older adult there were two places, none of which were filled. How much does the hon. Gentleman believe that a lack of staff resources contributes towards the poor care available to his constituent?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. I know that staff—competent and qualified staff—are needed to fulfil the expectations and the demands, but I do not know why that is. Is it under-funding or under-resourcing, or simply that there are not enough trained personnel available to fill the posts? Or is it that the level of training, competence and experience is not sufficient for the demands of the posts? That is something we will have to explore and I hope the Minister will also make it one of her priorities.
The quote I read out is a truly damning condemnation of the trust, not in my words, but in the words of someone crying out for help and cruelly being denied it, through, I believe, a mixture of incompetence, complacency, under-funding and—I am reluctant to say this—a bit of callousness too. Lives are being put at risk by the crisis and the question I would ask above every other is: why is Leeds so inadequate and so poorly funded compared with many other parts of England?
Let me come back to my constituent, Andy Downey. Andy was placed on the waiting list for mental health treatment in April 2018, with an estimated date for his first appointment in November or December of that year. That was subsequently extended to March 2019. However, in the meantime he experienced an unrelated physical health issue, in November 2018, and was sent to a private hospital—Spire Leeds Hospital in Roundhay —to see a surgeon, as they were contracting NHS services. That appointment was in December last year. He was told that he needed exploratory surgery to resolve the issue, which would be scheduled “after Christmas”. When no update had been received by January 2019, Charley chased the matter, only to be told that the hospital had tried to call but “hadn’t got through”. However, no calls or messages had been received by the Downeys. The surgery was subsequently scheduled for May 2019—next month. Because Andy will apparently not be able to attend mental health treatment while waiting for surgery—I am not sure why—his mental health treatment has been cancelled and he has been placed back on the bottom of the waiting list to start the whole process again. The current waiting list is 10 months.
Let me summarise Andy Downey’s case, for the Minister’s benefit—I am sorry, I am eating into her time: it took longer than a year, and multiple GP appointments, just to get a mental health referral, and then only after an ambulance attended. Referral for assessment took four months. From assessment to recommending prescription for antidepressants to receiving a prescription took an additional two months. The waiting list from decision on treatment to first treatment session took 49 weeks. It took 18 months from first contact to get an antidepressant prescription. It took 29 months from first contact to initial treatment appointment. It then took another 10 to 11 months to restart treatment because of the failure of a private company to schedule unrelated surgery. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is totally unacceptable. Mental health services are often as urgent and necessary as physical health treatment, yet they are treated almost as a Cinderella service. The fragmentation and under-resourcing of mental health services, especially in Leeds, means that lives are often at risk.
We have had several debates in the House over the past few years about depression and the effect that it can have on the individual and everyone who cares about that person, with a few brave MPs telling the House and the public what they have suffered, but unless we make our mental health a priority, we will have more and more cases like that of Andy Downey and his wife Charley —who is present here today, and has had to carry the burden of incompetent and inadequate public services on her shoulders. Although we live in one of the richest societies in the world, we cannot, it seems, organise and fund the very services that will help to bring so many people afflicted with mental illness and depression back into mainstream society. It is a condemnation of us all that couples such as the Downeys have had to bring their shocking experience into the public domain through their Member of Parliament. I salute their courage, but feel angry on their behalf.
Finally, will the Minister answer these questions or, if she is unable to do so, will she write to me after the debate? First, what mechanism do the Government have to ensure that mental health services are delivered equally across the country? Secondly, does the Minister really believe that the private sector has a beneficial role in delivering mental health services? Thirdly, will she intervene by raising with the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust the issues that I have drawn to her attention in this debate? I hope, for the benefit of the Downeys and on behalf of the many thousands like them across our city, that mental health services can be given the priority and the resources they need in order to ensure a healthier and better society for us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for the passionate and articulate speech he has made on behalf of his constituents.
I often get frustrated by debates about the NHS, which are all about inputs—how much money is being spent, or what the size of the workforce is—and not enough about the direct patient experience and whether what we have is delivering the right outcomes. The story that the hon. Gentleman has shared illustrates that, for a lot of people experiencing mental ill health, their journey towards getting care is not always optimal. That is for a whole host of reasons, including historical issues regarding process and how people interact with their services. I will go away and take a deeper look at what he has highlighted, because it is a very good example of how things can go wrong.
As I say, the issue is not just about money, because we have made money available to all clinical commissioning groups. The hon. Gentleman has asked why, when we are making money available at an increased rate across the board, mental health services are so much worse in Leeds than elsewhere. As is so often the case with these things, a lot of it is about leadership. One issue that has been specifically raised with me is that often, the person responsible for commissioning mental health services within a CCG is not as senior as others. They are not as experienced, and that can cause weaknesses in commissioning.
It is important that we take action centrally to make sure that we deliver services more consistently, and I expect that to be achieved through the Care Quality Commission. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised specific concerns about her local trust. The CQC’s inspection report last year said that the trust requires improvement, so I fully expect it to work collaboratively with the CQC to take the steps that it is advised to take, in order to improve its performance when providing care. That CQC scrutiny will continue until the relevant improvement in performance is delivered.
NHS England also demands that CCGs achieve the mental health investment standard. Under that criterion, CCGs are bound to spend more of the additional money they receive on mental health services than their overall increase in budget. We expect NHS England to take direct action to secure that. However, that is not the whole story, because it depends on what CCGs are commissioning.
One of the messages that I have been keen to give CCGs is that delivering good outcomes for people suffering from mental ill health is not just about clinical services; the voluntary sector can play a big role. I have challenged CCGs to use some of their budgets to commission services directly from the voluntary sector. When someone is suffering a mental health crisis, they need help to navigate the system. In the example that the hon. Member for Leeds North East shared, that help was clearly not forthcoming from the GP.
Having someone with an understanding of mental health who can help a person suffering a crisis navigate through the system is clearly beneficial and, frankly, is good value for money. We should not spend all our NHS budgets on clinical staff when that additional support can deliver so much. In the case that the hon. Gentleman outlined, the GP did not do as much as he could have done, so we perhaps need to consider what else we can do to make sure that GPs understand that system. Again, the voluntary sector has a role to play.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) mentioned having more mental health education in schools, which is an issue that we are taking forward. She specifically mentioned Place2Be, which is a good example of how a third-sector organisation can work with the NHS to deliver the right outcomes. We are in the process of rolling out a whole new workforce in our schools to do exactly as my hon. Friend has challenged us to do.
On people who have attempted suicide, I readily concede that patients in such circumstances have not had a joined-up service between their GPs and their primary care providers. However, through the liaison psychiatry teams that we are rolling out in A&E, we intend to make sure that that wrap-around care is provided more readily.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, although I was just about to come to my hon. Friend’s point.
Suicides are very unpredictable, and a lot of people who attempt to take their own life were not previously known to services—whether their GP or psychiatric services. The problem with mental health services in Leeds and elsewhere is that community services have been completely hollowed out by funding cuts over many years. Unless we invest in community services to stop people ending up in crisis in the first place, we are not going to solve the problem of suicide or deliberate self-harm, or provide help to those who really need it. I hope that the Government are going to get a grip on that problem and push it through NHS England and CCGs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we try to deliver a transformational step change in the level of service, one of the problems is that we end up raising expectations quicker than we can deliver on them, because we need a whole workforce that is able to deliver. I note my hon. Friend’s points about the number of people applying for psychiatric posts; we need to do much more to encourage people. We have spent a lot of time raising awareness of mental health and put a huge amount of investment into psychological therapies. However, at the heart of the forward plan for the next 10 years is a recognition that we need much more service available in the community, and much more help for people with severe mental ill health. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by that.
As I have limited time, I will follow up in writing on the other points made by the hon. Member for Leeds North East. As I said, we have made money available in Leeds, but when we look through the prism of someone who needs help and whose journey in getting that care is less than optimal, we clearly need to consider what is going wrong with that care pathway. If someone is vulnerable and needs help, and perhaps does not have a good understanding of mental health or has no experience of it, the whole process is very confusing and distressing.
How we navigate people through the NHS can often feel very inhuman—it is very reliant on process. The hon. Gentleman gave an example of how people are sent online to register, which feels a bit uncomfortable. We need to make sure that we take every opportunity to ensure that the patient is at the heart of this process and that their experience is pleasant, at a time when they are going through great distress. To say, “Here you are: go to this website—you’re on your own, so see you later,” is not a good start for anyone looking for help.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds North East for having brought this case to my attention, and I pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Downey for sharing their story, because doing so is incredibly difficult. I will look at the specific points that the hon. Gentleman has raised and come back to him.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered plastics recycling.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lead an environmental debate after an environmental weekend. I was lucky enough to be part of the Opposition leaders’ meeting with Greta Thunberg this morning, which reminded us all that there is a world beyond Brexit.
I want to narrow the discussion to the issue of plastics recycling. I know it is well-trodden territory in many ways. In the past 20 years, a whole body of British legislation and policy has been built on the waste directive. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has four consultations in varying stages of completion. We will no doubt touch on some of those issues. There is also a great deal of very good documentation, including the excellent paper from the Library on plastic waste.
I acknowledge from the outset that the issue is superficially simple, but actually extremely complex. There are many different kinds of plastic, each with different approaches with different costs and benefits. There are many useful and necessary applications. For example, there is an enormous distinction between macroplastics and microplastics. The macroplastics that we talk about in public debate include plastic bottles. Microplastics are built into such things as our clothing and the wear of tyres, and may have even bigger environmental impacts.
I approach the subject from three different directions. First, like many Members, I have been lobbied, through vast numbers of letters, by local schoolchildren about the issues to do with plastics in the ocean. They asked me to raise the issue in Parliament, which I am now doing. In many cases, they were highly motivated by seeing the David Attenborough series, “The Blue Planet”. Those arguments have been well rehearsed and I do not need to develop them.
In researching for today, I found some of the facts—perhaps we should call them factoids—surrounding the subject very striking. One was that while plastics are generally very light and buoyant, we are heading to a situation where the weight of plastics in the ocean will soon exceed the total weight of fish. Even more strikingly —it is authoritative, because it came out of a Government press release—every year, the ingestion of plastics by fish and entanglement result in the loss of a million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals. That is extraordinary. Children have every reason to be very exercised.
Would the right hon. Gentleman agree—it is 25 years this year since I started the environmental organisation, the Socialist Environment and Resources Association—that we consistently have to go right back to the manufacture of plastics? I beg him to meet Professor Steve Evans at the institute for sustainable manufacture at Cambridge University. Changing what we manufacture is at the heart of a long-term resolution.
I would be delighted to meet the professor, if he is happy to meet me. The hon. Gentleman is right that we are often looking at the wrong end of the process. We should be looking at the origins.
I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his speech thus far. Picking up on that point on manufacturing, will he join me in congratulating Capital Valley Plastics in my constituency? It uses waste plastic as the raw material for its final product. That raw material would otherwise end up in landfill or the oceans.
The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a constructive response to the problem. If more manufacturers were like his, the economy in plastics would be in a much healthier state. I will come in a moment to some of the reasons why that company is one of the relatively few that are succeeding. It is extremely important none the less.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry. We have already spoken about manufacturing. Manufacturers take an entirely responsible attitude to plastic; it is people putting plastic in the wrong place that gives rise to the problem. The industry has a target of having zero to landfill by 2030, and has made great steps to get to 78% now. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the efforts that the industry is making to do the right thing and to avoid waste getting into the wrong place?
I acknowledge the will of the industry, but there is a lot of bad practice and a lot of products that are unnecessary and are produced in ways that do not help. I fully acknowledge that a lot of manufacturers are responsible, and I am sure they are the people with whom the hon. Gentleman is engaging.
The second direction from which I am approaching this matter is in relation to the global warming controversy, which we have been debating over the weekend. Plastics have a somewhat ambiguous role here. They save on air miles and other forms of transport because they are relatively light materials—I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s manufacturers would make that point—but they are also hydrocarbons, so their manufacture and disposal add to global warming gases.
When looking at the material, I found little clarity about the net effect. There is speculation that in 2050, which is the end of our national statutory period for targets, we could have between 15% and 30% of the carbon allowance dedicated to plastic use. I do not know what the answer is. It would be helpful if DEFRA and the Minister commissioned a study, or brought together the studies that have been done, on the impact of plastics on global warming, because the area is ambiguous.
The third reason I secured this debate is that this is the time of year when I, like other colleagues, go to visit other constituencies in the context of local elections. This year I have noticed a particular interest in environmental issues and recycling in local elections. Councils are rightly trying to up their game and avoid the penalties associated with waste disposal.
The situation in my borough brings out some of the dilemmas. It is effective in recycling: it recycles 95% of bottles, cardboard, paper and cans, but it recycles only 50% of plastics. There are some inherent problems, such as food contamination, which clogs up machinery, is very bad for the people who have to do the picking and attracts vermin. Many members of the public do not seem to appreciate that it is difficult to deal with. In the case of many plastics—this goes back to an earlier intervention—the manufacturers do not appear to appreciate that, for technical reasons in the manufacture, their product is non-recyclable. A little example is the devices we use for cleaning fluid: the bottles can be recycled, but the gadgets at the top to squeeze out the fluid cannot. The black plastics used in a lot of carry-out food cannot be recycled. Most people are not aware of that, and there is clearly a major public education task involved. Perhaps the Government should be focusing rather more on that.
When I have gone around talking to various councils, one thing that has come back—notwithstanding what has been said in the debate—is that there need to be changes to packaging waste regulations. Does the right hon. Gentleman have an idea of what those changes might be? As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) said, it is not about the good manufacturers, but the bad manufacturers and how we deal with them.
For a start, it would help if we had a properly, clearly defined hierarchy of plastic products. Some are clearly necessary, highly desirable and beneficial, while others are utterly trivial, wasteful and costly to the environment. If that hierarchy was clearly established by scientific inquiry and promoted by Government, that would be helpful to local authorities.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the simple economic fact that if the cost and price of plastic were higher, less would be consumed and produced? It is therefore incumbent on the Government to introduce a tax system on plastic that differentiates between less recyclable versus more recyclable plastics, bans the worst and taxes the less bad—or taxes them all—so that people move to more cost-effective, sustainable alternatives.
That is right; it is basic market principles allied to the environment. The Government announced in last year’s Budget that they would proceed with that. There is a consultation, which we will no doubt hear more about from the Minister.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from that very good answer to that very good suggestion, may I suggest that real waste experts—people who know about plastics and waste—say, “Make waste valuable and it will be recycled.” If there is no money and no reward for picking it up and recycling it, we are on to a loser. Greta Thunberg wants action now. Can we not make waste valuable quickly?
That is correct, but with one qualification: it also makes the export of waste valuable. I will come back to the particular problem associated with that in a moment.
In the short time that I have, I will put three specific issues to the Minister. The first concerns data, which has already been raised by the Environmental Audit Committee. There are vast disparities in the numbers that make it very difficult to make sense of what is happening. To quote a few examples, I think the official figures are that 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year in the UK. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that it is about 5 million tonnes, and Economia, which does consultancy in this area, estimates that it is about 3 million to 4 million tonnes. Perhaps they are using different definitions, but we need clarity, because at the moment there is wild variation.
That also applies to what is being achieved in terms of recycling and waste disposal. I understand that the official figures are that 91% of waste is either recycled or recovered in other ways—the definition of recovery includes incineration and export—and only 9% goes to landfill. However, again, the World Wildlife Fund has wildly different numbers. It suggests that 48% goes to landfill, 20% to 30% is recycled, and 22% is used as an energy source. I do not know why there is that difference. Again, it may be a definitional question, but some clear and unambiguous statement from the Government about the position would be very helpful.
I recently visited Clean Tech in Lincolnshire, which is the largest recycler of PET—polyethylene terephthalate—in the UK. Clean Tech’s representatives showed me their bales of plastic, inside which they find such things as bowling balls and car engines. They showed me the bales of plastic in France, and they were clean. They all said that when they go to buy the plastic, they are often outbid, and the plastic is then exported. We need to clean up our plastic, and then ban the export of plastic waste. Clean Tech said that it could recycle every piece of PET in the UK, but not at the moment, because the system is broken. Should we not ban the export of plastic?
That is exactly the issue that I am getting on to. As it happens, I think I visited the hon. Gentleman’s waste plant when I was Secretary of State, so I have some recollection of it. It was a progressive development, but it has the anomalies that he describes.
My second question relates directly to that intervention; it is about the role of exports. We have somewhat flattering statistics that suggest that Britain is meeting, and indeed exceeding, the European waste objective—I believe that 48% is recycled. The definition of recycling does not equate to reprocessing. There are vast differences, and according to the National Audit Office, half of all products that are described as recycled are exported. Quite apart from the question that one might raise about the quality of the treatment in the countries to which such products are exported, there is a serious problem about what we are doing in this country, and in particular how we will respond to the closing of doors in China.
I think China now bans waste imports, and I believe that Malaysia has indicated that it is doing the same. If that is increasingly the pattern in the more developed of the emerging economies in Asia, where will this stuff go? Are we looking for cheap and nasty disposal in Africa, or will it be stocked and dealt with here, and if so, how? To deal with it involves incentives and support for the reprocessing industry—not just recycling, but reprocessing. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) pointed out, that requires tax, because at the moment it is unattractive to reprocess. It is much more profitable to export. There will have to be a tax on the finished plastic products, which will have to be fairly substantial to level the playing field.
I ask the Minister what the Government have analysed the effect of the Chinese border closure to be. What impact will that have on the recycling and reprocessing industries, and how rapid an adjustment will we have to make to the closing of international markets?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. Does the issue that he has just raised not bring a wider and more important principle into the debate? Just as with energy production, the Government are beginning to meet targets through interconnectors and looking at importing renewable energy, perhaps from Denmark and elsewhere. Part of the issue is that the Government are potentially meeting recycling targets artificially by exporting goods, when we do not know that they are being recycled in the way that we would like them to be. That is not really in the spirit of addressing our carbon reduction targets as well as I hope that all of us in the Chamber would want.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I do not think that the Government are necessarily being disingenuous; it just happens to be that the way that recycling is treated has not traditionally distinguished between domestic processing and export. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government are trying to redress that.
This is a relatively short debate, so I want to give others an opportunity to speak. My final point relates to how we deal with end-use consumption. Two of the Government’s consultations are about that, but I think it is useful for Members to express a view at this stage. One obvious area is the plastic bag experience. We had a massive impact—an 88% reduction in demand—as a result of quite a modest 5p charge on bags. However, at the moment it is restricted to firms with more than 250 employees. I understand the reasoning; the Government do not want to expand the regulation to single-handed shopkeepers. However, there is surely a number in between—say five employees and above—that would be much more realistic and have a significant impact.
The second potential action, which the Government again are consulting on, is introducing deposits for bottles. One of the reasons the German experience in this area is so much better than the British experience is that the Germans have, in effect, a 20p tax on plastic bottles, which can be refunded, giving people a strong incentive to reuse as well as recycle.
As kids, we used to collect bottles. Bellshill Nisa in my area collects plastic bottles and refunds money to charities. Perhaps the Minister could take that up. Kids could pick up plastic bottles, take them back to the local shop and receive money for them.
I am sure that the Minister will have an answer to that, since the Government are consulting at the moment. There is a whole variety of creative initiatives one could explore, such as installing water fountains or just encouraging people to fill their bottles with tap water, but it requires a change of culture as well as an economic levy.
In considering the issues, the Government have a following wind in public opinion. A very good survey by YouGov last week suggested that about 80% of the public are comfortable with the idea of an extra charge on plastic bottles, around 70% are comfortable with the idea of extending the plastic bag tax, and a large majority are willing to pay something like £2 a week more on £100-worth of groceries. For many hard-pressed households, that is not an inconsiderable sum, and one has to be sensitive to issues of family poverty. However, the majority of public opinion seems to be reconciled to the idea that to reduce plastic usage, there will have to be additional charges.
In conclusion, let me point out that the Government have a rather modest long-term objective of working towards eliminating unnecessary plastic use—I think that is the phrase they use—by 2042. In that year, I will be waiting for my 100th birthday card from Buckingham Palace. I suggest that if that objective were brought forward to, say, 2025, we would be dealing with a more realistic timescale. I look forward to hearing what colleagues have to say.
Order. Three Back Benchers want to speak and there are three Front Benchers to respond, so I would be very grateful if the Back-Bench speakers stuck to four to five minutes each. I call Bill Grant.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this important debate.
As an individual, I welcome the fact that the Government have already banned plastic microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products. Previously, each time someone showered with such products, tens of thousands of microbeads began their tortuous journey into our oceans, putting our marine life at risk. I also welcome the 5p charge that we have introduced for single-use plastic bags, which has reduced their use by approximately 88%, and the deposit return scheme that the Government propose for drink bottles. Such a scheme is not a novel concept for those who, like me, are of a certain vintage. I recall earlier schemes for glass, for bottles of milk, soft drinks or beer, and for jam jars—some hon. Members present may recognise the term “jeelie jars”—which had a value at the Co-operative.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made the very good point that giving waste a value helps to reduce or recycle it. That theory stands up well. It is particularly encouraging that plastic bottles of mineral water are no longer on sale here in Parliament and that, to my surprise, the House recently introduced a 25p surcharge for disposable coffee cups. Being a Scots fellow—this may apply to those from Yorkshire as well—I paid it just the once and will not be paying it again, so the system works. Both measures are very sound.
The Chancellor spoke in his spring statement about the Government’s commitment to help to protect critical habitats, including by supporting the Ascension Island Council’s call to designate some of its waters as a marine protected area, having proposed in the 2018 Budget a new tax on the manufacture or import of plastic packaging of less than 30% recyclable material. As in many cases, however, there is a negative side. A recent article on marine conservation by Eleanor Church highlighted the “plastic soup” of waste in the north Pacific vortex, which potentially covers an immense 1.6 million sq km and weighs an estimated 80,000 metric tonnes, which is unimaginable—it is certainly beyond my imagination. Who done it? We done it.
I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I understand that a Scottish university—I think it is Edinburgh, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me—is doing some really interesting research into the possibility of solar-powered autonomous vehicles controlling the seas and oceans, sucking up the plastic, chipping it and taking it to the nearest port for recycling. I really think that that is part of the future.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure which Scottish university is doing that research, but I think it may be Edinburgh. Although it has not been proven, that is an innovative idea for recovering what we have polluted our oceans with, and I certainly hope that the researchers make progress with it. I wish them well and hope that the UK Government or the Scottish Government will encourage such research, because we really need it to work and materialise.
Regrettably, I understand that a vortex also exists in the north Atlantic. Such vortexes of waste are a shame on our society and on western society, because we are responsible for that pollution. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I hope we can find a way to remove it, because it is a threat to marine life and to the humans who ply and fish the waters affected.
We need to seriously address our throwaway approach to life and our frequently irrational desire to cosset our purchases in excessive packaging that may not be entirely recyclable if it is composed of polymers, particularly given how much plastic waste we produce here in the United Kingdom. Even going by the middle figure, we produce a phenomenal amount: approximately 3.7 million tonnes annually. Nevertheless, by signing up in December 2017 to the UN resolution on marine litter and microplastics, the UK Government have taken a step, albeit a small one, in the correct direction, with the aim of further combating marine litter. I also applaud the Scottish Government for publishing a strategy and a plan to address marine litter.
It is worthy of note that retailers in the United Kingdom —I nearly said “Every little helps”—are attempting to do their bit for the environment. I understand that Waitrose has pledged to stop using black plastic trays by the end of this year. That is to be welcomed, as is the fact that other retailers have indicated that they will follow suit, thereby reducing the volume of such material that, regrettably, ends up in landfill.
In looking forward, we must reflect on past generations, who rarely bought pre-packaged goods. They coped with a minimalist approach, often relying on greaseproof paper or paper bags to take home the essentials; I am sure that in those days the paper would have ended up as fuel for the home fire. Similarly, the “make do and mend” ethos that was applied to natural fabrics in bygone eras needs to be applied again, where possible, and we need to consider carefully our constant use of synthetic textiles with the potential to shed polluting microfibres.
I note that the UK Government are hopeful that their resources and waste strategy will lead to significant improvements, including by ending confusion over recycling. We have to make recycling simpler; I note that the Ayrshire councils make a great effort to provide receptacles, but as a nation we do not seem able to select the correct one.
People have put forward some very simplistic solutions, such as not exporting waste any more, but does the hon. Gentleman accept the view from the industry that if we stopped exporting waste, especially for reprocessing in Europe, our country would be full of plastic? We would be up to our necks in it. Much of our reprocessing takes place in Europe, and if we come out of the European Union, those exports will be banned.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very clearly, but my answer is that as a nation we have to learn to reduce our use of plastic. Let us not produce so much in the first place—and if we do produce it, it should have to be recyclable. It was mentioned earlier that China is no longer accepting waste imports, but why should we burden other nations with our waste? Let us reduce our waste and live under a managed waste system that we can cope with, without burdening other nations. We also need to make the polluter pay and generally reform the packaging producer responsibility system.
It will be interesting in due course to digest the response to the Government’s call for evidence and the findings that emanate from the recent consultations. I know that lately the Minister and the Department have taken greater steps on environmental matters than ever before, but I would be delighted to see a special focus on plastic waste. In the meantime, can the Minister confirm what support, if any, the Government are providing for the various plastic initiatives such as the waste and resources action plan, the plastics industry recycling action plan and the UK circular plastics network? We have done a great deal, but there is no doubt that a great deal more needs to be done to reduce the dependency of this nation and others on plastic.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this timely debate—it is just a shame that so few hon. Members are present.
The plastics debate has been illuminated to us recently in the media, not least by Sir David Attenborough, and having Greta Thunberg among us in Parliament today has brought it very much to the fore. The reality is that plastic production and use continue to rise across the UK; according to the statistics I have, it rises by about 4% each year, but we know that the data need to be more reliable. Of course, we also send much of our waste—the things we do not want to deal with—overseas for others to deal with, which is clearly not acceptable.
This year, I took part in the Tearfund plastic challenge for Lent, which brought plastic into sharp focus for me. I thought that not purchasing any plastic for 40 days and 40 nights was a good idea when I signed up, but the plastic fast hit me on my first trip to the supermarket: everywhere I turned, plastic stared back at me. I was incensed. Had I been blind to the scale of the plastic virus until now? Having previously been frustrated by how much plastic I had seen, I was now angry. As a consumer, I was given no choice but to walk out of the supermarket and rethink my life. Try it—I recommend it.
My first respite was York’s Shambles Market. Here I could buy fruit and veg and put them straight into my cloth bag for life. Other outlets in York, such as Alligator and Bishy Weigh, where customers fill their recycled pots with grains and groceries, provide an alternative to the plastic wrapping used by all the supermarkets.
My diet has changed—for the better, I have to say; it is now plant based. I bake my own bread and make my own coleslaw, but I have gone without some products as a result of wanting to source them plastic-free. Dairy is hard to source, and there are others. As a consumer, my choices were removed. If I have experienced that, people across the country are experiencing it today and there is therefore an obligation on us all to address the plastic challenge.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, having heard Greta Thunberg speak today, it is time we took power back for the consumer? Would she join me in taking all our plastic from Marks and Spencer’s or Tesco’s back and dumping it in front of their stores, saying, “Look after that”? Is that not the sort of direct action that that young girl from Sweden is urging us to take?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Absolutely—if we cannot see movement on the problem of plastics, we must move plastics to the places where they will make others move. I trust that we will take another step forward on the issue as a result of today’s debate.
The plastics strategy must set tough targets for producers and manufacturers to provide alternatives. Research is under way, as I found out recently when I met Nestlé, a major manufacturer in York. I also spoke to local businesses, and it is clear that they are frustrated too. We have heard the Government trying to bring redress item by item—whether on bags, bottles or straws—but the reality is that we need to get to the top of the supply chain and look at what is happening.
In York, the council has really failed the people of my city. Plastics, apart from bottles, are not picked up at the kerbside, and therefore end up in landfill. This weekend, as I was doing my plastic walkabout, I was horrified to learn that much of York’s recyclable waste ends up in landfill, not even going where residents believe it is going. That is not good enough. Unless the Minister sets really tough targets in her plastics strategy, it is clear that the Government will have failed. Labour in York has pledged to put in a water fountain system so that people can refill their bottles in the city and turn around the council’s current abject failure to take the matter seriously.
I was impressed when I visited York’s Biorenewables Development Centre, which uses high-pressure steam and autoclaving to separate household waste, drawing out plastics from other waste to be able to deal with them. I was also impressed by nine-year-old Mollie Nicholl, who came to my surgery to teach me about ecobricks. She brought her empty plastic bottles, plastic wrappers and a wooden spoon, and showed me how to fill the bottle with the wrappers and then screw on the top, making an ecobrick, which would then be collected and made into either garden furniture or play equipment—new plastic capturing. She is York’s plastic eco warrior.
York’s climate strikers are incensed by plastic around them, as I found out when I met them recently. We owe it to all in our communities to take action, so I have five things I want to ask the Minister. Will she expand the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator to take on the policing of cutting carbon and plastic from production and manufacturing in the supply chain? That seems an appropriate place do to it. Will she set stringent plastic targets, so that organic-based packaging rather than polymers are at the forefront, and polymers are phased out by 2025? Will the UK contribute to the plastic clear-up operations in the oceans, which we know has begun here at home? Will she champion ecobricks, as Mollie in my constituency has, and other forms of reuse for plastic, during the transition phase? Finally, will she set tough targets on recycling for local authorities and support them in driving change?
Our planet is breaking under the consumption-obsessed society we live in. As we have been elected to this place, we have been given a platform to radically change our world. Will the Minister use her power, as Labour will, to transform the local, national and global conversation and action, by being drastic on plastic?
I will be brief, Mr Hosie. We know that Extinction Rebellion are protesting outside, and I completely condone that. We know that by 2050 there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea. We know the fossil fuel manufacturers are given near trillion-dollar subsidies, and to a certain extent are diverting that money into plastic, because 80% of fossil fuels cannot be exploited. We know the only way to reduce the consumption of plastic is to raise its price. The way to do that is to tax plastic and to have cleaner, more homogenous plastic, which is more cost-effective to recycle.
The Government have paid lip service to a plastics tax—I welcome the comments from the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable)—but they will not bring it in until 2022. We need to be robust, assertive and immediate. On the timeframe for universal recyclability of plastic, we are looking at 2042, and in Europe, it is 2030. It should be 2025.
The producer responsibility obligations system is not working. I would welcome a deposit scheme. We clearly need taxes on bottles, and refill schemes in local shops, so that people can refill their bottle. People ask, “What can I do?” and throw away the bottles because they are so cheap. If we taxed them, we would be in a better situation.
There is emerging technology, such as gasification, that enables plastics to be broken down to produce energy in a way that does not impact on climate change. We should be investing in research and development. We should be putting more pressure on supermarkets. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who says that people should be encouraged to take their plastic and dump it back on the supermarkets. They would respond. It is all very well people being apologists for the supermarkets and saying that they are doing as much as they can; they pretend to do more than they do. They need to do much more. We cannot continue to export all our plastics, and sweep the problem under the table. We need to take action immediately.
By the time we have the tax that is proposed by the Government, an extra 70,000 tonnes of plastic will have been deposited. That is why I tabled my Plastics Bill, which would set out a fiscal strategy, and introduce a plastics agency and a global target for the overall amount of plastic, in which Britain’s amount reduced over time. It would also give our nations an imperative to make sure that target was delivered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important and topical debate. I start by telling hon. Members that I went into Waverley station with an empty cup of coffee to get rid of. The girl said to me, “You can take that back to where you got it,” because there were no bins there, but that was not going to work, as I bought it in King’s Cross in London, so I just handed it to Costa.
For those of us who were born in the ’50s, plastics have gone from being space-age wonder materials to underpinning modern life. Plastic pipes, containers and container liners provide hygienic and durable ways to transport water, foodstuffs and medicines.
If the whole lifecycle of the product is taken into account, plastics can be better for the environment, if they are recycled or otherwise disposed of safely. Lightweight, durable containers cut down on transport costs and reduce waste. The shelf life of perishable goods and products can be greatly extended with plastic packaging. Bagged bananas have a shelf life of 36 days, compared with 15 days if sold loose. A cucumber that lasts three days unpackaged will last two weeks if covered in plastic. Around 10 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually, and that is associated with 22 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, but 70% of that waste is absolutely avoidable. Plastic components weigh less and can last longer than non-plastic alternatives, and using plastic components where possible has allowed vehicle and aircraft manufacturers to reduce vehicle weight and improve efficiency.
Six per cent. of global oil production is used to manufacture plastic, but that is projected to rise to 20% by 2050, increasing its share of the global annual carbon budget from 1% to 15%. In 2012, plastic manufacture accounted for approximately 390 million tonnes of carbon monoxide emissions. The potent greenhouse gases methane and ethylene are released by most common plastics as they degrade. The durability of plastics and their resilience to biodegradation is a double-edged sword. It is key to their usefulness to us, but ecologically lethal.
Some 70% of the litter in the sea is plastic. Plastics fragment as they degrade and are a danger to all animals of all sizes, and they threaten our whole food chain. Large pieces can entangle or choke animals and birds. Seabirds collect fragments of fishing gear when they build their nests. Strangled birds hanging from cliff sides are an ever more familiar sight in Scottish seabird colonies. Smaller fragments can be mistaken for food items and eaten, causing marine creatures and the animals feeding on them to starve while their stomachs are full. Some plastic products release chemicals as they degrade. Plastics can also absorb and later release persistent pollutants. The risk those microplastics pose to humans is absolutely unknown. A littered environment reduces human quality of life and deters visitors.
As has been mentioned, China and the rest of south-east Asia are no longer willing to be a dump for the world’s dirty plastic. In January 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, heard that the Chinese decision to ban the importing of heavily contaminated plastic and paper waste reduced such waste exports from the UK to China by 40%. This caused a crisis in the UK recycling industry. The Chinese gave ample warning of their intent to restrict these waste types. The ban itself was announced by the Chinese Government in July 2017, but warnings of an impending crisis came from the British Plastics Federation as early as 2012. Furthermore, the Chinese Government have been cracking down on heavily contaminated recycling entering the country via a succession of programmes since 2006.
The EAC heard last January that the UK Government had their head in the sand. I asked witnesses from trade associations and professional bodies whether the UK Government had been pressed hard enough for action. Their view was that the Government were interested in meeting them and monitoring the situation, but would not act to help. Indeed, those trade bodies had seen more engagement with industry from the devolved Administrations.
The UN’s climate experts tell us that we have only 11 years left to avert a total climate catastrophe. Transitioning to a simpler economy is an urgent and essential task, and waste management is an essential part of that. Has the Minister had any discussions on harmonised traffic-light labelling systems—matching product-to-bin systems—across devolved Administrations, local authorities and even industries? Having visited the Coca-Cola plant in East Kilbride, I know that it is very keen on having a harmonised product-to-bin system.
As has been mentioned, public awareness has never been higher. “The Blue Planet” and David Attenborough’s latest calls to arms against climate change, “Climate Change —The Facts” on BBC 1 and “Our Planet” on Netflix, are must-watches for everybody. Scotland was the first part of the UK to commit to introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. The Scottish Government are open to co-designing the scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, being mindful that nothing happens in isolation. I believe the UK Environment Secretary, the Minister and the devolved Administrations met at a summit on this matter, and the principles—as far as I know—were agreed in July. The Scottish Government support the EU’s targets for all packaging to be easily recyclable or reusable by 2030. They are a founding member of the Plastics Pact, which aims to deliver that target sooner and press the UK Government to commit to maintaining the current protections and standards on plastic packaging.
In January, The Guardian and Greenpeace revealed that the UK Government spent months behind the scenes opposing the EU’s target to recycle 66% of urban waste by 2035. That is behind the Scottish Government’s target of 70% by 2025, and throws into doubt the UK Government’s pledge to develop ambitious new future targets and milestones, especially since—as far as I know—DEFRA has been singled out as the Department least well prepared for the UK’s departure from the EU. That does not fill me with reassurance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important and detailed debate. He was absolutely right to say that recycling and pollution are not necessarily linked. Indeed, climate change and pollution are not necessarily linked. We need to deal with both: we need to ensure that recycling is there to deal with the climate change impact of plastics, but also that we are preventing pollution.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who made interventions, all of which were helpful in this particular case. I thank the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), who is absolutely right to mention that we had extensive deposit schemes in the past. In fact, I can remember the first time I ever got involved in any sort of political campaigning, when I was at school: we tried to persuade Corona not to stop using a deposit scheme for its bottles. It did stop, and went out of business—we can put two and two together. Most bottles are actually recycled in Germany, precisely because they still keep deposit return schemes.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned the incredible level of self-restraint that she has shown over the past 40 days and 40 nights. I do not believe it is possible or reasonable to expect the majority of our population to make that sort of choice. We need to make it more convenient for people to go plastic-free.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) outlined the importance of making reduction, reuse and recycling more financially viable than just making things and chucking them away. The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) was right to point out that some applications of plastic are correct, but a lot are not. Where we use plastic, we must ensure that it is not just claimed to be recyclable, but is actually recycled. The convenience of plastic makes it the fastest-growing waste material, but its use is not always appropriate. Most plastic items have a limited lifespan and cannot be reused. However the most-used plastics, such as PET and HDPE, are readily recyclable, and the main difficulty is getting them from the point of use to the point of recycling.
Councils have been successful in establishing recycling infrastructure and services: 99% of local authorities in the UK currently collect plastic bottles, and 77% collect pots, tubs and trays in kerbside recycling. However, all of that costs money, and if we are going to increase our recycling rate at all we will need the people who do the work—the collection authorities, the disposal authorities and the recycling plant—to be economically viable. In the future, and I hope sooner rather than later, there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that the producers of the plastics pay for them to be recycled. For bottles, that may well be best done by a deposit return scheme, as in Germany. We welcome the Government’s commitment to investigating deposit return schemes and to the principle of extended producer responsibility.
The requisite sense of urgency in the Government’s resources and waste strategy appears to be lacking. Recycling in this country has flatlined. Between 2000 and 2010, under the last Labour Government, household recycling increased by 235%. However, after years of austerity, local government, which is responsible for waste and recycling, has been left underfunded and understaffed. While Labour-run Wales has accelerated ahead, achieving a national recycling rate of approximately 63%, England has flatlined at around 44% since 2011, and is set to miss Europe-wide targets of 50% by 2020.
It will take time to introduce an effective producer-pays system. In the meantime, our local authorities need the capital investment and revenue to maintain their recycling collections, let alone improve them. Local authorities currently have an £8 billion funding gap; unless that it is filled, it is unrealistic to expect them to do anything additional.
The right hon. Member for Twickenham is right to say that there is high public interest in recycling, particularly plastics, and a greater awareness of where our waste ends up, in part down to “Blue Planet” and other programmes. Since China started to refuse the UK’s poor quality recyclables and waste in 2018, the UK has been exporting waste to countries with some of the highest levels of ocean plastic pollution. Some south-east Asian counties are also moving towards a ban.
We need to encourage the UK to be more responsible for our waste closer to home, and to recycle in the UK—not export our waste. We need to take the opportunity of the current political support to drive a green transformation into an efficient and productive green economy with new, green jobs. We need to clean up our natural environment and halt the flow of plastic and other waste into our oceans. It is time to put actions behind the national waste strategy for England. It is time to show Government leadership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important debate on plastics recycling. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on being the only Member to intervene and stay to listen to the response. I am conscious that most of this issue is devolved, but I am aware of his passion for ensuring that there are improvements.
I welcome the other contributions to this important debate. A number of hon. Members highlighted that this is not a dilemma. We need less plastic waste, but we must recognise the benefits that plastic can bring in improving the environment, such as by lowering carbon and reducing the use of other common materials, including paper and glass. As the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) pointed out, the use of some plastic can reduce food waste. In other cases, it is not always necessary to use plastic. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said she felt terribly frustrated when she went shopping. The Government have encouraged plastic-free aisles, and she will see that more and more supermarkets are making it more straightforward for people not to have to pick up a plastic bag, although for many consumers that is still convenient.
On the resources and waste strategy, to which hon. Members have referred, the Government are clear that we want to move towards a circular economy, in which raw materials are used efficiently and waste is minimised, so we have set high recycling ambitions. I am very conscious that, as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said, the amount of recycling has not increased greatly in the past few years. It has somewhat plateaued, although it has continued to increase in England.
Wales in leading the way, and Northern Ireland has made a big improvement, driven by its collection of food waste. England is third of the nations, and Scotland is fourth. I will not say that it is last, because that would be a bit insulting; I know how ambitious it is. Nevertheless, the nations continue to learn from each other. We continue to collaborate, and are consulting together on what we are doing about things such as the producer responsibility schemes, because we believe that there is a good reason to try to have a consistent approach across the UK, especially considering that, once we leave the European Union, this will certainly become a devolved matter. I am pleased that the Governments of the four nations have recognised why it would be sensible to collaborate in that regard.
We are setting a 65% municipal recycling rate by 2035 and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030. It is our intention that, by 2025, all plastic packaging placed on the market will be recyclable, reusable or compostable, and we want to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. A number of uses of plastic are well considered. In particular, a lot of single-use plastic gets used in the NHS, and it would not necessarily be appropriate to want to get away from that. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can manage it at the end of its life so it is more environmentally beneficial.
I will take an intervention, but I have little time to respond to the points that have already been made.
Some people can recall a world in which we could go into supermarkets and buy meat and other products without plastic, such as tins. Does the Minister accept that it is possible to envision such a world? If we tax things, we can move towards it more quickly. I obviously accept that some plastics are necessary, but all should be recycled more quickly.
Well, perhaps, but the hon. Gentleman should be aware that emissions would be generated because heavier goods would be transported around the country—around the world, in fact. That is why we need a balanced approach. This is not solely about plastic. The hon. Gentleman wants us to move back to just using paper bags and glass products, but that would be worse for carbon, so we need a balanced approach. The important thing is to have a lifecycle approach that considers the production, consumption and end of life of the plastics that are placed on the market.
At the production stage, plastics should be designed to be easily reusable or recyclable. As it stands today, all plastic is technically recyclable. It is just that the economics do not necessarily encourage that, and sometimes the amount of contamination prevents that. At the consumption stage, we want consumers to be encouraged to use more reusable items. They should be able to identify easily how plastics should be recycled. At the end-of-life stage, more plastics should be reused, repaired or recycled.
As has been said, there are many benefits to plastic, which does not decompose and can last centuries. However, it can end up as litter in the natural environment, and there are concerns about the fact that litter on land often ends up in the oceans. There are problems with the pollution that can arise from plastics, so we want to prevent plastic waste from occurring in the first place, as well as managing it better when it does. Our strategy sets out how we intend to do that through a more sustainable use of resources to ensure we waste less and reuse, recycle and repair more. Moving away from a “take, make, use and throw” approach, and creating a circular model for plastics, means that the environment, the economy and society will all benefit.
As I have already said, one of the keys to this is design. The Government are currently consulting on extending producer responsibility for packaging. That is a powerful policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for the product it places on the market extends to the post-use stage. Producers will pay the full net cost of managing packaging waste. The differentiation in the levy will incentivise products that are easier to reuse or recycle. As announced in the Budget last year, the Government are consulting on the introduction of a specific tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic content to stimulate demand for recycled plastic. That should encourage manufacturers to produce more sustainable packaging and will create demand for more recycled material.
The two schemes will work together coherently to improve recycling rates, and the revenue collected from these measures will enable investment in further action to address the issues surrounding single-use plastics, waste and litter, and help improve the waste system in the UK. We are working closely with the industry, businesses and consumers to ensure their views are taken forward in new schemes that may affect them. We are supporting businesses that are already taking on the challenge of reducing plastic waste and improving recycling.
The right hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the carrier bag charge. He will be aware that, in our consultation, we are discussing extending it to all retailers and increasing the charge. The deposit return scheme is a big challenge for our country. It is easy to imagine what could happen at the front end. We are consulting on two potential options relating to what people tend to consume on the go, as opposed to all plastic bottles and cans.
The back end of the system is more complicated. I have been on a learning journey to different countries in the European Union to look at how we might do that. We are consulting on that. The hon. Member for Falkirk is right to say that Scotland is taking steps forward in that regard, and we are in discussion with it. We are also looking at how we can provide a new product labelling scheme, such as eco-labels, to help consumers make better decisions. We would like to see greater consistency of labelling so consumers know what they can recycle.
On households, we are not alone in the European Union in having kerbside collections, but we want to ensure that there is greater consistency in what councils collect—not necessarily how they collect it, but what they collect. We are having a further consultation on that at the moment, and are introducing separate food waste collections, which will improve recycling rates and, if they are treated appropriately, should be a better way of reducing carbon emissions. By creating a reliable, vibrant market, with Government support through the levies that will be introduced in the extended producer responsibility system, we should be able to support councils in making that innovation change.
Innovation by industry will continue to be necessary. We have helped by pledging £20 million to the plastics research and innovation fund, and a further £20 million to the plastics and waste investment fund. Those funds are aimed at encouraging innovation to boost recycling and reduce littering. Through the industrial strategy challenge fund, we are investing up to £66 million towards the development of smart, sustainable plastic packaging. We also support WRAP, which was asked about earlier, and the UK Plastics Pact, which bring together businesses across the entire plastics value chain to make the necessary improvements.
The Government have set ambitious targets. It is important that we work with consumers and industry to reduce plastic waste. Our strategy considers the whole lifecycle of plastics. In that regard, I believe that once we get through this consultation and introduce the necessary measures in the Environment Bill, where we do not have powers already, we can really work together to tackle this plastics challenge.
I do not have a great deal to add in the last 30 seconds. We all understand the chemistry, and the technology is given. The Government’s objectives are very clear, and there is a great deal of consensus around them. The main area of disagreement is about the urgency and pace at which this is being done. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) has a Bill to introduce a foreshortened timetable for dealing with unnecessary waste. I very much hope that through that or the Government’s action, we will speed up the measures that we all agree need to be taken.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).