Tuesday 2 July 2019
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Acquired Brain Injury
I beg to move,
That this House has considered acquired brain injury.
You might have noticed, Mr Rosindell, that we have considered this matter once or twice already over the past year or two, but today we are looking at some specific elements of acquired brain injury. As all right hon. and hon. Members will know, brain injury can relate to so many parts of Government: the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and so on. Today we have the Health Minister before us, so I am keen to focus on health-related issues.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will have been approached by the Headway charity, clinicians who work in their area, patients or carers of people who have suffered a brain injury, and will want to make a contribution, so I do not intend to speak at great length. I am passionately conscious of the fact that, since I first became involved in this issue in Parliament three years ago, I have met so many amazing people—not only clinicians and people who work in the charity sector, but patients who have had brain injuries and spoken about what that experience is like. It is so important to hear that experience directly from individuals.
One particularly poignant aspect of brain injury is that in the vast majority of cases it is completely invisible. Yesterday, I met Tom Hutton, who is here—I know we are not meant to refer to the Public Gallery, Mr Rosindell, but I have already and have got away with it. He was training on his bike for an Ironman a few years ago and had a collision with a small lorry. He was in an induced coma for a week. There is not a mark on his head. No one who saw him at work or in the street, including a Department for Work and Pensions assessor, would have the faintest idea that he had had a brain injury, or an injury of any kind.
The fascinating thing he spoke to me about is that he has to talk to himself all the time. One symptom of brain injury is phenomenal fatigue, and if the sufferer does not see the fatigue coming, they can experience phenomenal depression, or dysphoria, as it is called.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing this debate, but on his fantastic campaigning work in this area. On the symptoms being invisible, Departments, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, cannot pick up precisely how such injuries affect day-to-day life, and that needs to be improved.
Yes. The all-party parliamentary group on acquired brain injury—I see that two of the vice-chairs are in the Chamber—has been campaigning to ensure that everyone who does any kind of assessment for the Department for Work and Pensions, whether for personal independence payments, the employment and support allowance, or any other benefit, has a full training in acquired brain injury, so that they understand the variable nature of the condition.
One element of the personality change that may come about is that somebody with a brain injury might be desperate to please the person in front of them, so they might want to give what they think is the “correct answer” to the question being asked by the official. That can give a misleading idea of what that individual’s abilities are.
I have not asked Tom whether it is all right to say all this today—I see that he is nodding, so it is fine. When the Duracell battery inside someone’s head is running low, they talk to themselves to try to re-energise it, but that uses even more energy. That can lead to a vicious cycle: further depression and anxiety makes it more difficult to recharge the battery, in turn making it more difficult to get better.
There are others who have had much more dramatic and traumatic injuries, perhaps where something has penetrated the skull. However, in the vast majority of cases, the injury will be inside the brain. A fundamental part of what we have to address is how the mind and the personality sit inside the brain. Right hon. and hon. Members might have seen the television series “MotherFatherSon”, which deals with someone who has had a massive aneurysm and then a stroke. Lots of things in the programme are not entirely accurate, but many families and individuals have to cope with the very real element of personality change. I met a wonderful woman three months ago told me that she wished that her old self would come back. She could remember what her old self was like, but it is not the person she now is. She just does not know how to recreate that personality inside herself. Again, it is this thing of talking to yourself all the time.
If there has been impairment of the executive functions due to a brain injury to the frontal lobes, particularly in teenagers or as the young brain is still developing, it can lead to all sorts of other problems in terms of employability, and being able to engage with the wider world and their family. Sometimes people share far too much information; sometimes they are far too timid about being able to share information.
On that point about sharing, as I told the Chamber in the debate on 9 May, my wife suffered from a meningioma. As I think the hon. Gentleman mentioned, a certain fretfulness can come into the character. On sharing, perhaps it is because I live in such a remote area, but I am surprised those who have come through the treatment are not encouraged more to share their pre-operative and post-operative experience with people who are suffering or are about to have a medical intervention, because it would give them great courage and help.
Yes, that is true. Because of the pattern of brain injuries across the country, it may be difficult for people to gather with people of a similar age and background. Lots of people with brain injuries arising from road traffic accidents are quite young—in their teens or early 20s. Sometimes they get put into support groups with people in their 60s or 70s. That is not an impossible combination, but sometimes it is not the most natural grouping for those with a much longer life expectancy.
The most difficult element for a lot of people is the significant impairment in their ability to speak and communicate. Speech therapists are an essential part of the mix in bringing people back to a degree of independent living after a significant event. One worry across the whole of the UK is the shortage of people working in this field, who sometimes do not feel as valued in the team as they might. We need to ensure that speech and language therapy is still available for some time after someone has had their immediate intervention.
One of the most common things that people tell me is that they are accused of being drunk, when in fact they have difficulty speaking properly because they have had a brain injury, not because they are a bad person. They feel the sense of stigma that attaches to not being able to speak as clearly as they might have been able to before their brain injury.
My hon. Friend mentions that people can have the appearance of being drunk. My 15-year-old adopted son’s mum drank heavily while she was pregnant with him, which is where he acquired his brain injury. The most recent research suggests that every year tens of thousands of children are born in this country with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder; it is a spectrum, as the description implies. It is a massive problem, and it leads to the kind of emotional and behavioural difficulties that my hon. Friend will be familiar with from speaking to those who have had acquired brain injuries later in life. What are his thoughts on what is needed to address the numbers of people who have brain damage through their lives?
My mother was alcoholic. I do not know whether she drank during my pregnancy—[Laughter.] Was it my pregnancy? I mean before I was born. I am painfully conscious of how difficult it is for women who are alcoholic to stop drinking when they are pregnant. The message about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy has been out there for a long time, but we still have remarkably little in the toolkit for dealing with alcoholism in this country. Broadly speaking, it is still about the 12-step process, which has a very low success rate in comparison with other therapies and which relies on surrendering to a higher being, albeit not necessarily a religious one. It just does not work for an awful lot of people. The syndrome that my hon. Friend refers to is much more prevalent than we realised even 10 years ago. Further research is going on, and we need to ensure that it is fully understood across the whole educational spectrum, as well as the health spectrum.
There are specific issues that affect children. It is a profound source of depression to me as a Labour Member and a socialist that a child from a poorer background is four times more likely to suffer a brain injury before the age of five than a child from a wealthy background. We need to look at all the elements that lead to that, because prevention is far better than cure. I have spoken in other debates about issues that relate particularly to education, including the importance of schools having as full an understanding as possible of how brain injury can affect a child. All the statistics now indicate that every primary school class in this country has at least one child who has had a significant brain injury, although many of them may be undiagnosed. That is an issue for every single school in the country, and I do not think that we have fully taken it on board yet.
The experience of having had a brain injury often includes the sense of being pushed from pillar to post in the health system and in the organisations that the state provides. An element of that is inevitable, because something fundamentally chaotic is being brought into an ordered system. That is how it feels to the individual, too: they knew what their life was, and then suddenly—nearly always completely out of the blue—something has happened to radically change their life and their family’s lives, perhaps permanently. All too often, however, families have to fight for every single bit of support from the national health service, the local authority, the education system or wherever.
If there is one thing that I hope will come out of all the work that we have done in the all-party group, it is that we can change that feeling of having to fight for every single element. So many patients have told me, “If I could devote all my energy to getting my brain better, rather than fighting for support, I would be a useful and fully functioning member of society. I would dearly love to be that person again.” If there were any way in which all the arms of the state could fully recognise that factor, that would be something that we should dearly hope for.
The charity Sue Ryder does an awful lot of work with people who have had brain injuries and other neurological conditions. It reckons that 15,000 people who have had acquired brain injuries are now in generalist older people’s care homes, which are probably not the places to get the right support, but are the only places available. Sue Ryder is aware of at least 515 people who are placed out of area, a long way from home, which means that all the support systems that they might have through family, friends and so on are simply not available or are extremely expensive because of the travel.
We really have to do far better. The Minister is very good on the subject—I have talked to her several times—but the tendency in the NHS and in Government circles is to put a positive gloss on everything and stress all the good things that have happened. I understand that, but we are still a long way from achieving what we all want, and what the people we are talking about deserve.
The national clinical audit of specialist rehabilitation produced a report earlier this year—it has not yet been discussed in Parliament—on all the specialist rehabilitation around the country. Somebody who has had a major traumatic brain injury, or a brain injury caused by factors such as carbon monoxide poisoning, may at first need four or five people to feed them, clothe them, wash them and provide all the basics of their daily life. However, effective neuro-rehabilitation over a sustained period can and often does mean that they need just one person—or, in an ideal world, it gives them back the independent life that they had before, in as large a measure as possible.
The good news from the report is that the rehabilitation prescription that the all-party group has discussed is being steadily rolled out across the whole country. That means that patients and their families can say, “This is what we know we should be getting—we want to make sure that we are getting it.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his speech. Does he share my concern that neuro-rehabilitation in the UK is particularly limited for children? There is just one option for in-patient neuro-rehabilitation and post-hospital discharge, which is run by the Children’s Trust in Surrey. Should not every region have a paediatric neuro-rehabilitation pathway, rather than the patchy and underfunded set of services that we have at the moment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I know of a case that makes that point extremely keenly, where a young lad ended up having to go from south Wales to Surrey. Obviously in south Wales we love visits to Surrey, but it is a phenomenal cost for the family to have to visit their child there every week because it is the only facility in England and Wales. There is also an emotional cost in being a long way away and not being able to see their child every day. We really need a string of these paediatric services across the whole country.
One of the great successes that the Government have introduced in the past few years is the major trauma centres, which are now saving many more lives—at least 800 more a year. People who would have died of brain injuries are now alive. However, the national clinical audit has found that only 40% of those who were assessed at the major trauma centres as needing in-patient rehabilitation actually got it. That means that across England and Wales we are probably about 330 beds short. We have to strive to get those beds and make sure that nobody fails to get the in-patient rehabilitation that they need, not least because rehabilitation works. According to the audit, 94% of those who got the rehabilitation that they needed ended up able to live far more independent lives.
The net saving to the public purse from rehabilitation is significant. Extrapolated over a patient’s lifetime—in many cases it is quite young people who have had brain injuries—the average net lifetime saving from rehabilitation amounted to just over £500,000 per patient. That means that the total savings that would be generated from just this one-year cohort of patients alone was £582 million.
Investing in the 330 beds that are needed, which might cost somewhere in the region of £50 million, would generate an enormous return for the public purse. Leaving aside the finances, there is also a moral imperative. If we can not only save people’s lives but give them back as much quality of life as is humanly possible—if we can do that medically—we should do that as a society.
The other thing that I want to say about finances concerns the injury cost recovery scheme, which is a little-known aspect of the national health service. We always say that the NHS is free, and that is true. However, under the injury cost recovery scheme, local hospitals and ambulance services can reclaim an element of the cost when an individual has had an insurance claim met. The scheme was last reviewed in 2003, but in 2018-19 the sum total brought in by all the hospitals and ambulance trusts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was £200 million, which is not an insignificant amount of money. In April, the amount that hospitals and ambulance services can charge was increased by the annual health and community services inflation measure, which meant that for in-patient care they can now claim £891 a day and for out-patients £725 a day. However, these amounts are capped at £5,381 a week and £53,278 in total.
These amounts need to be reviewed. There is no reason why hospitals in the NHS should not be able to claim a significantly higher amount when there are significant insurance claims. The extra money would not come out of the money won by the individual; it would come out of the money paid in legal and other costs. The average cost for in-patient care for somebody who has had a brain injury runs to something like £16,000 a week, yet the maximum that the NHS can claim from insurance companies is just £5,381 a week.
A regulatory impact assessment in 2006—the last one conducted by the Government—said that the cost to the NHS then was £170 million to £190 million. I reckon that in this financial year the figure would be more like £440 million, so yet again we have another means to find additional resources to put into these services.
I want to end with the experience in south Wales. I recognise that the Minister is not responsible for that, but a large number of people in south Wales, including constituents of mine and of other south Wales MPs, end up using English health services because we do not yet have a major trauma centre in Wales; there will be one and I hope that it will be very successful. I hope that the Minister will accept that one thing that was slightly left out of the equation when the major trauma centres network was set up was how to integrate fully neuro-rehabilitation—good, strong rehabilitation—and the whole pathway from ultra-acute or hyper-acute services all the way through to care in the community and patients returning to their home. Such integration was slightly forgotten and left to one side, which is why a quarter of major trauma centres in England still do not have a neuro-rehabilitation consultant.
I say to my colleagues in Wales: let us not make the same mistake in Wales. When the major trauma centre opens in Wales, I want to make sure that we have a fully functioning neuro-rehabilitation centre alongside it, so that every single patient who is assessed as being in need of in-patient neuro-rehabilitation will receive it and will continue to receive it for as long as they need it, so that they can return to full health. That should also apply to children and teenagers.
I say that because in the end, although I am not as religious as I used to be, I always have this little thing running through my mind, and I apologise if it sounds too religious or pious for some. Jesus said something about his having come to give people “life in all its fullness”. The sadness for me is that we are managing to save people’s lives but are then unable to give them life back in all its fullness. That is what the NHS should be about in this regard, because otherwise there is a cruelty, if all we do is save somebody’s life but do not give them life in all its fullness.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but particularly so on this subject, on which he has done such great work. The report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on acquired brain injury, which he leads, is a fine example of what can be done when politicians from across the spectrum come together, look at a specific subject about which more needs to be done, and produce a report that is thorough, well researched and not antagonistic towards the Government—indeed, it shows a desire to work with the Government to bring about the right kind of solutions.
I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done; he deserves an immense amount of credit. I myself deserve a bit of credit, but much more is owed to those who helped us produce the report, by adding to our investigations, informing our findings and supporting us throughout. Across the scale, the brain injury community, if I may so describe it, deserves great credit for the work we have done so far. As he said, the Minister and the Government, who have given the matter a fair wind and a good hearing, have shown a willingness to listen and a preparedness to change, both of which are absolutely essential.
The last time we spoke about acquired brain injury, I recounted the pattern that most people follow when they have a traumatic event that leads to a brain injury. Of course, not all head injuries lead to brain injuries—it is important to draw that distinction at the outset. Nevertheless, the pattern is straightforward: shock, disbelief, fear and then, with the right support, care and encouragement, realisation and recovery. It might be argued that that is a familiar pattern for most kinds of traumatic injuries that have profound consequences, but there is a difference with acquired brain injury: namely, the effects are immensely variable and sometimes, as the hon. Gentleman said, hard to recognise or discern. Actually, they can be quite hard to discern medically, as well as socially and culturally, as recovery from a brain injury can go on for a very long time indeed, even for many years.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of changed personalities. When I had my own brain injury in my early 20s, the medical experts who were treating to me said that my personality might change. My parents said, “Oh, you don’t know him,” but the doctors said, “No, clinically we have to tell you that his personality might change.” I do not know if it has changed; I might have been less talented, less charming, less accomplished and less clever. [Laughter.] I do not know, do I? How could I know that? For the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; one does not know what one might have been.
The reason I have taken a great interest in this subject since being elected to this place 22 years ago is that I am very conscious that my recovery was sufficient to allow me to fulfil my ambitions, and to allow me to do much of what I would have done anyway. That would not have been easy had I wanted to be a great musician, for example, as I am now extremely deaf and have suffered from tinnitus since my accident. But I did not want to be a musician. It would not have been easy had I wanted to pursue a number of other careers, but the one I wanted to pursue was that of a Conservative Member of Parliament—there is nothing more noble.
My injury did not prevent me from achieving that aim, but I am profoundly and constantly aware that others cannot say the same. As I was in hospital being treated for the immediate effects of my injury and then recovering over a considerable time, I was conscious that others were not as fortunate, that I could have been in a very different place and that, if my life had changed beyond measure, I would have been unable to do what I have done. That subtlety in the changes that take place following an acquired brain injury is the second thing, along with the variability, that I wanted to highlight.
But there is also unpredictability. One cannot be clear at what pace and to what degree recovery will take place. The combination of variability, subtlety and unpredictability makes the aftercare—the neuro-rehabilitation that the hon. Member for Rhondda rightly highlighted—a complex and challenging matter for all concerned; clearly for families and friends and those close to those affected, but also for the medical professionals and all the services that people in these circumstances engage and interact with. The Government must therefore employ the same subtlety and flexibility in dealing with the effects of brain injury.
I know that other Members wish to speak, so I will not go on forever—there will be a sigh of relief in some parts of the Chamber, and probably some disappointment in others. None the less, I want to highlight some things that the Government will need to do. As I said, last time I spoke on the matter it was about the pattern that follows an injury, but I now want to talk, from my experience in government, about what the Government need to do. First, they need to be highly responsive to the changes in the condition of sufferers, and I do not think that Governments are all that good at that; they do many things well, but I am not sure that responsiveness is one of them.
Secondly, the Government need to marry, in their work, the changing diagnostic environment and neuro-rehabilitation. I was recently at my old university, Nottingham, looking at the latest technological changes that will enable people to diagnose the effects of injury through improved scanning, and that is the sort of advance that needs to be married with neuro-rehabilitation. The University of Nottingham is also studying how different modes of rehabilitation can have different effects—which strategies work best for different kinds of individuals in recovery.
Thirdly, the Government need to adopt a cross-departmental approach—that is heavily emphasised in the APPG report. We highlight that although some Departments take the matter extremely seriously and are doing an excellent job, others need to raise their game. That is no surprise, I suppose, but none the less it needs to be emphasised. Various people here will know that we recently had a meeting with a Cabinet Office Minister to discuss how that Department can play a part in co-ordinating that cross-departmental approach. A glance at the report illustrates just how wide that approach needs to be; everything from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, through to the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions, obviously the Department of Health and Social Care, and so on. Almost no Department is unaffected. The Home Office is clearly affected and, with housing, we have responsibilities for ensuring that people are properly accommodated. As almost no aspect of Government is untouched, the cross-departmental approach needs to be re-evaluated, with new thinking about how we can ensure consistency and collaboration in dealing with brain injury.
I suppose a cynic might say that it is a good job that a third of Labour and Conservative MPs are not here, because otherwise we would not get into the room. The issue that the right hon. Gentleman touches upon is very important. Does he agree that although those directly affected, and their family and friends, want to hear this debate and see that there is support, there needs to be a tangible expression from Departments, both centrally and in the regions, to show that it is more than just words? Action needs to follow, which is exactly the point I believe he is highlighting.
The hon. Gentleman always makes valuable contributions to our considerations, across a range of subjects, but rarely does he make a contribution that tees me up for the next part of my speech more than that one did.
I was about to move on to the specific measures that the Government can take, which are all drawn from the APPG report but also—I say this less critically than I might—from the Health Committee’s 2001 report on these matters. For example, that report suggests:
“We recommend that the Government requires the statutory services to improve their supply of information on head injury to head-injured people and their families; such information should be given to these people in written and verbal form during their stay in hospital, should be available to GPs and should include the literature produced by Headway—the Brain Injury Association.”
It goes on to say:
“We recommend that those assessing brain-injured people for disability living allowance have specialist skills which enable them to understand the complex combination of physical, cognitive and behavioural impairments characteristic of this type of neurological disability; and that the assessment process is adjusted to allow the input of a patient’s advocate”.
“We recommend that the Government makes explicit the level at which responsibility for planning different levels of rehabilitation for head injury should be located”.
Almost every recommendation made in 2001 is pertinent to the circumstances today. That is not to say that Governments since then have done nothing; I emphasise again that the new Minister and her predecessor have given us a very positive response since the publication of our APPG report. We have high hopes of the Minister, who I know wants to end her time in the job by saying just how much she did. [Interruption.] Well, that may be in a number of years, but whenever her time in the job does end, she needs to say, “I did so much for those with acquired brain injury.” That needs to be on her record, and we want to ensure that it is—thus our continued advocacy.
I have just a few points from our report for the Minister to consider. I will rattle through them—there are only six. First, there should be a national review of neuro-rehabilitation, to ensure that service provision is adequate and consistent. Secondly, acquired brain injury should be included in the special educational needs and disability code of practice. Thirdly, all education professionals should be trained, or at least have a minimum level of awareness. Fourthly, all agencies working with young people in the criminal justice system, including schools, psychologists, psychiatrists, general practitioners and youth offending teams, should work together to ensure that the needs of individuals are assessed. Fifthly, in the welfare system, all benefits assessors should be trained to understand the problems that affect individuals with acquired brain injury. Sixthly, a brain injury expert should be on the consultation panel when changes in the welfare system are proposed. I do not say that those are the only important things; we could talk about sports injuries and all kinds of other things that are in our report and have been debated before. But doing those six things alone, or six others taken from the report, would make an immense difference to so many people.
Finally, I want to quote C. S. Lewis—not Jesus but certainly a man who knew Jesus. C. S. Lewis said that
“courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”.
Courage is required by those who suffer from acquired brain injury, but it is also required by Ministers to make a difference, and I know that this Minister, inspired I hope by the efforts of Members across the House and also by the needs, plight and interests of all those affected by acquired brain injury, will employ the necessary courage to make a difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this important debate. I know that many Members have been involved in these debates before, so bear with me: as the newbie, I may be making points that they have made many times over, but I think they bear repeating.
There have been many debates about what the definition of acquired brain injury is. I do not think it helps to focus on little details; it is important to be inclusive and generic, and make sure those people who need services, help and support get them. That is why I believe the definition of acquired brain injury should be wide and far-reaching. It is important that we remember that when we look at the various options.
Our national health service is a fantastic service. My constituency of Newport West is very close to Aneurin Bevan’s, so obviously I am going to say the NHS is brilliant—of course it is. It is great at the life-saving stuff, but it is not so great at the long-term rehabilitation needed by people with long-term conditions. With cardiac arrests, lives are saved, but the aftermath and the quality of life afterwards are so important.
Acquired brain injury may be the result of one incident or acquired over a period of time, but its effects are always lifelong and often permanent. As a physiotherapist, I have worked with patients with acquired brain injury at various stages of their journey, from intensive care—when it is very much life or death what is going to happen next—to the sub-acute, high-dependency and in-patient settings. At those stages, there is thankfulness that the person is going to survive, but the reality is beginning to set in that this will not change back any time soon; this is a permanent change, and the family has to deal with it. That is a very hard time for people.
There is then the long-term effect, when people might be back in their homes but are struggling to deal with their adjusted circumstances. That is often a time when people feel neglected, left and lost, and it is important that we focus on that area as well. Acquired brain injury does not just affect one person, but their families, friends and work colleagues; as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has said, this predominantly affects younger people, so work colleagues are also involved. People always express their wish to provide help and support, but they need advice and guidance on how best to do so, and it is important that we recognise that.
The effects of acquired brain injury are also far-reaching, and might be physical, mental, or even spiritual. Others speak far more eloquently about that, and how it impacts on people’s working and daily lives, but I would like to emphasise the long-term needs of people with acquired brain injury. Research in the field of neuro-plasticity clearly indicates that recovery can go on for weeks, months and even years after an insult or trauma. It is therefore vital that our rehabilitation services can match that, so they must be available for weeks, months and years after the incident. In the later stages, somebody may not require treatment, advice and support every day, but it should be available for them to access when they need it.
I am delighted that the Health Minister is here today, and I would like to make a plea to her for additional resources for the vital services that people with acquired brain injury require in the long term. Obviously as a physiotherapist I am biased, so I am going to say we need more physios, but we also need occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and providers of other therapies. Psychological input and support is also vital, and people often overlook that important aspect of rehab. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has also mentioned diagnostics, because if we do not know what we are dealing with, we cannot treat it effectively.
It is really important that we have those additional resources when we need them; they should be accessible through time, over months and years. It is important to remember that this is not an event, but a process.
I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for having set the scene so well, and for the hard work that he does in the health sector. I have said before in this Chamber that this issue is very close to my heart, as my brother Keith had a severe motorbike accident some 16 years ago, which almost took his life and which irrevocably changed it. We were told that he would be almost like a vegetable, and although he certainly is not the same, he has a degree of independence fostered by four daily carers’ calls; my wife and sons visiting my house at the end of the lane, where he lives, daily; my 87-year-old—soon to be 88-year-old—mother taking care of him; and the local members of my Orange lodge and church groups being incredibly good to him. It is truly a collective response.
The fact is that without any of those elements of support, Keith would almost certainly be in a care home somewhere, watching TV or just looking out of a window. We are blessed to be in a community that takes care of its own, but there are so many people without that care and support who have no alternative to being in a residential facility, with no independence or semblance of who they once were. That is incredibly sad, but it does not have to be that way. I put on record my thanks to all those involved in Keith’s care from the time he had the accident, from the surgeons to the nurses and all those who helped, and for all the prayers that were made for him.
Some 350,000 people are admitted to hospital in the UK every year with ABI-related diagnoses as a result of trauma, stroke, tumour, infection, illness, carbon monoxide exposure, or hypoxia. That means that every 90 seconds, somebody with an acquired brain injury is admitted to hospital. In Northern Ireland, some of the stats are quite worrying as well: in 2014-15, there were 11,287 ABI-related hospital admissions, including 5,304 from a head injury and 4,109 from a stroke. In 2015-16, there were 11,121 admissions, 4,916 from a head injury and 4,256 from a stroke. In 2016-17, there were 10,762 admissions, 4,742 from a head injury and 4,269 from a stroke. The figures have fallen slightly, but the numbers are consistent.
We also have carbon monoxide poisonings across the UK. In England and Wales, there are about 30 deaths and 200 hospital admissions each year, as well as 4,000 visits to A&E, costing the taxpayer some £178 million per year—I know that the cost of lives to families is greater, and we should be aware of that. I support the aims of the all-party parliamentary carbon monoxide group, which has recommended that
“the Government introduce preventative measures including mandating CO alarms in all tenures, providing CO monitors in first-time pregnancies, and tackling sub-standard housing that increases the risk of CO exposure.”
Although I know that area is not directly the Minister’s responsibility, I ask her what has been done in relation to it. The APPCOG also recommends that
“Public Health England and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do more to raise public awareness of CO in order to encourage risk-lowering behaviours at home and abroad.”
It is my belief that we could do more to prevent carbon monoxide poisonings, and those recommendations could positively affect the figures in future.
It is daunting to see someone who one minute is in their prime, and the next is completely changed. I know, because I have seen that; I have lived through it and felt it in a big way. Many people do not see a light at the end of the tunnel, so there is a need for support and respite. Many more loved ones might be able to stay with their family, rather than having to go into full-time care. There must be access to timely, specialist rehabilitation and support services, and an end to the lengthy waiting list for social service assessments for public support.
Finally, I will make a request about the benefits system. We have had to fight for everything for Keith from the very beginning. We were his court appointees; we looked after his financial affairs and everything for him, yet the benefit system does not seem to understand that. We could have had a wee bit more help with that as well, so I put that down not just for us, but for other family members.
I finish with this: as with all things, funding is key. We must rethink this strategy, and realise that it is more cost-effective in the long term to allow people to remain at home with support. More importantly, that means a better quality of life for those people, which has to be a material consideration in any Government decision.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing this debate. I knew nothing at all about acquired brain injury until I met someone in my constituency called Nicola Hughes, who told me that she also had known nothing about acquired brain injury until her husband acquired his. I do not know the circumstances; I have never asked her, and she has never talked to me about exactly how it happened. What she has made very clear to me is the impact it has had on her, their daughter and their family, and how inadequate she believes the support is for families of people with an acquired brain injury.
Nicola says that the hardest part of the whole journey for her and her family was when her husband came home. Their isolation, and the lack of support that was there for her, for him and for their daughter is something that we cannot allow to continue; it must be addressed urgently. Initially she was expecting him to get better and was waiting for recovery. I know that happens for some people, and it is a wonderful thing and should be happening more, but for some people, that is not the likely outcome. She has had to learn to love and be with a new person, effectively. It is a journey that I do not think any of us can appreciate unless we have found ourselves in that situation.
In Parliament, we talk a lot about inspiring people, and Nicola is incredibly inspiring. She has written children’s books to explain to her daughter what is the matter with her daddy, to normalise the situation and to get her used to what is happening. One of the things Nicola has told me about that concerns me a lot is the lack of consistency in support for families when people leave hospital. She said there is a clear discharge programme in Oxford, where all staff are briefed and letters go to the family’s GP so that the carer’s GP knows that their patient has now acquired this new caring responsibility and may need additional intervention and support. She said that the support is virtually non-existent in some other areas, and I fear that my area of Durham Tees Valley is not up there with the best in that regard.
I have been to Headway and taken the time to understand the pathway on which many of my constituents find themselves. I do not think we have it right. Luckily, thanks to Nicola and her leadership, we have a wonderful Headway branch in Darlington, but if that was not there, there would be virtually nothing for people in such circumstances. Services should be provided according to the need of the person affected and their family, not according to where they live. I know we say that about lots of conditions, but I have never seen it as stark as I have seen it with brain injury. I would be grateful if the Minister could take it upon herself to look at the services available in Durham Tees Valley in particular and to get back to me with her assessment of how far we are from meeting what should be national standards—a minimum expectation for patients and their families.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. Here we are again, talking about acquired brain injury, which is a sign of the determination on the part of those of us on the all-party parliamentary group and our partners, the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum, the Child Brain Injury Trust, Headway and so many other organisations, to see real change and improvement in this area. We are going to be using the broken record technique to ensure that our messages get across and real change happens. As my hon. Friend said, many brain injuries are invisible, with no outward sign of the lasting injury that has occurred. There are real difficulties for people because of that, including stigma, lack of understanding and practical everyday problems.
I want to talk briefly about children with brain injuries. The invisibility we have talked about is a real problem for them, and the question of whether a brain injury has been recognised or diagnosed is a key factor. It is important that we correct that to improve things for children. A Health Minister is responding to the debate, but the issue is not only about health; it is also about education. Schools have a great impact on the future development of the child. It is not just about what happens on their immediate return to school; it is also about how they continue to be supported and developed at school. Neuro-rehabilitation and adjustments at school are great. Some adjustments are minor, but there are other issues such as noise, light and the shade of paper that is used. All those things can be difficult and need continuous attention. We need to do more to ensure that children get appropriate support.
Charities working in this area are doing a huge amount of work to improve things. I mention in particular the Child Brain Injury Trust, which does great work and has developed some proposals. Sadly there is not enough time today to tell you what they all are, but I refer to my previous speech in Hansard, where people can find all those recommendations listed.
I was disappointed by the Department for Education’s response to our recommendations in the “Time for Change” report. That response sounded like, “Everything is okay here. We have education, health and care plans and governors and schools know their responsibilities.” Things are not okay, however. There needs to be real understanding of the specific needs of children. After all, what happens in childhood seriously affects the life outcomes of young people. As we have heard, that can bring into play things around justice, employment, health and many other areas of life. As we are speaking, the APPG for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences is meeting, and brain injury is one of the key things that can affect the development of a child.
I am glad to hear from colleagues at the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum that a group called the National ABI Education and Learning Syndicate, or N-ABLES, has been put together to look at practical steps to raise awareness and to take work forward. I would tell Members so much more if I had the time, but I do not, so I will just say that those people are doing some good work. I encourage the Minister to speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that that link is made and that practical steps are taken.
Finally, I want to mention one of our local organisations, a great north-east charity called One Punch North East. It is working hard to say that something as simple as a minute or one incident can cause life-changing damage. I commend it on the work it does.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow so many fine speeches. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), I am not an expert on acquired brain injury, but I recently met Dr Emily Bennett, who is a consultant clinical psychologist in paediatric neuro-psychology at Nottingham Children’s Hospital. She has provided me with some briefing on the subject, which I would like to share.
As many Members have said, acquired brain injury is an under-recognised, hidden condition, yet it can impact on every aspect of a person’s life. As has been mentioned, 40,000 children and young people report to hospital with an ABI every year, but it is very likely that many thousands more have a mild brain injury that goes completely undetected. That can be associated with a range of cognitive, behavioural and emotional symptoms that can impact on education, health and relationships. It is important that we do more work on that.
We need to address neuro-rehabilitation specifically for young people. An ABI affects their brain when it is still developing and can have a temporary or permanent effect on their functioning. Sometimes it can be forgotten during a young person’s development and their time in school that they have a brain injury. It is important that specialist services follow up with children, particularly at key transitions. Children have a long life ahead of them, so work done in the early years to improve their outcomes can have a long impact through their childhood and adulthood.
An acquired brain injury in childhood can impact on school engagement, attendance and achievement. It can result in young people being more vulnerable to exclusions from school and being involved in the youth justice system. Obviously it can affect their job prospects and further education. It can impact on their mental health and self-esteem, lead to isolation and poor participation, and increase care demands for families.
I have already highlighted the patchy nature of neuro-rehabilitation services. I am pleased that in Nottingham Children’s Hospital, which is a regional centre for neuro-sciences and a major trauma centre for the east midlands, we are fortunate to have a multidisciplinary paediatric neuro-rehabilitation team known as the BRILL team—Brain Injury Living Life. However, that does not mean that everything is perfect, even in our region. There is a desperate need for dedicated rehab beds, follow-up clinics and more neuro-psychological support.
Before closing, I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions. What is being done to ensure that children’s services are better developed and that families are not faced with a postcode lottery as to whether their child receives neuro-rehabilitation? Will the Minister commit to a national review of those services, including those for children and young people? Is there an assurance that the number of rehabilitation beds for children and young people will be reviewed? Will the Government commit to ensuring that children as well as adults leave hospital with a rehabilitation prescription? Will the Minister agree to organise meetings between Departments? As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) said, the links between health and education are really important in making sure that children are well supported. Will the Government invest in and support research so that we better understand the long-term impact of a childhood acquired brain injury? Such questions will help us to move forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am delighted to take part in this important follow-up debate on acquired brain injury. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—I hope I have managed to pronounce the name properly this time—for securing the debate. Being in Parliament is a learning experience. I took part in the previous debate with the information that I knew about acquired brain injury, and it prompted different groups and individuals in my constituency to get in touch, so he will be pleased to know that I have some new material today.
We have heard in this debate that the symptoms of ABI are often completely invisible, which echoes a point made to me by one of my constituents since the previous debate. He discussed his own ABI and said that he felt there was often more public and employer sympathy and support for an obvious injury such as a broken leg than there was for a broken brain, which is something we undoubtedly need to address. The importance of speech therapy to avoid people being assumed to be drunk and to get their self-confidence back are highly important points. Since it affects every aspect of our country across all our nations, the financial savings of getting it right give us a financial incentive as well as a moral responsibility to tackle the issue. Fundamentally, for me, the issue is about ensuring that people with disabilities such as ABI can live as independently as possible. Disabled people should have the freedom, dignity and choice to control their own lives. We need to help remove the barriers that stop them from enjoying full and equal access to full citizenship.
It is estimated that ABI is the most significant cause of disablement for people of working age in Scotland. We know that only around 40% of working-age disabled adults are in employment, compared with more than 80% of those without a disability, so we really have to address the employability gap. Many of those with ABI have complex rehabilitation and support needs. The Scottish Government have recently run a consultation on their first draft national action plan on improving the care, treatment and support available to the neurological community. The consultation closed on 8 February this year. They aim to publish their report this summer, and the final national action plan on neurological conditions later this year. I look forward to seeing what comes out of that.
The Scottish Government initiated the National Prisoner Healthcare Network’s report on brain injury and offending, which was published in 2016. The subject of offenders came up in the previous debate, and I admit that I was not fully aware of it at the time. The programme in Scotland was led by Professor Tom McMillan of the University of Glasgow, and it is now in implementation and has developed an empirical basis for the development of a service in all Scottish prisons. The benefits will be to improve the management of people with brain injury throughout the criminal justice system and to reduce the risk of further brain injury in prisoners.
Around 75% of male prisoners and 66% of female prisoners have multiple head injuries. Benefits will also see reduced reoffending—around 70% of those with head injuries reoffend—and improved community reintegration. Those stark figures are striking. It is also worth noting that prisoners with a history of multiple head injuries are more likely to be convicted of violent offences, so there is a lot of work to do. I am grateful that I have learnt that information since the previous debate, so the hon. Member for Rhondda gets full marks for increasing my education.
In May I spoke about the Scottish Acquired Brain Injury Network and I want to discuss more of its work today. SABIN is a managed clinical network based within the NHS in Scotland, comprising clinicians, third sector organisations, patient representatives and non-clinical staff all working to improve the access to and quality of care for patients with an ABI across Scotland. Scotland remains the only country internationally with a single set of concussion guidelines across all sports at grassroots and amateur level. The Scottish sports concussion guidance has been in place since 2016, with the most recent update in 2018 contributed to by SABIN. In addition, research into the consequences of sports brain injury, in particular the study “Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong health and Dementia risk (FIELD)”, is set to provide the first understanding globally of the late consequences of contact sports participation through a series of publications in the next few months.
SABIN was delighted to take part in the Scottish Trauma Network’s second annual conference last week, which took place on 26 and 27 June. Over those two days it was able to highlight to clinical colleagues and Government stakeholders the importance of ABI care within a trauma setting and beyond. Patients with an acquired brain injury are some of the most seriously ill trauma cases; patients are often young, with many years of rehabilitation ahead of them. The need for early access to intensive rehabilitation is a message that needs to be relayed to one and all to support investment in rehabilitation. We cannot emphasise that point enough.
SABIN is currently involved in a geographical mapping of NHS services for acquired brain injury patients across Scotland. It previously did that in 2009, and it will be interesting to see how services have changed over time. Preliminary results from the service mapping highlight key challenges across Scotland: the same key challenges that we heard about from colleagues south of the border. They include a lack of access to rehabilitation; workforce shortages, particularly in relation to staff trained in managing patients with an ABI; the difficulties of managing patients with challenging behaviour; and the need for dedicated ABI units. A full report will be circulated to NHS boards in Scotland and will be available on the SABIN website. It is due for completion at the end of August, and SABIN is keen to work with NHS boards to assist them in planning rehabilitation services. It is worth pointing out that the first of four major trauma centres opened in Aberdeen in October, and those services have not been included in the mapping exercise. Things are improving, but the report will still be of significant interest.
Alcohol Health Alliance, in advance of today’s debate, has highlighted the link between alcohol and injuries and accidents that can cause an ABI, and also the link between ABI and problem alcohol consumption. Actions taken in Scotland to reduce alcohol abuse have seen the number of alcohol-related emergency hospital admissions fall by more than 17% since 2007, so there is good practice out there. One of our more recent innovations has been minimum unit pricing. It is probably too early to say how it has affected ABI or other health issues, but sales have dropped by 3% since it was introduced last year. Alcohol sales per adult in Scotland are now at the lowest level for 25 years, so the Minister might wish to consider something similar for England, as I am sure it will have many benefits for health and not just for ABI.
It has been a pleasure to take part in the debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda for securing it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, particularly those who have shared their personal experiences and those of their constituents, as well as their expertise in various areas. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for securing yet another debate on this important subject. No cause could have a greater champion. He challenged Members in the previous debate on this subject to learn how to pronounce the name of his constituency properly. Well, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will try my best to do better today. I also pay tribute to all the members of the APPG for the excellent work that they do in raising awareness of this really important subject.
We are here again today debating the subject because of the scale of the problem: currently, 1.3 million people in the UK live with an acquired brain injury. Every 90 seconds someone is admitted to hospital with such a brain injury. We have considered the human cost of acquired brain injury in this debate and we have also heard of the financial cost. In the previous debate the Minister said that it cost the UK economy £1 billion, but the APPG reports that the truer figure is £15 billion, alongside the human cost.
Consideration of this subject is not new. The Health Committee has been reporting on the issue since the turn of the century, furnishing Parliament with a raft of recommendations, many of which have never been implemented, so it really is time for change. Last year the APPG set out a range of recommendations for the kind of support and rehabilitation that must be made available. As the term suggests, acquired brain injury applies to injury caused to the brain after birth, and it can happen to anyone at any time. It is usually caused by a trauma to the head but can be the result of substance abuse, and the Alcohol Health Alliance has reported on the growing incidence of alcohol-related brain injury. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) talked about the effect on unborn infants of foetal alcohol syndrome.
All Members have constituents who have lived with the consequences of ABI. A brain injury can happen in an instant, but its effects can be devastating and lead to lifelong challenges. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned that the condition is often not visible, and that sufferers can appear to be drunk. There is a tremendous lack of understanding in the community. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) talked about the fact that it is difficult to detect, medically, socially and culturally. There is a total lack of understanding.
Owing to improvements in medical procedures and acute care, more people than ever before survive following an injury to the brain. That is of course really welcome, but it brings with it a responsibility for Government Departments to support those affected, which is crucially all about quality of life. It is cruel to save lives without following up with support and rehabilitation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) said, sharing her expertise, not providing vital support services is where the NHS is at its weakest. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) talked movingly about the experience of Nicola and her family, and the failure to get the support and help that they clearly needed to get them through.
Early and continued access to specialist rehabilitation has been shown to optimise the chances of recovery and to be extremely cost-effective. As is the case for many health conditions, however, the number of available beds across the UK is inadequate, and service provision is variable. Consequently, long-term outcomes for brain injury survivors are compromised, with many describing being passed from pillar to post. It is particularly distressing to hear the experiences of children, as my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned.
It is clear that a national review of neuro-rehabilitation is required, with particular reference to the service provision for children, to ensure that provision is adequate and consistent throughout the UK. Members have described current provision as a lottery. All affected individuals should be given a rehabilitation prescription and a well-defined pathway to recovery. I ask the Minister again to focus on that, because NR can help to avoid or minimise disability and optimise recovery. Early access is critical, and substantial evidence demonstrates that NR is both clinically effective and cost-effective.
Will the Minister ensure that every individual with an acquired brain injury gets an NR prescription and has their individual needs specified in a care pathway? Will she ensure that all health professionals in the community in primary and secondary care are trained to recognise the symptoms of acquired brain injury? I asked for those commitments from her the last time we debated the subject. She has demonstrated that she is listening, which we all appreciate, but can she ensure that the Government up their game and act on those precise commitments?
This is not just a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care, of course. In September 2018, the APPG’s report called for reform in all areas and Departments. It should be an issue for the Department for Education, because 24% of children have some sort of brain injury, compared with 1% who have autism. That has clear implications for teacher training, and it is essential that special educational needs and disability specialists are appropriately trained to recognise the signs. It is also a matter for the Ministry of Justice, as ABI can often lead to criminal behaviour. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has regularly raised the issue of female prisoners who have been found to have brain injuries caused by exposure to domestic violence. All benefits assessors in the Department for Work and Pensions should be trained to understand the problems that affect individuals with ABI. Excessive bureaucracy and form-filling can be a nightmare for many vulnerable claimants, but for someone with an acquired brain injury it can present an insurmountable barrier, leading to sanctions and additional hardship.
As was mentioned in the previous debate, there is a lack of awareness among those involved in contact sports such as football and rugby. Government and professional clinical bodies must work collaboratively to improve health professionals’ knowledge of concussion management. In defence, we must work to ensure that acquired brain injury among veterans is fully recognised and that the appropriate support is made available. The Minister committed to pass on concerns to colleagues in other Departments, and I hope that she will be able to report back on their responses.
We have heard over and over again about the human cost of acquired brain injury. Frankly, it also makes no financial sense not to put the right care plans in place and deliver the support that individuals and their families need. I urge the Government to implement the recommendations of the APPG in full, and to raise their game across Departments to ensure that the people we have heard about today truly get the support they need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for introducing the debate, and for challenging the Government on this important issue. He is an indefatigable champion for those living with acquired brain injury, about which he has taught me a lot in the few months for which I have been in my position.
I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken, and those who have been present but have not spoken. People have shared personal experiences—things that are painful to them, and that they have lived with for a long time. I particularly welcome the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) to her place. I think that this is the first time that I have responded to a debate in which she has spoken.
As with many long-term conditions, ABI affects not only a person’s health but aspects of their family life, work and relationships. I responded to the debate on 9 May. I am still chasing ministerial colleagues in other Departments for their comments, but because time is quite short I will focus today on the many points that have been raised about the health aspects. However, I will go back to ministerial colleagues, chase them and impress on them that this important issue affects many Government Departments.
I met representatives of Headway after the debate on 9 May, and I thank those who work with Headway and organisations such as the UK Brain Injury Forum. Such organisations are really valuable to people living with ABI. They raise awareness and provide help to support those with the condition, as well as families and carers. The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) mentioned how important that is. I take on board the report of the all-party group, to which the Government responded, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).
In 2014, two years after the introduction of major trauma centres, there was an independent audit of the regional trauma networks, commissioned by NHS England. That audit showed that patients had a 30% improved chance of surviving severe injuries, and that the networks had saved 600 lives. That does not mean that they are perfect, but some progress has been made since their inception. Although the majority of rehabilitation care is locally provided, NHS England commissions specialised services for those patients with the most complex levels of need. For people who have ABI, timely and appropriate neuro-rehabilitation is an important part of their care.
I thank the APPG for all the work it has done on rehabilitation prescriptions, which reflect the assessment of the physical, functional, vocational, educational, cognitive, psychological and social rehabilitation needs of a patient, and are an important element of rehab care. Of course, the APPG report stated that all patients with ABI should benefit from an RP.
I will touch on lots of the points that Members have mentioned. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Rhondda for drawing the House’s attention to the third and final report of the audit, which was published in April 2019, only a few days before we last discussed this matter. It is encouraging that 94% of patients accessing specialist rehab have evidence of functional improvement, but the report suggests that there is more work to be done to ensure that all patients who could benefit from specialist rehabilitation can access it.
Does the Minister share my concern that there is no universal information for when people present at A&E or the doctor’s with a head injury? After I fell off a ladder in 2012, I was surprised that I was not given so much as a leaflet to say that there might be long-lasting effects. Some people are clearly good at picking it up, but it should be absolutely obvious that everyone who strikes their head should be given extra attention by the NHS in case they develop symptoms.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I was talking to another colleague who had a brain injury just last year, and she said exactly the same thing. That was not in A&E; it was at a GP practice. There are of course training modules for GPs to access, but debates such as this one and my conversations with NHS England can only help in raising awareness. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that point to my attention.
To return to the audit, its authors estimate that current provision caters for 40% of those who need the services, so there is a lot more to do. On capacity, the audit made some recommendations, including that trauma centres should review their processes and ensure that standards for rehabilitation provision and availability are met, and that commissioners should consider opportunities for development of specialist rehab capacity, both for in-patient and community-based services—a point that hon. Members have raised. These are important points. Although we only had this debate two months ago, I am glad that the hon. Member for Rhondda has raised the subject again. I will discuss with NHS England what it is thinking, what it is doing on the audit and what the next steps are. We need to impress on it the importance of bed provision.
The majority of rehab care is commissioned and managed locally and there are guidelines produced by NHS England, such as the principles and expectations for good adult rehabilitation, which describe what good rehabilitation care looks like. There is additional guidance that covers both adults and children.
Many hon. Members mentioned neuro-rehabilitation for children, and I know that NHS England is aware that there is variability in the provision for children. Best practice guidance was published in 2016, but there is always more to be done. I will take the points away and speak to NHS England. We are looking at how we can educate people on foetal alcohol syndrome, and I am happy to report back to the House on that.
The hon. Member for Newport West raised a specific issue about speech and language therapists and physiotherapists. I very much agree that we need a joined-up approach to care and I am concerned to hear that there is a gap. Members can make representations to NHS England on that. I know the situation is different in Wales, but I would be very happy if the hon. Lady would keep me informed.
The hon. Member for Rhondda raised the injury cost recovery scheme. Again, that is a matter for the DWP and I will be pressing ministerial colleagues to respond on that point. That scheme allows for the recovery of costs for providing treatment to an injured person where that person has made a successful personal injury claim against a third party. It recovers funds from insurance companies and pays into the NHS or hospital ambulance services. The current cap is around £53,000, renewed annually in line with inflation. I will follow up with more detail—the hon. Gentleman looks slightly sceptical.
I have found it is always good to be sceptical in this place.
The NHS long-term plan was announced in January this year. There are some key actions designed to improve the care, treatment and support of people with long-term conditions, such as ABI. Community services, which play a crucial role in helping people with long-term conditions such as brain injury, remain as independent and well supported as possible and are to receive significant investment. The long-term plan set out £4.5 billion of new investment in primary and community care, including for expanded community multidisciplinary teams, providing rapid targeted support to those identified as having the greatest risks, including those with long-term health conditions.
There is also the comprehensive model of personalised care, which includes self-care, care planning, personal health budgets and social prescribing, and which we hope will reach 2.5 million people by 2023-24.
I am worried about the long-term plan. Yes, brain injury is included, but so is just about everything else. My concern is that brain injury is getting lost and is not getting the priority it needs; although I appreciate the Minister taking the trouble to raise points and ask questions, that will not be sufficiently effective. We need something with more teeth. We need to be very clear what a patient can expect, what their rights are and what their family can do about it if those things are not provided. Trusts and whatever the structures are in the different parts of the country must be compelled to provide a certain level of service.
I take the challenge set by the hon. Lady. On the question of the response to the audit, I will ask NHS England to show me how it is implementing that. Guidelines are great, and trusts should be doing certain things, but I accept that there is variability.
The hon. Member for Rhondda and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings used some great quotations in their speeches, so I will conclude my remarks with a quotation attributed to Sir Francis Drake, who said:
“There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing until the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.”
Ministerial office is not something that I take for granted, but I hope that today’s debate has demonstrated how seriously this Government and this Minister take ABI and the devastating effects it can have on our constituents.
Nice is good, obviously, but a little bit of bearing down is important. I am grateful to the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum, Headway, Sue Ryder, the National Star College near Cheltenham and so many other organisations, including the Child Brain Injury Trust and the Disabilities Trust, who have done so much work in the field to inform us about a subject that was completely unknown to many of us, in the same way that it is unknown to so many members of the public.
To correct one element, perhaps we have given the impression that all is gloom. I have met so many people who have had brain injuries and whose personality change has been marked, but sometimes they have developed a phenomenally savage wit that they did not have before. There are people who have said, “Yes, it has changed me, but I have become a new person and that person can play a full part in society and has discovered other ways of appreciating life.” So let us not turn all of this into gloom. I just want us to be able to do better—to make sure that there are enough rehabilitation beds for every single person to get the improved care from which they could benefit.
I have met the deputy Prime Minister several times and I think it is really important that the Government now decide, as a matter of priority, to set up some taskforce—probably of junior Ministers, probably with this Minister at the helm—to drive forward this issue in all the different Departments that it affects. We could get the health bit right and lose out on so many other bits and, in the end, we would have failed the people we are talking about.
Who knows what will happen to the Government? Anybody who says they know what is going to happen to the Government later on this year is lying, but I wonder whether there might not be a moment now to say, “We are going to make this a priority. It is going to be a three-year taskforce and we are going to make sure that every single Department pulls its weight to make sure that we truly deliver.” As I said earlier, it is almost cruel to save lives and not give people the quality of life that they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered acquired brain injury.
Religious Slaughter of Farm Animals
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the religious slaughter of farm animals.
Before I get to the issue in the motion, I must say that free votes in the House are wonderful. Those moments when the party structures and the Whips withdraw from the debate—when there are no Whips to point to which Lobby to go through—allow each individual to engage with an issue using their own reason and judgment and can be incredibly refreshing for our politics. Some of the best-quality debates in Parliament take place under free-vote conditions. Cross-party alliances form and, in the end, the House tends to arrive at a sensible and proportionate consensus.
Of course, the party system developed because, if there were free votes on everything, the Government would not be able to get anything done or deliver any of their manifesto commitments, but issues of ethics and religious conviction have always been universally accepted as free-vote issues. For instance, we have free votes on same-sex marriages and on contentious issues such as abortion. My key contention is that religious slaughter should be made a free-vote issue by every party in the House.
Whitehall feels awkward about dealing with this complex issue and it is not sure what to recommend to Ministers. Governments of all shades have tended to leave the issue in the “Too difficult to address” box and have talked themselves into a stance that says, “Now is not the time to deal with it.” If we made it a free-vote issue for the House, we would liberate the Government of that burden of responsibility and, more importantly, liberate Parliament to address the issue.
I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand to get his thoughts about what he was going to say. In my council area of Ards, there was an abattoir that carried out some of the ritual killings and stunned and so on. It created jobs and stability and there was a system in place, which seemed to be acceptable. Is he looking for changes in the methodology of killing or does he want to stop it entirely?
I will go on to advocate a package of measures to improve our law, having looked at the issue in some depth. I would stop short of banning it altogether, but we could make major improvements, which I will come to.
The history of our current derogation is long. The first regulations governing abattoirs and the humane treatment of animals in them were introduced through the Public Health Act 1875, which said that all animals should be “effectually stunned”. In 1904, a committee of the Admiralty considered in some depth the right methods of slaughter to deliver humane outcomes for animals and recommended that, without exception, all animals should be stunned. Subsequently, however, the Local Government Board issued a circular that drew on the advice in the 1904 report. It recommended that, as a general rule, all animals should be stunned prior to slaughter, but it created what has become a long-standing religious derogation for Jewish and Muslim communities.
I declare a number of interests in the industry. The 2017 Food Standards Agency report revealed that 84% of halal-slaughtered animals were stunned prior to slaughter. That means that when the speed of production is important, people will stun them.
I was going to come on to that. There is no barrier to using stunning for halal, provided it is what is called a recoverable stun. That same FSA report also worryingly revealed that 25% of all sheep slaughtered in the UK are slaughtered without stunning. That alarming rise is difficult to explain.
Our laws were formalised by the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, where the exemptions for religious slaughter were maintained. They have evolved from that through various stages, but the current position has not changed much since 1995. The principal plank of our national requirements on religious slaughter mainly revolve around standstill times. In the case of non-stunned slaughter, sheep cannot be moved until they have lost consciousness or, in any event, for at least 20 seconds. Cattle cannot be moved for at least 30 seconds, or until the animal has lost consciousness. There is a different requirement for chickens, which cannot be moved to the next stage of production until 30 seconds have elapsed or the bird has become unconscious. The purpose of those standstill times is to prevent stress on the animal.
It is worth recognising how animals die in a non-stun slaughter situation. For sheep, most of the evidence suggests—I have discussed this with officials—that they typically lose consciousness in somewhere between 10 and 15 seconds. It takes slightly longer for chickens, which lose consciousness in between 15 and 18 seconds.
The greatest concern, however, is always the impact on bovine animals—cattle—although they are small in number, because their physiology is complicated by the fact that they have a third artery that goes to the back of the head that continues to supply blood even after the cut has taken place. I apologise to hon. Members for going into the gruesome details, but if we allow such things to happen in our name, it is important to explain exactly what they are. For cattle, it typically takes 40 to 45 seconds for the animal to collapse—not to become unconscious, but to fall off its legs due to the lack of blood supply—and between one minute 20 seconds and two minutes for the animal to lose consciousness. A former Farming Minister, Jim Paice, once described a situation that he had seen when visiting a religious slaughter abattoir where it took six minutes for a bovine animal to bleed to death, which he said was a truly horrific event to watch.
I often hear from representatives of organisations such as Shechita UK that the cut is so precise and clean that it all happens very quickly, but there is not really any evidence to support that. In fact, in the shechita slaughter process, if the blood starts to clot in the throat cut, it is permitted for the slaughterman to push his hand into the wound and disturb the clotted blood to resume the flow. Those are difficult situations. For bovine animals in particular, it is a major cause for concern.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his point about it being a moral issue. We rear animals as farmers and we want them to be stunned when they are killed. It is we—man—who decide how they are killed, not the animal. New Zealand has brought in stunning for all the halal it does across the world, and it exports a lot to the middle east. When we leave the European Union, we will have the opportunity to have a similar system.
With shechita, I wonder whether we could not at least have post-stunning of bovine animals. What my hon. Friend has described is horrendous and we need to do more to relieve the suffering of those animals.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come to how other countries address this challenge.
All sorts of difficulties arise through our current rules on halal and shechita or kosher meat production. There are a wide range of definitions of halal. As hon. Members have pointed out, some statistics suggest that 70% to 80% of all animals slaughtered under halal are stunned. The key requirement for halal is that animals receive an Islamic blessing and that any stun should be recoverable, so that in theory they could regain consciousness. It is very hard to define what is halal, because it ranges from simply playing a recording of an Islamic blessing, right through to non-stun slaughter.
In the case of kosher meat, there is a further problem. The hind quarters of an animal are not deemed kosher, even if the animal was slaughtered under kosher methods. That means that the rump of cattle and sheep ends up going into the mainstream market—usually the service trade through Smithfield, where unwitting customers in restaurants in London and other parts of the country buy the meat not knowing it has been slaughtered by kosher methods.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the labelling of meat, so that consumers know the exact method of slaughter when they order their food from restaurants or supermarkets, might be a way forward to address overproduction and allow consumers to make an informed choice?
Labelling is indeed one option, which I was going to come to. It does not get us all the way, because we have the service trade, where labelling would be ineffective at helping consumers to understand how their meat was slaughtered.
If we had a free vote in Parliament, what types of issues might we want to consider? Although this is a sensitive issue, it is important to ask whether our current derogation accommodates a religious need, or whether it is more a cultural interpretation of such a need. There is wide variance in what is defined as halal, depending on local imams.
I am trying to look at the consistency of what my hon. Friend has said. He has acknowledged that, as far as Jewish koshering laws are concerned, the animal has to be killed in a certain way, and certain parts of the animal are not allowed. He started by saying that he would stop short of banning it altogether—I think those were the words he used. How can he reconcile those two things? If we were to have stunning, it would in effect be a ban.
I was going to come on to that. Even within the kosher community, there is not a universal view on whether post-cut stunning should be permitted.
A couple of years ago, I visited Kuwait and talked to a meat importer about the issue of halal production. He explained to me that the main requirement in Muslim countries in the middle east is that there is no pork contamination in the food they eat, which is why all their protocols focus predominantly on not sharing machinery between pork production and lamb, chicken or beef production, to ensure that there is no pork DNA. That is their primary concern, alongside ensuring that there has been an Islamic blessing of the food. When I explained to him that the issue of non-stun slaughter was contentious, he said it is predominantly a western cultural interpretation of the Muslim faith. Interestingly, non-stun slaughtered meat is not a particular requirement in middle eastern countries. There are exceptions, but generally speaking that is not their primary concern. Indeed, non-stun slaughter is banned in Australia and New Zealand, which are the largest lamb exporters to all countries across the middle east, from Israel right through to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The other point about kosher meat is that Shechita UK insists that it is most certainly not a religious ritual, and a Hebrew blessing is not given. It is simply the case that the ancient holy books describe a method of slaughter that they believe remains the most humane approach. The principal concern for Shechita is that there should be no injury to an animal before it is presented for slaughter. They regard stunning as an injury to the animal—that is their particular concern—but that is not a universal view. There has been some rabbinical support for the idea of post-cut stunning, and we know that some abattoirs producing kosher meat allow post-cut stunning of bovine animals.
I turn now to some of the options that we could consider. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) mentioned labelling, which is a complex area because there is no single definition of halal. The simplest way would be to label meat as un-stunned, because that is a clearly definable legal definition. That causes some concerns for Jewish communities. They argue that if we did do that, we should also list whether an animal has been killed through anaesthetic gas or electrocution, or all manner of other things. Farmwell, which is a leading charity in this area, established a system that all religious groups are willing to buy into: a coded approach of numbers from one to 10, denoting the method of slaughter. However, it does not deal with the problem of food entering the service trade, where unwitting customers would buy it.
There are a number of other things that we could do, including increasing the standstill time on bovine animals. The current limit of 30 seconds was probably due to a drafting error—we know that cattle do not lose consciousness that quickly. We could therefore move the minimum standstill time to at least one minute and 30 seconds or two minutes, to ensure that there is no movement of a bovine animal while it is still conscious. In conjunction, we could require a post-cut stun on all bovine animals, recognising that there is an issue with the physiology of bovines, which leads to a long and protracted death. I do not believe that a post-cut stun would violate the religious beliefs of either the Halal Food Authority or Shechita UK.
As an alternative, we could simply ban the non-stunned slaughter of bovine animals, recognising that there are issues with that. We could introduce a maximum standstill time, which is the approach taken in countries such as the Netherlands and France, where there is a requirement to use a bolt gun if a period of, say, 40 seconds has elapsed after a cut has taken place and the animal has still not lost consciousness.
We could introduce more formal quotas for abattoirs, which is an interesting idea. It is already the law that only food destined for Muslims and Jews is permitted to be slaughtered under our current religious derogation, but we know that there is a real problem with the mainstreaming of religious slaughter. We know that that provision, as drafted in our law, is unenforceable. When I discussed that with departmental lawyers, their response was that if somebody maintains that they thought that the animal was destined for a religious community when they committed the slaughter, that is sufficient to satisfy the requirement, so it is entirely unenforceable. In Germany they have a much more sophisticated quota system. They make an assessment of the need of orthodox religious communities, and abattoirs must apply for a licence and demonstrate that they have an actual market for the food they are producing.
If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Rosindell, I will come back to the basic principle. On this specific point, Germany can do it, so why can we not do it? It is not good enough for departmental lawyers to say, “Oh, it’s all far too difficult,” which is effectively what my hon. Friend has said. There is a way through this. We know the market is oversupplied. It should be limited, should it not?
I agree that adopting a German-style model, whereby we put in place the measures and mechanisms necessary to enforce something that has been a facet of our law since at least 1933, makes a lot of sense, and is probably the easiest option for the Government, given the alarm that there has been about the growth of religious slaughter.
We could increase the period of standstill time before chickens move on to the next process. There is a very real concern at the moment that there is typically a moving shackle line for chickens, whose throats are cut randomly by people as they go past, but what happens if they miss a chicken? What happens if the chicken is not stunned through a water bath and they fail to cut its throat? The answer is that it probably proceeds to the next stage of production, which if I am not mistaken is a scalding tank to remove the feathers. It could enter that while fully conscious, which is horrific. We should be doing more to check that those birds genuinely lose consciousness before they move on to the next stage. It should not just be a moving shackle line.
So-called mis-stunning is also an issue. I am not pretending that religious slaughter is the only welfare issue. Another area of concern, about which I commissioned some work when I was Minister, is the make-up of the gas mixture used in the slaughter of pigs, which was also problematic. Clearly, because it relates to pigs, it has no religious dimension whatever. There are other issues, and mis-stunning is one of them. The point about mis-stunning is that even if they get it wrong, they are there immediately afterwards with a second stun, which can resolve the issue.
I will conclude at that point, because we have only half an hour and the Minister will want to come back on some of these points. I seek to liberate him, the Government and all his successors from having to wrestle with this difficult issue. Instead, they should make it a free-vote issue and give it back to Parliament to decide.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is good to hear the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who secured this debate on such an important subject.
Does the Minister agree that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that shechita is any less acceptable than other forms of slaughter? Does he also agree that this country’s unwritten constitution has always made religious freedom a high priority? The changes that the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) suggests risk undermining the central tenet of our unwritten constitution, which is that religious freedom is important in our society.
I completely agree that religious freedom is essential. We had a fantastic prayer breakfast this morning, at which the principles of respect and tolerance were at the forefront of our minds.
On religious slaughter, I restate that the Government’s preference is that all animals should be stunned before slaughter. However, we respect the right of Jews and Muslims to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs. We therefore allow the religious slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews for intended consumption by them. The Government believe that that is an important religious freedom, and there is a long history of upholding it in legislation, dating back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which contained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims.
When I spoke about religious slaughter in the debate in this Chamber just a couple of months ago, I said that the Secretary of State and I would be holding a roundtable with a number of interested parties, including religious groups, animal welfare organisations—some of which are here today—and industry representatives. That meeting took place in May, and was a positive and open discussion, with helpful contributions from all who attended. Key issues discussed during that roundtable were the welfare impacts of different slaughter methods, essential ways of improving consumer information, the scope of the labelling scheme and halal assurance.
I strongly believe that the way to make progress—notwithstanding the important contributions of hon. Members from across the political spectrum—is through a roundtable and ongoing constructive dialogue. It is important to remind ourselves that in EU and domestic regulations that protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing, there are additional rules for animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, specifically for the production of halal and kosher meat. The primary aim of the welfare at slaughter regulations, which are based on a body of scientific evidence and advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is to ensure that animals are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing. It would be wrong to assume that the legal requirements for religious slaughter have not changed in the past 25 years.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. He is dealing with this issue in a very reasoned way, as always. The European law says that all animals should be stunned, and there is a derogation to allow religious slaughter. We have to be careful not to wrap this up too much in the European situation. As we leave the EU, we must be much firmer on how we label and how we manage it, and we must ensure that more animals are not stunned than are needed for particular religions. We can do a lot more, so will the Minister speed up the operation? I fear that it is one of these slow operations that is not getting anywhere.
I would be surprised if the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee did not want faster action, as he regularly does. I hope he sees that we are upping the pace on animal welfare, with his support, for which I am grateful.
There are sensitivities on both sides—from a welfare perspective and a respecting religious freedom perspective— which we have to navigate our way through. This is an important debate, and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth made in his well-considered speech must be taken into account. He mentioned New Zealand. I recently met one of the New Zealand Ministers of Agriculture, and we discussed this subject. I am aware that New Zealand has a quality assurance programme for halal, which we can look into. Some people suggested that Australia has a similar programme, but there is some non-stunned religious slaughter there in eight abattoirs. The focus should be on what New Zealand has to offer.
Mention was made of whether immediate post-cut stunning should be introduced to improve the welfare of animals killed without prior stunning, but when we look at that we must respect religious views. We are committed to continuing this dialogue and debate. The area that we should focus on, because it brings most people together, is labelling.
It is very kind of the Minister to give way. He will understand that there is a great deal of insecurity in the British Jewish community as a consequence of institutional antisemitism in the Opposition party. Will he reassure that community, which feels insecure and anxious, that the Government will under no circumstances ban shechita, which is a central tenet of the Jewish faith, in the United Kingdom?
I assure Muslim and Jewish communities that we respect their freedoms. Through this debate and the roundtable process that we have put in place, we want to balance those religious freedoms with what more can be done to improve the welfare of animals. That is difficult, but not impossible, to juggle. Through dialogue, we can move forward and learn from what has taken place in other countries around the world. It must be done in the unique spirit of co-operation in this country. That should be respected by all parties in this House. I get the sense from this debate that people respect that requirement and the need to look more at animal welfare.
I think that the way forward is to look at these issues, consider the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth, look at the mechanisms we have got through the roundtable forum that we have created, and move that on. We can focus more on labelling. We must engage with the communities and the industry to see how we can take this further forward. Our exit from the EU will provide an opportunity to do that with more conviction and at greater pace. I am sure that will please the Chair of the EFRA Committee. Thank you for your support in this debate, Mr Rosindell.
Question put and agreed to.
World War Two: Polish Contribution
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Polish contribution to UK war effort in World War Two.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the summer of 1939 was designed to annihilate and destroy Poland and the Polish nation. [Interruption.]
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the summer of 1939 was designed to destroy and annihilate the Poles. On 1 September 1939, a few weeks after that treaty between the Germans and Russians was signed, the brutal invasion of Poland by German forces took place. Despite so much subjugation—so many cities were destroyed and so many Poles were imprisoned, and tyranny was imposed on Poland in 1939 and thereafter—Poles themselves refused to be subjugated.
Poles share our values of freedom and are determined to be free people. They came from Poland in unprecedented numbers to join up with British forces and fight with their British counterparts in 1939 and 1940. The Polish Government-in-exile came to be based in London. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of the British Government, the Polish Government-in-exile operated in London until 1989 and the fall of communism in Poland, when a democratic and legitimate Government was finally restored to Poland. The most important battle in which they participated was the Battle of Britain.
Today, I again had the great honour of speaking with Lord Tebbit about his views on the Battle of Britain. One of the most enjoyable things that I have done in my 14 years as a Member of Parliament was to join Lord Tebbit at the RAF club for an Anglo-Polish dinner, where he was the guest speaker. He said something that really resonated with me, that I will always remember, and that I wanted to share with the House. According to Lord Tebbit, the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe were so evenly matched in the summer of 1940 that the British side was beginning to lose that battle. Those were the words of Lord Tebbit, not my own.
Lord Tebbit said that replacing the planes was relatively easy—continuing production in armaments factories and creating the planes was fine—but that replacing the pilots was extremely difficult. We all know how long it takes to train a pilot, and it was very difficult to replace all the losses. According to him, the Poles coming in such unprecedented numbers to join to British forces in the summer of 1940 was what tipped the balance to the British side.
Last year, two wonderful films were released in the United Kingdom: “Hurricane” and “303 Squadron”. I have spoken about those films to colleagues, who have then watched them, and I urge you, Mr Pritchard, as my Shropshire neighbour, to watch them if you have the opportunity. They are modern-day accounts to share with the next generations the extraordinary heroism, courage and determination of those Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. The Polish 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other squadron in the Battle of Britain. Although it is the most famous squadron, it was only one of 16 Polish squadrons embedded in the RAF.
There are now 1 million Poles in the United Kingdom, and we benefit enormously from their contribution to our country. In the past, I have heard people talking about Poles coming to live and work here and how dependent we are on Polish plumbers and other professions, but we were so dependent on those highly skilled and brave Poles who came in 1940.
Last week, I met Mr Burakowski, the new editor of the Shrewsbury Chronicle, which is the main newspaper in my constituency. He told me about the experiences of his father, who was one of those Poles who came over during the second world war and was part of a bombing squadron.
The Poles were led out of captivity in the Soviet Union by the famous General Anders—we have on many occasions invited his daughter, Senator Anna Maria Anders, to address the Polish diaspora in the House of Commons. General Anders brought many Polish soldiers from captivity in the Soviet Union, through Iran, to join up with British forces in Palestine, where they were equipped and trained before joining the British 8th Army.
Before the revolution in Libya, I had the opportunity to visit British and Polish graves, side by side in cemeteries in Tripoli and Tobruk. It was so poignant to see just how young those boys were—in certain cases, they were 19, 20 or 21. The British and Poles fought side by side in desert terrain in Libya, hundreds of miles from their homes, so young and with so much ahead of them—the opportunity perhaps to have children and to live full and successful lives. Yet at the age of 19 or 20, they sacrificed their lives together to fight the tyranny of fascism. That is why we remember them and their sacrifices today.
I will come on to Monte Cassino shortly.
The battle of El Alamein was the turning point in the whole north African campaign. Anybody who has studied maps of the battlefront and topography of El Alamein will realise the extraordinary importance of landmines in that operation. A Pole, Józef Kosacki, invented the mine detector, which was successfully used for the first time in 1941, in El Alamein. As I said, that battle was the turning point in the north African campaign. The allied forces and the axis powers were very finely balanced at that juncture in 1941. Imagine if we had lost and Rommel’s forces had managed to push forward beyond Egypt and take the oil fields of the middle east. The events that unfolded in the second world war may have been very different. We therefore celebrate the great contribution of Józef Kosacki, a great Pole who died in 1990 and who invented the mine detector.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) mentioned Monte Cassino. Once the Polish and British forces had gone through El Alamein and Tobruk, retaken Benghazi and Tripoli, and gone through Tunisia, they came up through Sicily and the spine of Italy, finally reaching the Gustav line, which was part of the most strongly fortified, highly elevated defences across the spine of Italy, which were perceived to be impregnable. The most difficult part of the Gustav line was Monte Cassino itself. On 18 May 1944, at 9.45 am, a patrol of the 12th Podolski Lancers Regiment reached the ruins of Monte Cassino. They put a Polish flag there, followed shortly by a British flag.
It is easy to talk about some of those sacrifices and statistics, but today in my House of Commons office I watched the YouTube video of the battle at Monte Cassino—hand-to-hand combat, throwing grenades at each other, and being fired upon all the time. It was perceived to be one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles on the whole of the western front during the second world war. At Monte Cassino alone, the Poles lost 923 men who died, 2,931 injured and 345 reported missing. It is in the lexicon of the whole of the Polish narrative—all Poles carry Monte Cassino close to their heart.
I had better stop talking about Monte Cassino, or I will start to well up. A song called “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino” symbolised the extraordinary amount of blood spilled by Polish soldiers to reach the top in order to liberate it. We are not allowed to speak in foreign languages in the Chamber, but in Polish the song is called “Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino”, which translates as “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino”.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way and for his wonderful speech. Has he had the opportunity to visit the National Memorial Arboretum in my county of Staffordshire, which has a statue of a Polish soldier at Monte Cassino, as well as three other statues of Polish servicemen? The statue was unveiled about 10 years ago in a fitting memorial to the huge contribution made by Polish forces during the second world war.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and near neighbour for mentioning that. These Westminster Hall debates throw up all this interesting information, including about the arboretum in his constituency. I very much encourage members of the public watching the debate on television throughout our country to take advantage of a visit to Lichfield, near his constituency, to look at the wonderful arboretum and at that memorial.
General Anders, who led the Polish forces at Monte Cassino, said:
“Twenty two days under constant fire, in terrible conditions, seven days of fierce struggle to break German defences…It was not just the Battle of Cassino, it was a battle for Poland.”
That was from his book, “Without the Last Chapter”.
Recently, we saw the commemoration of the D-day landings on television. Our Prime Minister joined Mr Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, on the 75th anniversary of those important landings. D-day, 1944, was the start of the liberation of the whole of the continent of Europe. Again, the Poles were there at D-day, even though only the month before they were fighting at Monte Cassino. Polish airmen took part in protecting the convoys of soldiers moving towards Normandy. Polish ships took part in Operation Neptune, the naval part of the D-day landings. And, later in the campaign, the Polish 1st Armoured Division, attached to the British and Canadian forces, landed to take part in the fighting around the Falaise pocket.
I have a little section on that later in my speech.
In Operation Market Garden, when the allies tried to shorten the war by landing in the Netherlands, Polish paratroopers took part in unprecedented numbers with their British counterparts. Again, I have had the opportunity to visit the Polish and British cemeteries in the Netherlands, and to see the same recurring theme: the sheer youth of those young men who together gave up their lives so that we might have freedom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned Bletchley Park. He is absolutely right, because Polish mathematicians and code breakers came over from Poland. Sir Dermot Turing, a relative of Alan Turing, in his book, “The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken”, highlighted the unique, outstanding and overwhelming contribution of Polish mathematicians and cryptographers to breaking the Enigma codes. I cannot begin to explain how important that was. It gave us the opportunity to understand where German positions and movements would be forthcoming, allowing us to shorten the war by, some suggest, at least two years—my hon. Friend alluded to this—and potentially saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. I will put three gentlemen on the record: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. For someone born in Poland, even I have difficulty pronouncing those surnames —I dread to think what the people in Hansard will do with them, so I hope that I pronounced them correctly.
Recently, a book was donated to the House of Commons Library, and only two weeks ago we had an exhibition here in the House of Commons, about a lady called Krystyna Skarbek—or Granville. According to legend, she was Winston Churchill’s favourite spy. She was a young Polish lady who was dropped behind enemy lines on many occasions. She was instrumental in reconnaissance and in helping to ensure that sabotage against German forces was co-ordinated effectively.
Despite all such extraordinary contributions—my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will acknowledge that Poland made them—the Clement Attlee Government refused to allow Polish soldiers to take part in the victory parade on 8 June 1946, for fear of offending Joseph Stalin. By that stage, that dictator had already managed to impose a brutal, tyrannical communist puppet regime in Poland, but for fear of upsetting him we in this country decided to exclude the Polish forces from the victory parade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his tremendous speech. In Suffolk, we are aware of the contribution made from Norfolk and Suffolk by the Polish air force in support of the war effort. On that point—a good one about the failure of the Attlee Government to recognise the contribution of the Polish community, army and air force in the war—next year, 75 years on from VE-day, we could help to put right that wrong by better recognising the Polish contribution to the war effort?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I want to take this opportunity to say that, as a fluent Polish speaker—or attempting to be fluent; it is a very difficult language—when I go to Poland and speak to people in English, what they say is quite different from what they say when I talk to them in Polish. They are very friendly to the British—they love them and want to work with them—but that is still a source of real pain for the Poles. He touches on a very important issue: how do we repair what happened in 1946? How do we engage and work with the Polish diaspora here in the United Kingdom to create a new monument, or do something to ensure that their unique contribution is highlighted? We have a Polish war memorial in Northolt, but in the run-up to many anniversaries can we do something in addition, yet again to celebrate the contribution of Poles and educate the younger generations about their unique contribution?
Dziękuję. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my paternal grandfather was Polish; he served in the Polish merchant navy, which is what brought him to the UK. I would love to work with the hon. Gentleman on creating a lasting memorial to all the Poles who contributed so much. My grandfather, Mięczyslaw Bagniçki, was very proud to be Polish to his fingertips. Equally, he thought the UK had given him a wonderful life; he brought up his children here, had a career and was incredibly grateful for everything that Britain and the Queen had done for him. A lasting memorial would be very appropriate.
We Poles have to stick together. I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady and anybody else who is cognisant of the unique contribution of Poles to our country, and who wants to demonstrate to the 1 million Poles living in the United Kingdom that we value them, cherish their contribution to our country and are determined to work together to remember these things, even in the modern age. We may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. It is very important to remember that Poland will continue to be an important ally for us in NATO.
The hon. Gentleman has done an excellent job detailing the contribution made across the services in every year of the war. That often is not appreciated, although it certainly is in my constituency, which houses the Polish social and cultural organisation POSK, to which all Members are welcome. I thought he was a little sectarian by talking about the Attlee Government; I am sure he would pay tribute to that Government for passing the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, which was the first mass migration Act that enabled citizenship for about 200,000 Poles who fought in the war.
I very much acknowledge that, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not trying to make a party political point. I deliberately said “Attlee Government,” rather than “Labour Government,” but I acknowledge his point about their subsequent achievements to protect the rights of Polish people to remain and settle here.
The first thing I gave to Jonathan Knott, the British ambassador to Warsaw, when he came to visit us was a copy of a book outlining Operation Unthinkable, which was Churchill’s plan basically to do the unthinkable: to carry on beyond Berlin and liberate Warsaw. Of course, we had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 because of our treaty obligations to Poland. The Poles were sad and concerned that a second front against Germany was not possible in 1939 and early 1940 by the French and the British. At that juncture, the Poles were left to defend themselves, fighting the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other. Towards the end of the war, Churchill wanted to promote those plans to liberate Warsaw, but unfortunately he was thwarted by Roosevelt, Stalin and others. Poland was then subjugated to 50 years of brutal tyrannical communist regime.
I believe I am the only Conservative MP who was born in a communist country. I know what communism is, what it looks like and how it feels. I used to go back every year to see my beloved grandfather, Roman Kawczynski, under communism. What our fellow Europeans went through, being subjugated to a politically Orwellian and economically illiterate system, is beyond comprehension. One reason why the Polish have needed help in the post-communist era to rebuild their country, their industries and their infrastructure is the appalling impact that communism had on their country.
At the beginning of my hon. Friend’s speech he referred to the terrible pact between Hitler and Stalin that paved the way for the second world war. I think he also ought to make some reference to the fact that when the underground army rose up in 1944, and we wished to supply them with air drops and munitions, the Russians refused to allow our transport aircraft to operate from their bases to help support the Poles in that uprising. I know that my hon. Friend is mainly concerned with the Polish contribution to the effort in Britain, but we should not forget those people in Poland who saved the remnants of families such as mine from extermination by hiding Jewish people at the risk of their own lives.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Poland—if any hon. Members have not joined, they had better do so, and I very much invite them to. I think we have 62 members, making us one of the larger all-party groups. When we take regular delegations of British MPs to Poland, we go to see a memorial in Warsaw where one of those British planes crashed in a park while trying to supply food and weapons to the underground fighters in the Warsaw uprising. They were taking on the Germans in the summer of 1944 while the Russians stayed on the other side of the river, allowing the slaughter to take place on an unprecedented scale. I would like my right hon. Friend to know that we laid flowers at the monument in the park where the British plane crashed. He is absolutely right; Stalin refused to allow the British planes, flying from Italy—I think Ancona or somewhere on the coast—to land in Warsaw. They had to fly all the way there, drop the equipment and fly back.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s reference to the sacrifices of Poles in helping their Jewish friends and neighbours during the second world war. Members of my family were shot by the Germans for hiding Jews on our estate in western Poland. Poland was the only country in occupied Europe with the death penalty for helping Jewish people. People knew exactly what they were doing when they hid and protected Jews. In my family’s case, the Germans made my relative watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter first, then his wife, and then him. His crime was hiding Jewish friends and neighbours. That is something we will never forget and will always pass on to our children and the next generation.
The alliance with Poland today is very strong. We have 1 million Poles living, working and contributing to our country. In a post-Brexit world, their rights will be guaranteed in our country, and they will continue to make a vast contribution to our island. We will not put sea mines in the English channel and barbed wire on the cliffs of Dover. We will continue to welcome highly skilled, highly educated Polish workers to our country with the new immigration work permits that will be afforded.
When we go to Poland, we meet soldiers who are working on a rotational basis in north-east Poland. We already have 150 British soldiers in the Suwałki gap; I hope that is a prelude to a permanent NATO base—or maybe even a permanent British base—in eastern Poland. The Americans are already talking to their Polish counter- parts about an American base in Poland, so I hope that we will follow suit.
I have received a two-page letter from the Royal British Legion; I am not sure whether representatives have managed to come here today. It outlines what its Remember Together campaign is doing to engage with the Polish community up and down the country and, collectively with British counterparts, to remember the tremendous courage and dignity of the British and Polish pilots.
As the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament, I take great pride in the contribution of Poles to this country, not only in the battle of Britain, but subsequently. I hope that we will continue to work with this key, strategic European partner for many years to come, to forge ever closer and stronger military and economic links.
It is customary on these occasions to say what a pleasure it is to serve under the chairmanship of whoever happens to be in the Chair, and, Mr Pritchard, in this particular case it is a real pleasure as you have a true knowledge, understanding and sympathy for this subject and for the points we are discussing. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. Many a time we have stood opposite each other, divided by politics but united by our affection, respect and admiration for the heroic Poles of yesterday and today.
You may ask, Mr Pritchard, why it is necessary for us to repeat this litany of heroism. It has been done before and it may be done again. It is essential that we do so. First, I cannot think of any other example in British history where so small a group of people achieved so much. I will not quote Churchill—he was talking of something different—but in all honesty we owe so much to those few Poles who came here.
Secondly, we have come to acknowledge, respect and understand the contributions that the Poles make comparatively recently. When I was a young man growing up in Hammersmith, I remember friends who were actually called Małgosia described themselves as Margaret and every Paweł called himself Paul. Everybody seemed to conceal their Polishness; we did not understand that they were Polish. Polish history was something we did not know about or understand. It was only with the Polish millennium in 1966—which coincided with the World cup, in which the Poles supported us when we were playing against Germany—that the Poles started to emerge as a people. Even then, we did not understand about Polish history.
I am from west London, born and bred; I know the Katyn memorial and the Northolt Polish war memorial. There are still people, such as our excellent Polish ambassador, who will always wear the red and white insignia of 303 Squadron; I see some people in the Gallery are wearing it today. The contribution that that Polish squadron, based at RAF Northolt, made has been adumbrated by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham; it was extraordinary. We need say no more, except to say that anyone who knows anything about the conduct of the darkest days of the second world war will hang their head in shame if the heroic contribution and the blood sacrifice made by those Polish fighter pilots is not acknowledged.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking with his customary force and eloquence. He is right to say that those living in west London might immediately have that understanding, but does he agree that we need to ensure that that acknowledgment is felt throughout our country? In my constituency, I have been pleased to go along to Polish days where I have been at pains to emphasise that. We need a way of ensuring that everyone in our country can fully understand the sacrifice of those brave Polish airmen and women.
That is an excellent point. It is almost as if I had asked the hon. Gentleman to ask that question, but it has been a long time since I have been in the Whips Office. That is an important point. I will talk about Scotland particularly, in a moment.
We need say no more about the Polish contribution to the RAF—it has been said before and it must be said again—but I turn to the heroism of the Polish army. Those who fought with General Anders walked, marched and, in some cases, crawled from Siberia through the whole of Iran to north Africa, to turn the tide in El Alamein. As we have heard, they fought from Tobruk up through Sicily and into the impregnable mountain fortress and Benedictine monastery that could not be broken, Monte Cassino, which was occupied by a crack division of German paratroopers—in fact, the crack division of the Luftwaffe.
Those paratroopers held out against one of the biggest combined armies that has ever been assembled. There was a New Zealand regiment made up entirely of Māori, as well as people from north Africa, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States; but there was one group of people—the Poles—who fought their way from hilltop to hilltop, up that precipitous mound, and planted the red and white flag in the still-smoking ruins of Monte Cassino. With the nobility that typifies those people, General Anders’s army then planted the Union flag. I have climbed that hill and seen how difficult it must have been, but my memory is not just of the beautiful and newly restored Benedictine monastery; it is of the graveyard at the foot of Monte Cassino. There is an allied graveyard and a Polish graveyard. Why? There were so many Poles who died that they could not be incorporated into the allied graveyard.
At the base of that graveyard is one grave that stands alone; it is always covered in flowers, either red roses or poppies—poppies, for the poppies in the snow. It is the grave of General Anders, one of the great heroes. Like the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, I recently had the honour of meeting Senator Anders and to briefly discuss those days. There are three sets of headstones in that graveyard: some with the Orthodox cross; some with the Star of David, because Jewish Poles fought there; and some with the Christian cross.
One of the utter tragedies is that while General Mark Clark was racing towards Rome, where the photographers were waiting for him, General Anders was told by the Supreme Commander of the British forces that there would be no return to Poland. He was told that for all the Poles had done, that was it. Because of the pact with the brutal dictator we have heard about, there would not be a British supported return to Poland. As a human being and a hero, General Anders could have done what many of us would have done; he could have said, “In that case we are going home. We are throwing down our rifles, we are taking off our packs and we are leaving.” Anders did not do that. He said, “We fight on,” and fight on they did. That typifies the strength and determination of the Polish people.
I want to touch on an area that has not been touched on in any detail, and that is the extraordinary contribution of the Polish naval forces. In 1939, the Polish navy was in quite good condition. It was a modern navy, with submarines. It managed to escape from Gdańsk and the seaports in north Poland to Leith, the port of Edinburgh, where the flagship, the Piorun—which is Polish for thunderer—was laid down in the John Brown shipyard as the HMS Narissa. She was renamed and crewed entirely by Poles. These Polish ships, which came under the command of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, made an incredible contribution in theatres of war from Narvik, Dunkirk, the Lofoten Islands and Tobruk, as well as the Murmansk convoys, where the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) sailed with them, to the Normandy landings.
In two particular areas, the Polish navy made an incredible contribution; I beg your indulgence, Mr Pritchard, in allowing me to mention them briefly. The first was the awful night of 13 March 1941, when more than 1,000 people in Glasgow were killed. It was called the Clydebank Blitz. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) who introduced a debate on the Floor of the House about that subject. John Brown’s shipyard and the Singer factory next to it were bombed ruthlessly, and Clydebank and Hardgate, and virtually that whole part of Glasgow, were destroyed. The opposition to the Luftwaffe was led by the Piorun. She was in harbour, undergoing repairs. She had six anti-aircraft guns and some old refitted Bofors guns—what we used to call pom-poms. She fought off the second wave of the Luftwaffe. How many lives she saved I cannot even begin to think. It is extraordinary to think that Piorun was laid down in the very shipyard that she then defended, having sailed from there to Poland and back again. It is almost as if she was born to defend her birthplace, as many a Pole would say.
The second thing is the extraordinary occurrences of May 1941 when the hinge of history was turning. The Germans had massive naval superiority. They had the two best ocean raiders in the world: Bismarck and Tirpitz. They also had the best heavy cruisers: Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Had they got out into the north Atlantic, our supply routes from Canada and America would have been finished. There would have been no opportunity whatever for us to continue the war at sea. Tirpitz, as we know, was destroyed in the fjords of Norway by the RAF, but Bismarck had earlier that year, in the battle of the Denmark strait, not only destroyed the British taskforce, but sunk the pride of the Royal Navy: the mighty Hood. Many matelots of my father’s generation still say the old “Andrew” died with the Hood. She was the pride of our Navy and Bismarck sunk her and moved on.
In May, Admiral Tovey and taskforce H were sent, under the instructions of Churchill, to the area off the Norway coast to sink the Bismarck. Who was there at the front of that? Not just Rodney and Repulse, but Piorun, the Polish destroyer that steamed ahead as fast as she could, and, it is said, did not even wait for embarkation orders. She left Scotland and headed straight for the battlefield. Then, as we know, Bismarck had her steering gear crippled by a Fairey Swordfish torpedo and was slightly reduced in her manoeuvrability, but she still had powerful weapons: eight 15-inch guns in four turrets. Piorun was one of the ships in that taskforce that on 25 May 1941 received probably the most significant message received in the sea war in the last war, and it came from Bletchley. It came from a Polish interpreter who had managed to break the codes, and it told precisely what the German admiral was doing. Even though Piorun was then straddled at 12,000 metres by a complete bombardment from Bismarck, she carried on. Some say she delivered the coup de grace; some say she was the last torpedo fired into Bismarck.
I will close by saying two things. Betrayal is an ugly word, but I think that in some ways the Poles were betrayed at the end of the war. We compensated with the 1947 legislation, but in some ways we let the Poles down. I would say that the Poles never, ever let us down. It is not for me to make an obvious pro-European pro-EU statement, but is it not wonderful what we can achieve when we fight together in a common cause? If ever I have to fight anyone anywhere at any time, let it be with our brothers and sisters of the free republic of Poland, some of the bravest and most heroic people it has ever been my honour to know.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate and on his excellent and moving speech. It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and his wonderful speech.
I want to contribute for two reasons. First, because RAF Tangmere in my constituency played such a pivotal role during the Battle of Britain, and secondly, to thank the Polish pilots, many of whom took to the skies to defend our country and fight for theirs. Their efforts in the second world war were vital and must never be forgotten.
RAF Tangmere and Westhampnett was the most southerly RAF fighter command base during the battle of Britain. It played an historic role in the defence of our country during our darkest hour over the summer of 1940. Many of “the few”, as they became known, including revered pilots such as Douglas Bader and Billy Fiske, flew from Tangmere. The Polish 302 and 303 Squadrons did not fly from Tangmere, but today their contribution has been marked by the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, which stands on the site of the old RAF airfield.
Last summer the museum held an exhibition focused solely on the contribution made by Polish and Czech air crews: their pilots and their highly skilled crews who came to our country to fight the Nazis after their homelands had been invaded and occupied. More than 4,000 people visited the exhibition over a six-week period, and I was very pleased to meet veterans who had served, and several young people from Poland who were keen to research the roles that their grandfathers and uncles had played in world war two.
The hon. Lady refers to young people attending, but does she agree with me that although it is exceptionally important that the generations would we represent here are made aware and reminded of the bravery and sacrifices that were made, it is even more important that future generations remember it so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated?
I completely agree, and that means that this debate and the continuation of memorials, exhibitions, museums and celebrations will always be important for future generations.
The Imperial War Museum records that 145 Polish men fought alongside our pilots during that fateful time, and that period they destroyed 204 enemy aircraft. The people of Britain owe their liberty in part to their heroism. I am proud that in Chichester we play our part in continuing to remember them. As many Members have mentioned, Poland’s contribution to our war effort goes far beyond the battle of Britain. The Nazi occupation of Poland was one of the most brutal of the war. Poland was carved up with Stalin under the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and the German-occupied zone became known as the General Government, which was placed under the control of Hitler’s lawyer, a ruthless Nazi called Hans Frank, who was later hanged at Nuremberg.
Although divided, occupied, brutalised and stripped of their identity, the Poles fought on and continued to resist, and 1943 saw the heroic Warsaw uprising by the Jewish community. Later in 1944, the entire population of Warsaw did the same in a heroic effort to liberate their capital city from the Nazi tyranny.
I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the Jewish efforts in the war. In September 1939, there were 150,000 Jews serving in the Polish army in that campaign. Many went to fight in the Polish Free Army in France and in the United Kingdom. Just as many fought as partisans and in the Warsaw uprising. My own grandfather, Maksymilian Sobel, fought on the German front as part of the Polish army on the eastern front and commanded the independent motor battalion during the battle of Dresden. I want to put that on the record.
Order. A couple of people have come in late and I have been flexible and allowed them to intervene, but coming in pretty much halfway through the debate pushes the envelope, so may I remind all hon. Members to please attend from the beginning of the debate? We all run slightly late, but to come in halfway through and expect to speak is, as I say, pushing the envelope, however good the contribution might be.
The heroism of the two uprisings by the Polish are the greatest acts of resistance against tyranny that the world has ever seen. It is an enduring stain on the record of the Soviet Union’s wartime history that Stalin ordered his troops encircling Warsaw to do nothing while the Nazis put down the uprising and destroyed much of the city.
It is important to highlight the cruel fact that the majority of the Nazi death camps were built in Poland. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek were all in Poland. Those camps are believed to be where 3 million people were murdered. Over the course of the war, Poland lost 6 million of its citizens, half of whom were Jewish. We remembered them on international Holocaust Memorial Day this year in Speaker’s House, where I was proud that a Chichester choir performed the holocaust opera, “Push”, to Members of both Houses of Parliament.
There can be no doubt whatever that Poland played a huge part in the war effort both in the UK and in resisting at home. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for securing the debate and I assure him that in Chichester we will never forget the bravery of our Polish friends and allies.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. May I first thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for obtaining it? He said that he found some Polish words challenging. In the area that I come from, we have a strong tradition of service with the Polish during the second world war, and if we added the Polish language to Ulster Scots, he would really be challenged. As an Ulster Scot, I will try not to say anything in Polish because it will all come over the wrong way.
I am something of a history buff—my boys would say that I am more of a history geek. On the years when I am able to take a holiday, I read perhaps eight biographies or history books, and I have recently enjoyed learning more about the Battle of Britain, during which the Poles truly excelled. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken of memorials across the United Kingdom. The first such memorial was built by Ards and North Down Borough Council, with some crowdfunding and working with For Your Freedom and Ours, to celebrate 100 years of Polish independence, as well as the Royal Air Force and Polish Air Force centenaries. A permanent monument has been erected at the Cenotaph in Newtownards, in the middle of Strangford. It was unveiled by the daughters of Polish airmen who were stationed in Ballyhalbert and who met and married local girls and raised their children there.
We have a strong association with Poland in the constituency that I am privileged to represent. That is why there is such interest in the Polish Air Force in particular and its marvellous contribution. The monument is dedicated to the memory of the Polish airmen who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain and other theatres of the second world war. It is in remembrance of 303 Squadron and 315 Squadron—Polish fighter squadrons that were stationed at RAF Ballyhalbert—and all the members of the Polish forces buried in Northern Ireland. The sacrifices and courage of the Polish Air Force during the second world war were instrumental in our victory. Many have said it, and I can say it in all honesty because I know what happened and the contribution made in my constituency. Indeed, Air Vice Marshal David Niven informed us at the memorial unveiling that the Battle of Britain might well have ended very differently without the practical knowhow and courage of the Polish Air Force station in Ballyhalbert. The contribution was significant, and made a big difference. As we leave the EU, the bonds that bring us together through military service and now NATO will last well beyond Brexit. Other hon. Members have said it, and it will not change. The people of Ards and Strangford will always have a soft spot in their hearts for the Polish people, and the memorial is testament to that fact. I am pleased that it is in my constituency.
The Eastend residents association ran an eight-week programme funded by the Housing Executive and council, with the group For Your Freedom and Ours, which gave an in-depth history of the Polish Air Force in Strangford. The group’s membership ranged from teenagers to pensioners, and all who were involved in the programme thoroughly enjoyed it. From talks to tours of areas of significance, the project was truly inspirational. It culminated in the unveiling of the Polish Air Force memorial. It raised awareness among many people in the borough of the role played by the Polish Air Force in the Battle of Britain. I know that my parliamentary aide enjoyed reading a book on the Polish spy Christine Granville, or Krystyna Skarbek, who worked for British intelligence throughout the war. The author of that book, which is tipped to become a Hollywood film, came to an Eastend residents association event.
History records the part played by the Polish Air Force in the war effort, and it has been tremendous to see that history coming to life in my area so many years after the events of the second world war. In late 2018, a Polish consulate finally opened in Northern Ireland, and it was wonderful to see the ambassador playing a leading role in the ceremony to unveil the memorial. It was a tremendous reminder of the strong bond between the Polish people and us. There are some 30,000 Polish people living in Northern Ireland and, excluding those from the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England, the Polish community is the largest immigrant community in Northern Ireland—far above others. We have a strong relationship. The bonds remain strong, and we have a lot to be thankful for, which is why I am thankful for today’s motion, which seeks to recognise the part played by the Polish in our ultimate victory. We owe them so much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate.
The United Kingdom is indebted to the Polish service personnel who fought in various campaigns on the ground, in the air and at sea during world war two. Their assistance proved invaluable to the allied war effort. Polish navy vessels and sailors augmented the British fleet. Polish service personnel served proudly, not only alongside the Royal Navy but with the Royal Air Force. It is worth noting that 5% of pilots in the Battle of Britain were Polish and it is said that they were responsible for at least 12% of total victories. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron was recognised as the most successful of any allied squadron and four Polish officers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
I have to declare a personal interest in the contribution of the Polish people in supporting the British Army. My late uncle Frederick Kaiser, commonly known as Freddie, was born in Ruda Śląska, Poland, on the Germany-Poland border, and had to leave his homeland at 17 years of age, when war broke out in 1939—never to see his mother again. Uncle Freddie fought in the Polish Army and was injured in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, where he suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs. He was more fortunate than one of his fellow soldiers, who died that day in the bunker they shared. Uncle Freddie was flown to a Polish Army hospital at Invergordon in Scotland and, once recovered, he was based at the Castle Army Camp in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, which I understand housed an infantry battalion. That was one of many camps throughout Scotland where members of the Polish Army were hosted.
Major P. R. Reid MBE MC, in his Colditz trilogy, acknowledges the assistance of the Polish people and the Polish Red Cross with his research. His accounts of world war two include references to the collaboration between British and Polish service personnel. In the final book, “Colditz: The Full Story”, Major Reid records the numbers of the various contingents interned in the castle, listing approximately 222 members of the Polish military, and notes the successful escape by a Polish serviceman in 1941. Although my uncle was not subjected to the rigours of internment in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, it is believed—although he never spoke much at all about the events of the war—that he may have suffered a similar or perhaps worse fate at an earlier stage in his life, having been held in a Siberian prisoner of war camp and freed when the Russians changed sides.
While he was based at Johnstone, Uncle Freddie met and fell in love with my mother’s sister Margaret—so there is a good-news story. They married in August 1947. Like many Polish service personnel, he chose to stay in the United Kingdom. He entered coal mining, first at Holdsworth pit in Patna, East Ayrshire. Then, as many miners did, he moved to Leicestershire in 1964, to continue work at Bagworth colliery near Coalville. He was simply taking his family there for continued work, having exchanged the dangers of conflict for the risks of the mining industry.
Freddie Kaiser passed away in 1988 but fortunately, prior to his passing, managed to visit his former homeland and family. He has one remaining sister, Elfryda, aged 91. To this day Scotland still has close ties with the Polish community. Our shared history is reflected in places of worship and recorded on memorials, such as at St Simons Church in Glasgow, the Polish war memorial at the Royal Air Forces Association Club in Prestwick and the recently refurbished Invergordon Polish war memorial. I trust that the UK Government will also continue to remember the contributions not only of those such as my uncle who served and survived, but of the countless Polish lives lost so that we might live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned the attitude of the Attlee Government to Stalin. I am very pleased that last week we did not show that same attitude to the Russians. At the Council of Europe we stood up with the Poles to try valiantly to prevent the Russians from coming back. We may have lost, but it was a fight worth having.
My hon. Friend also mentioned—I think prompted by my intervention—the role that the Poles played in intelligence. He mentioned the three mathematicians—he gave their names, so I will not repeat them—who helped valiantly to crack Enigma and shorten the war by at least two years. That illustrates an important point: that Poland had the largest intelligence service in the second world war. It covered many countries right across Europe, and beyond. It was responsible for a number of activities, including guiding the allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. Just think of that: the Polish intelligence force guided those allied landings.
In 1943, the British intelligence service received more than 10,000 messages from Polish intelligence—an enormous number. More importantly, the Polish intelligence force managed to capture a complete V2 rocket and send details of it back to the UK so that we could analyse them and help to prevent that rocket from creating any more devastation. That is a fantastic achievement for any intelligence service, and we should pay full tribute to it. We have spoken about the experience of the pilots, and we should not forget those Polish fighter pilots who served alongside Bomber Command and helped it to deliver what it was supposed to deliver to Germany.
The UK holds the records of many Polish personnel, and has freely made them available. They are more than just a symbol of Poland; they are a vivid symbol of the real sacrifice that was made by the Polish people during the second world war. If we can do something with them to make them more available and prominent, I will happily join that campaign to ensure that it happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. As he is the first ever Polish-born Member of this Parliament, the debate is on a matter of great personal importance to him, and he always speaks with great passion about his Polish heritage. I must look into joining the all-party parliamentary group on Poland.
I hope I can complement the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, and those of other hon. Members, by providing a Scottish perspective on the Polish contribution to the UK effort during the second world war. One fact that caught me a little by surprise was that most Polish soldiers who were stationed in the United Kingdom during the war were based in Scotland. Initially, around 17,000 Polish troops were sent to Scotland, where they set up camp temporarily in Biggar, Crawford, Douglas and Peebles, and the First Polish Army Corps was quickly formed under the command of Generals Stanisław Maczek and Marian Kukiel. Polish soldiers later went on to establish more permanent bases in Fife, Angus and Perthshire, and by 1944 around 26,500 Polish soldiers were based in Scotland.
Those men were tasked with defending a stretch of the east coast between Arbroath in Angus and Burntisland near my constituency in Fife. They built anti-invasion defences at places such as Lossiemouth and Tentsmuir—locations that were seen as being at risk of invasion from German-occupied Norway. The remains of those defences are still visible at Tentsmuir forest to this day.
Polish naval forces worked alongside the Royal Navy throughout the war, strengthening our sea defences immeasurably. On the day that Germany invaded Poland, 1 September 1939, four Polish destroyers that made up the Polish destroyer squadron sailed into the Forth and were escorted to the port of Leith—the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) alluded to that. Polish ships docked at a number of other Scottish ports, including Port Glasgow, Greenock, Dundee and Rosyth in my constituency. A plaque on a Polish monument in Prestwick in Ayrshire commemorates those Polish sailors who died in the battle of the Atlantic. The Polish contribution in Scotland was huge.
In the RAF, squadrons 304, 309, 307 and 315 were located at airfields in Scotland. Between 1941 and 1943, Polish Spitfire pilots were trained at operational training units located near Grangemouth in Stirlingshire and St Andrews. Edinburgh University supported Polish soldiers to continue their studies while in Scotland, and as a result the Polish School of Medicine was born. That faculty operated between 1941 and 1949 and was the only Polish institution of higher education in the world during the war years—a great testament to the continuing effort made by Polish soldiers in those years.
Dunfermline in my constituency was home to the headquarters of the 7th Brigade Cadre, and for the past few years the Defend Fife event has commemorated the history of world war two through battle re-enactments, film, music and dance. In 2017 the Defend Dunfermline world war two festival was themed around the special relationship between the people of Dunfermline and the Polish soldiers who helped to protect our town during the war. Last year festival volunteers unearthed confidential maps and plans drawn up by the allied Polish armies to enforce roadblocks, checkpoints and positions created by the Dunfermline Home Guard. Delivered by social enterprise Forth Pilgrim Ltd, the festival aimed to attract up to 5,000 people, reflecting the importance placed on the local contribution of the Polish community to the war effort by the people of Dunfermline and Fife. This year the theme is air raids on the firth of Forth and the Polish navy in Rosyth. I look forward to celebrating the contribution made by Polish soldiers during the war in my home town with the people of Dunfermline. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham would be made very welcome should he wish to join us.
A few lasting markers have been left across Scotland, and one that caught my eye is the statue of Wojtek the bear that stands in the Princes Street gardens. Wojtek was a 230 kg Syrian brown bear who became the mascot of Polish II Corps. He was made a corporal to secure him passage on a British troop ship bound for the Italian campaign. Beloved by his human comrades in arms, Wojtek learned to drink beer—I think Polish soldiers do that sometimes—smoke cigarettes, and carry artillery shells, which was a role he performed during the Battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek became a local celebrity in his new home of Hutton in Berwickshire, but in 1947 he was re-homed in Edinburgh Zoo where he lived until his death in 1963. He was regularly visited by Polish veterans.
As we know, after the war many Poles settled in the UK. The Polish Resettlement Act 1947 was Parliament’s first ever legislation for mass immigration, offering British citizenship to hundreds of thousands of displaced Polish troops. According to our national records, in 2017 around 99,000 Polish residents were still living in Scotland.
We in Scotland are particularly proud of our connection with our Polish population, both past and present. That is evident in events and monuments that we continue to hold dear to this day, commemorating what the Poles did for us during the war and the way they have been part of the fabric of our society ever since. I welcome this opportunity to add to that celebration of Polish nationals in the UK. We must continue to talk about their legacy and educate the generations to come so that their efforts and contribution are never forgotten.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for highlighting this important issue. That he has done so not just now but on a number of occasions shows the importance of this debate to him, particularly because members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. Those included the hon. Gentleman’s great uncle, whose daughter and wife were also killed and placed in the grave that he had dug. I pay tribute to him and to all the hon. Gentleman’s family who played a role in the second world war.
In June 1940 the Polish Government in exile in the UK signed an agreement with the British Government to form an independent Polish army, air force and navy in the UK. Some 5% of the Polish army were involved in the battle of Britain, numbering 145 in total, but they were responsible for 12% of the victories and the 303 Polish Squadron was recognised as the most successful allied squadron. Twenty-nine Polish pilots lost their lives in the battle of Britain, and four Polish officers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. By the end of the war, 19,400 Poles were serving in the RAF and other commands. During the war, 2,408 Polish airmen were killed, and 300 Polish squadron, serving in the Bomber Command, suffered the highest number of deaths of any Bomber Command in the second world war. Of the 4,000 Polish personnel who served in the Polish navy during the war, 450 lost their lives. Of course, the Enigma code breakers shortened the war by at least two years. Their contribution is hugely recognised and should continue to be so.
As always, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made a significant contribution. He mentioned the role of 303 Squadron, the navy and the contribution of soldiers at the battle of El-Alamein. He also discussed the interesting issue of heritage. We must not forget the contribution of those airmen, soldiers and naval personnel who served in the war. It is important for us to be reminded of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) made an intervention on celebrating the contribution of Polish people here. A number of others, including the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), made similar contributions. It would be fitting to have a memorial; perhaps an everlasting one. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the records that have been kept, which could form the basis of that. I ask the Minister to look at those requests.
We must remember the huge role played in Birmingham by Polish servicemen, in particular airmen. The role of 303 Squadron has been well recognised in relation to the Spitfires, which were built in Erdington in Birmingham. Many based themselves in Erdington and are still there. However, we sometimes forget the engineers who serviced the Spitfires. As the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, the people who came here were hugely skilled, and those who serviced and repaired the Spitfires were hugely important to the service, because the sooner they were serviced and back in operation, the bigger the contribution they could make. We sometimes forget those people on the ground who worked in engineering, but they must be recognised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who made a fabulous contribution, was heroic and passionate as he always is. Every word he said was meant. What he said about General Anders needed to be said, and he did so passionately. We must recognise and remember the sacrifices of the Polish solders. He mentioned the orthodox Christians, the Jewish Polish contribution and the general contribution made by Christians, which was phenomenal and deserves recognition.
I am grateful to my friend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) for giving way. May I add one more name to that list? General Sosabowski was in command of the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, which fought so gallantly at Arnhem. We keep remembering the contribution of Poles to British victories. That was not a British victory, but no one contributed to it more gallantly than the Poles, the parachutists and those who came in the gliders, in that fateful battle at the Arnhem bridge.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who is also my friend. That shows the determination of the Polish soldiers and personnel who fought in the war to treat it as their own as they defended Poland. The courage of the Polish soldiers has been recognised across the Chamber, and it must continue to be recognised and understood.
The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) made a good contribution relating to her constituency. She talked about how important it was for the Polish community to play a role in the fighting, which again reminds us of the great sacrifices they made. My friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pushed the sacrifices and contributions made in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Navy. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke of the contribution made by his family, which must be recognised.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said, many people changed their names after the war to integrate. Some might have felt that necessary, but it is now time for people to re-establish those names and recognise their heritage. The hon. Member for Henley mentioned the work of the intelligence services in capturing the V-2. It was a devastating weapon, so it was a phenomenal achievement by the Polish personnel serving with us in the second world war to get hold of it, reverse-engineer it and see what it did.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) talked about the contribution made in Scotland, particularly to the Navy. As we look across the United Kingdom, we see that people in every single area know where the Polish servicepeople made a contribution, and that is recognised to this day. We must now really push that recognition forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and the hon. Member for Henley mentioned the creation of a permanent memorial. Will the Minister look at how such a memorial can include a real learning element so that schoolchildren and other people can visit and understand the heritage of those who came here and the support they gave us? While we had much support from the Commonwealth, with people coming across to help during the second world war—my maternal great-grandfather served in Burma—which was gratefully received, the particular contribution made by the Polish people was much welcomed.
Mr Pritchard, I thank you on behalf of us all for chairing our debate. I genuinely commend my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on once again securing a debate on the vital contribution made by Poland to the allied victory in the second world war. I have no hesitation in again paying tribute to all those who served so bravely. I would also like to reflect on the strength of our partnership with Poland today.
Polish service personnel served with distinction in world war two on land, at sea and in the air. They fought in some of the most pivotal battles of the war. At Monte Cassino 75 years ago, it was, as we have heard, the Polish army that broke through Nazi defences and paved the way for US forces to secure Rome. The Poles paid a very heavy price for that victory, with almost 1,000 soldiers killed and 3,000 injured. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), paid tribute to the fallen in May when he visited the scene of the battle as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.
The Polish navy played a significant role, as we heard in the remarkable speech by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in protecting the Atlantic convoys and supporting the D-day landings. Last month in Portsmouth, the Polish Prime Minister joined Her Majesty the Queen, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the leaders of 14 other countries in remembering those who took part in the D-day landings.
Who could forget the 16 Polish squadrons that served in the Royal Air Force, making up the largest foreign contingent? Their bravery helped to turn the tide of the war at a critical moment. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command at the time, later wrote:
“Had it not been for the…Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”
Arguably the most famous squadron, 303 Squadron, was stationed at RAF Northolt. In March last year, when he was Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) visited the Battle of Britain bunker there with his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz to pay their respects.
There is a special House of Commons link with the Poles who fought in the Battle of Britain. There was only one serving RAF officer in the House of Commons at the time, Squadron Leader Robert Grant-Ferris, later Deputy Speaker and then Lord Harvington. After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill asked him to move the Loyal Address—in Church House, because our Chamber had been bombed. Harold Nicolson came up to him and said, “I have the perfect poem for your speech,” but he found it only the day after the opening of Parliament. That poem was Thomas Gray’s 18th-century prophecy, which forecast flight and, some might argue, the Battle of Britain. It says:
“The time will come, when thou shalt lift thine eyes
To watch a long-drawn battle in the skies,
While aged peasants, too amazed for words,
Stare at the flying fleets of wond’rous birds,
England, so long the mistress of the sea,
Where wind and waves confess her sovereignty,
Her ancient triumphs yet on high shall bear,
And reign the sovereign of the conquered air.”
Robert Grant-Ferris kept that poem—the best speech he never made—in his pocket for the rest of his life. Every time he told the story, he paid tribute to the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. May that poem be a tribute to Polish pilots. After 75 years, I am delighted that I, the son of an RAF officer, have been able to read it into the record of the House of Commons.
I have little time, so I will skip over many things that I would like to say about the strong relationship between the United Kingdom and Poland today. We work on many levels, and when we do, we look back 75 years and beyond at the marvellous relationship between our countries. I wish to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to say a few more words, so I will just say to all Poles that we in this House offer them our appreciation. To the generations of Poles before them, who fought bravely alongside the UK and our allies to rid Europe of the Nazis, we all offer our deep and enduring gratitude. To our Polish allies and friends today, I reaffirm our commitment to our vibrant modern partnership.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his words, particularly that moving poem. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this important debate, members of the Polish diaspora who are in the Gallery, and the many Poles around the United Kingdom who are watching on television.
When we go to Warsaw on parliamentary delegations, we do not go just to the Polish Parliament and the Senate. We take hon. Members to the Warsaw Rising Museum, so they can see for themselves, through films and photographs, the complete destruction of the city. Some 95% or 96% of Warsaw was destroyed in 1944. Adolf Hitler was so enraged, even at the end of the war, that the Poles were determined to push out the Nazis that he said that he wanted Warsaw to be completely expunged from the map of Europe.
Warsaw was absolutely obliterated in 1944, but despite the terrible oppression of the communists, the Poles rebuilt the city. Today, Poland has the fastest-growing economy in Europe at 4.6% per annum. It is becoming an economic engine in the Visegrád group and in central and eastern Europe.
Poland will be an important partner for us as we pull out of the European Union. Whatever our views on the European Union—the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and I have polarised views—we will need strong, strategic, bilateral partners that are also in NATO and members of the European Union. Warsaw will be one of our most important interlocutors as we continue to engage with the European Union and work together for the common benefit of our continent. I thank everybody for coming, and I thank you, Mr Pritchard, my Shropshire neighbour, for the professional and kind way in which you have chaired the debate, as always.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Polish contribution to the UK war effort in World War Two.
New Covent Garden Market
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the redevelopment of New Covent Garden market.
As a fellow Northamptonshire MP, Mr Hollobone, you might be slightly surprised that I am interested in this subject, but I hope to enlighten you in my contribution. The first records of Covent Garden supplying food to the population of London are from around 1200. By the 1800s, the market had expanded to cover more than 30 acres, with a covered market being built in 1834. In 1887, a foreign fruit exchange opened, which handled imported produce that was distributed widely beyond the capital city. By 1890, the market had become the most important fresh produce market in the United Kingdom, but space was tight and the market became a chaotic place. According to the Covent Garden Market Authority, people were complaining about congestion.
In 1904, the Jubilee Hall was built and in 1918, the Duke of Bedford sold the market and its trading rights to a property company. By 1929, the amount of produce flowing into the market had doubled since 1910 and congestion in the market area was getting worse. That congestion problem seems to be a recurring theme.
In 1961, with no space to grow, constant traffic jams and overcrowding, the market needed to move. Accordingly, the Covent Garden Market Authority was set up to modernise the market, and it passed into public ownership. Nine Elms, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), was identified as its new home. Construction of the new market began in 1971, and in 1974 the largest wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market in the country moved to the new site at Nine Elms, which was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen the following year.
At about that time, a young David Heaton-Harris went about setting up his own business with the help of some Lincolnshire farmers. What4 Ltd was the family business that I eventually went on to run before entering politics. I worked nights in the wonderful New Covent Garden Market for the best part of 11 years. Back in the day—this is relevant to the debate—we tried, as tenants, to buy the market from the Government, with other tenants, but they were not keen to sell such a prized asset.
For the past 45 years, the market has supplied fresh food and flowers to London and the south of England. According to Daniel Tomkinson, the chief executive of the market authority,
“New Covent Market plays a vital role in London’s hospitality and foodservice sectors. No award ceremony or major sporting event takes place in London without the input of one of the tenants. From quality fruit to flowers and amazing veg, this iconic Market is a key part of London’s life.”
Currently, 167 businesses trade on the market, employing 2,500 people. The aggregate turnover of businesses operating in the market in 2017 was about £626 million. That is a lot of fruit and vegetables. The market is expanding, and it is no surprise that that figure is a 6% increase on the 2016 numbers, as it is feeding a growing city.
The Mayor of London updated his final London food strategy in December 2018, and specifically commented on the need for “highly efficient supply chains” for the city of London. He committed to:
“Champion business support to food entrepreneurs and start-ups, and support London’s markets to increase their supply of fresh, local and seasonal produce to meet all Londoners’ cultural needs through the London Markets Board.”
New Covent Garden Market plays a huge part in filling those requirements.
From my conversations with the Minister, I know he understands how important the continuing existence and success of New Covent Garden Market is to the food supply chain for London and the south-east, and indeed the whole of England. He knows that there is a dispute between the market authority and the tenants of the market over its redevelopment. The Covent Garden Tenants Association was incorporated in April 1922. Its members are the traders on the market, and it has represented their interests for nearly 100 years. It represented my interests when I was a tenant on the market with What4. There is now the possibility of action, based on the infringement of traders’ rights under the terms of their agreements to occupy space in the market. That could easily be substantially expanded to incorporate claims that the market authority is acting in breach of its statutory duties.
I am sure the tenants would be delighted to have such an opportunity, but there would obviously have to be some sort of procurement process. That is not a possibility or a probability at this time because there are already contacts signed for the redevelopment of the market. It is a very good piece of real estate in London, where fantastic businesses are sited.
The market’s moves over the years have been driven by congestion more than almost anything else. On each occasion, the market’s success has meant that it needs more space. Ultimately, it moved to its current site because of the lack of space and because of the congestion in the area in the 1960s. Its redevelopment will mean that, for the first time in its 800-year history, in a growing market environment, its size will be reduced substantially.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I was not aware that he was a former tenant of the New Covent Garden Market. It is great that there is somebody here who has extensive knowledge and experience of this issue. He makes a really interesting point. New Covent Garden Market plays a huge role in my constituency of Battersea: it brings economic advantages to the local area and employs 2,000 people. Given that it has been growing and the income it generates has been increasing, does he agree that a new development that reduces its size is going backwards? It will not allow the market to thrive and go forward.
I agree. I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and the way she represents the market in this place. I regularly speak to various of my old friends—I think they are friends; lots of them were customers or people I bought things from, so perhaps they are business associates—and I know that she is a very good representative of the market who talks to the tenants a great deal and represents their concerns wisely.
We are squeezing a big, successful business into a smaller space. The market had a massive footprint, and when I was trading there a lot of it was not used effectively, so it is possible to understand some sort of consolidation, but the scale we are talking about now makes that an interesting prospect. At a time when the turnover of the businesses in the market is growing, it seems odd to reduce the market’s footprint. Although the tenants are not over-happy with the overall reduction in size, they have tried their best to make it work. Various pieces of land have already been sold off, and in some instances they are sold on again. The market area is to be reduced even more. Among other changes, the temporary flower market site will be incorporated into the main site. In essence, we are squeezing a quart into a pint pot and hoping that the businesses inside the pot do not get squeezed.
Over the years, the tenants have repeatedly raised concerns through their association that the proposed end-state configuration of the market that the authority is now engaged in building will not be able to operate successfully because the proposed layout and footprint simply will not accommodate the vehicle movements needed for the market to operate effectively and efficiently. The tenants of the market are very knowledgeable—and, indeed, vocal—about how the business of the market works, and their opinions about whether what is proposed will work should carry significant weight. They have retained the services of a specialist transport consultant, who advises that there are significant failings in the transport analysis and planning undertaken by the market authority. The Minister is well aware that the market authority is a public body that has a statutory duty to provide functioning market facilities and prevent traffic congestion on the market land.
The market authority is currently redeveloping the market under a contract entered into with the developer, Vinci and St Modwen Properties, in 2015. The developer commenced the main works in October 2018. Since then, an independent logistics consultant, instructed by the tenants association, has confirmed that, as designed, the market will not be operationally viable in parking and loading/unloading terms, and will therefore constrain the businesses it contains. The market authority has allowed the developer to start the construction works, but there are problems, because the tenants say that that has happened without the authority having taken the tenants’ logistics consultant’s advice about the design, and without its waiting to see the final report prepared by Arup, a logistics consultant instructed by the developer, which confirmed that the new market, as presently designed, would not be operationally viable. Arup’s final report said that to make it viable certain measures identified in a list contained in that report would need to be adopted. I am told that Arup had been asked by the market authority to use transport data that was known to be out of date and inaccurate when assessing the viability of the options, but it still came to that quite drastic conclusion.
The market authority has power under its contract with the developer to require changes to be made to the design of the market, but it has yet to decide to follow up Arup’s advice. Instead, the developer presses on with the works as they stand. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister is comfortable with that decision. I also wonder whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been provided with a report from a logistics consultant—or any report—confirming that, contrary to the view of either the tenants association’s logistics consultant or Arup itself, the current design will be operationally viable. If so, would it be possible for the tenants to see it, to give them some comfort that these changes will work?
This is where my old life as a tenant of the market comes into its own, because battles over rent were legendary back in the day when I worked in the market: in April this year, the market authority sent notices to terminate the tenancies of market tenants and threatened, in a letter from its solicitors, that if tenants did not immediately agree to give up their statutory right to apply for a new tenancy and agree to vacate their units at the expiry of the notice, they would not be offered tenancy of a unit in the newly developed market and would have to depart the market instead.
I know that changes at the top of the market authority have been welcomed by the tenants, and that much better conversations are being had now than have been had for many a year, but I do not believe that this is an appropriate way for a public authority to behave.
Additionally, the new draft leases issued by the Covent Garden Market Authority are removing the rights of the wholesale tenants to operate in the critical and traditional way on the bit of the market that everybody loves so much, the buyers walk or trading floor, turning that essential space into a corridor rather than a market. I can honestly tell the Minister that removing that space will almost completely remove the heart, soul and character of the market.
In the new leases, the market authority has also changed the rent negotiation process and general service charge calculations, as it has now declared that it is in fact a commercial landlord. Those actions will inevitably result in many of the smaller companies based at the market closing as the site becomes unaffordable.
Since the whole process started, there have been vast changes in how the market operates. Goods are now mostly chilled instead of being stored at ambient temperatures, and businesses’ being able to unload big lorries, repick orders and deliver in quick time continues to reduce the number of large vehicle movements required on London’s roads. However, that makes the traffic studies more important than most people believe. There is yet to be a traffic study conducted that says the future design of this important food distribution hub for London will work; indeed, all those that have been done, or at least those that are in the public domain, say that it will not. If it does not work, the market will eventually die. All the catering outlets, restaurants and food businesses currently served by the market will not go away; they will simply be catered for by businesses that travel many more miles to get into London, further adding traffic and pollution in this great city of ours.
I do not think we can ignore the facts, stand back and allow the developer and the market authority to build a market that is functionally inoperable. Action must be taken. I hope that the Government have given due consideration to the effect on tenants, businesses and the wider economy if the market were to go into decline or fail altogether. There is no need for that to happen.
I would like to think that the Minister, whose knowledge of and commitment to solving these issues is both impressive and welcome, will continue to ask those on all sides of this debate to come together to find a mutually agreeable and workable solution—all sides meaning the market authority, the tenants, the developer and the Department itself. This needs to be sorted before millions of pounds are wasted in court and one of the most vibrant parts of London’s market culture possibly ceases to be.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing the debate. I know him well; we have discussed the matter on several occasions, and I could not think of a better person to bring the debate to the Chamber today. I note that the local MP, the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), is also here and understandably shares many of the same concerns, but I think it is fair to say that, given my hon. Friend’s time spent working at the market, his knowledge and experience are second to none here, so we are delighted that he is with us. It must have been a real privilege for him to follow in his family’s footsteps and run that business so successfully for that period of time.
My hon. Friend can be reassured that the Government are committed to ensuring that this iconic market continues to thrive at Nine Elms, both during the development and into the future. We are in absolute agreement that that means it must be a profitable market that works logistically and operates fairly and transparently for both landlord and tenants, and that we need to get on and build it at pace. I am as concerned as he is about the current situation. It is simply untenable for the market authority and the tenants to be in disagreement on such important details. I am clear that both sides should be spending whatever time it takes to resolve these issues, and quickly.
The Minister is absolutely right that the matter needs to be resolved and that we cannot continue like this. The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has already asked this, but I want to ask it again: will the Minister commit to meeting tenants and the market authority, and any other relevant persons who need to be around the table, to begin to move things forward? I know that he has already had meetings, but we need to get something nailed down to ensure that we can begin to resolve this. As he rightly points out, we must get the market to a place where it is fit for purpose, but that has to be done right.
Of course I will help to facilitate that. As I think the hon. Lady knows, we have already had a roundtable meeting, but we can have more in the future. The next step is to ensure that we have a second meeting of the experts on both sides of the debate to move things forward, but if further facilitation is required, I will do it.
My personal view is that there are enough experts on both sides of the table, both the tenants, who are formidable traders, and the market authority. We must bring the two together with their experts. If I were in charge of the situation, I would probably put the key in a very safe place and let the two sides just get on with it, because, as I will go on to say, this has gone on longer than Brexit and, as complicated as it is, it is not as complicated as that.
Hon. Members here are all speaking with a similar voice. Certainly I, as the Minister responsible for this fantastic and iconic institution, echo the sentiment that we need to get on. These are difficult issues, but they are not insurmountable. It is clear that the market is a national treasure. Anybody who is interested in food only has to go along and see this amazing institution, smell it and soak up the atmosphere, because it is unbelievable.
I am fortunate that my second job, after my newspaper round, was working in a greengrocer’s shop every day after school—except for Wednesday, which was early closing, if anybody remembers that—and then all day Saturday. I was pretty good at stacking the oranges and enjoying the seasonal smells of those russet apples—food at its best. I was fortunate enough then to go on and work in Asda, running its home shopping business, as well as doing various other things in the food sector. The market should be cherished, and anybody wanting to go along should do so at 2 o’clock in the morning, as I was fortunate enough to do myself, just to feel that buzz. There is a huge amount of experience and a wealth of knowledge there, and some fantastic activities going on. It supplies the food—the very best fruit, vegetables and cut flowers available—to London, the south-east and the country.
However, the area needs to be transformed. It has an ageing infrastructure and needs to move to a more modern and flexible place to do business, fit for the 21st century. The old business structures and facilities are 45 years old now, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry looks young—sorry; perhaps I should not have said that, because he has been here a long time—even he would agree that the infrastructure needs to be improved, a bit like the facilities here in Parliament. However, the difference is that although we can decant, that is not possible for the market, given the space constraints.
There are big opportunities at the site, and we want to ensure that the market has a bright future for many generations to come. There are second and third-generation traders there, and it is part of their lives as well as their livelihoods, and we know that it is important for them to be able to carry on that important work. Refurbishing the site was looked at but did not offer good value for money, not least as the infrastructure would have to be replaced at some point in the future anyway, so there was a view that we needed to move on. The fact that the Government chose to invest in the market’s redevelopment is clear evidence of the value we place on it. A far easier option would have been simply to sell the land, but we chose not to do so because of our commitment to the market’s mission and its place in the food economy.
There are challenges for the market authority and the traders alike, and sadly it is not possible to rebuild the busiest wholesale horticultural market in the country while it continues to operate and not expect some disruption for all the players involved. That is unfortunate. It is true that the new market will occupy a smaller site when complete, as my hon. Friend highlighted. Smaller does not mean that it cannot be as profitable and effective in the future—indeed, it is vital that it is—but it does mean that it needs to change, not only in how the market is laid out but in how it operates.
I have every confidence that, working together, the market authority and the tenants can find a way to make sure that the market will thrive in its new design. This is not a question of whether it will work, but how. That means looking at both the operational design of the market and how the tenants operate within it. Between them, the market authority and the tenants—representatives of both are here today; they are outstanding people—know the market better than anyone else and must surely be best placed to solve the issue together.
None of this is insurmountable. An earlier challenge arose when the market authority, in discussion with the tenants, became concerned about how the developers would ensure that construction would not disrupt trading. It responded by stopping construction and insisting on more detailed plans from the developer to tackle this. Construction then recommenced, with work starting on the first of the main new market buildings last October.
All of this, along with some unexpected ground conditions, means that the project will take much longer than anyone envisaged or wanted—possibly up to three years longer. That is hard for the tenants, the market authority and everyone who comes to the market for business or pleasure. However, when things are tough, strong leadership is vital. In February I appointed a new chair of the market authority, and I am delighted that we have, in David Frankish, a chair who truly understands the business of the market, having built his own highly successful business in the food logistics industry. I am in regular dialogue with David and know that he shares my desire to do all that is necessary to resolve the current difficulties. Indeed, I am seeing him again in a week’s time, and we will absolutely focus on his plans to make urgent progress on these issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made a number of specific points about logistics that I will respond to in the time available. The market authority tells me that it shared the Arup report on logistics that he referred to with the tenants association and its solicitors last November. That report was based on a comprehensive new traffic survey that Arup conducted in December 2017. Arup also installed automatic traffic counters, which are still in place, to provide an ongoing ability to monitor vehicle flows. The data is continually shared with the tenants association’s own traffic experts, and I recognise that this data is part of the ongoing discussions. I hope that is helping the situation. If it is not, clearly we need to find other ways to share the data and to make it more meaningful.
I also understand that, while the Arup report raised a number of logistical issues with the final design that needed to be addressed, it did not conclude that the new market would be unviable. The report shortlisted 12 proposals to resolve operational issues. The market authority, in discussion with the tenants, has already adopted some of those, including making changes to road layouts and adding a second exit slip road to provide better operational flexibility at peak times. The market authority advises that none of the other proposals have been dismissed; some will be implemented later on in the redevelopment, and others will need further review, depending on how the market adapts to the changes already made. Although I understand that there is work still to do, it is important to recognise that changes have been made, and that the market authority has the flexibility to continue to adapt the design as the build progresses.
My hon. Friend raised questions about the market authority’s actions as a landlord. Even he indicated that, during his time as a tenant, there were some frictions and tensions, as there often are between landlord and tenant. However, we are committed to running a market that operates as a business and is fair for both the tenants and the landlord. The market authority is a public corporation that operates as a business with a high degree of autonomy from the Government and has a statutory duty to break even. We also need to ensure that taxpayers get a fair return for the public investment in the market.
Clearly the tenant-landlord relationship is a legal one, but it is not just about following the letter of law; it is also about working fairly and transparently together. It is not possible for me to go into the detail of individual tenant’s situations today, but the market authority has sought to assure me that it has worked to move tenants on to new leases in a fair way. Indeed, it has highlighted that, as part of the move, it has offered a landlord compensation package over and above any statutory compensation due, amounting to an equivalent of between three and half and four years’ rent at current levels.
I do not underestimate the complexity of the issues here and the strain that the current situation is putting on relationships. The stakes are high and the frustration is all too evident—again, it sounds a bit like Brexit. I am as disappointed as anyone that the market authority and the tenants have so far failed to reach a shared understanding of how the new market will operate successfully, but surely legal action is not the way to get there. I utterly agree that is a waste of everybody’s time, energy and money—except the lawyers’. I know that my hon. Friend does not want their pockets further lined.
I firmly believe that sitting down together and working through the issues is the only way to find solutions, avoid legal disputes and move on, and there needs to be more of it—more sitting down together, more listening, more communicating, more understanding and absolutely more pace. I am sure that every challenge that this project presents can be overcome by continuous, open and respectful communication and a sincere approach to collaborative working. I am fully committed to helping to make that happen in any way I can, to reiterate the point I made to the hon. Member for Battersea.
The next meeting with traffic experts is planned for 10 July, and DEFRA officials will absolutely be there. I urge both sides to use that meeting to make real progress. They should use the whole day or the rest of the week if needs be—whatever time it takes—but they should not leave that room until they have found ways to move things forward.
We have serious players on both sides, and we all—the market authority, the tenants and absolutely all across Government—want the same thing: a thriving market now and into the future, where logistics work smoothly and both tenants and landlord work together fairly and transparently to create a profitable market where these vital businesses can grow. The best way to secure that is through working constructively together. I know that that is the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry wants to hear, and I think that all of us in the House feel that, so let us get on with it.
Question put and agreed to.
Rural Areas in Scotland: Additional Delivery Charges
I beg to move,
That this House has considered additional delivery charges in rural areas in Scotland.
In the time-honoured phrase, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. This is a huge issue for my constituents and many others living in remote parts of Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. It has been around for a long time and, despite the best of intentions and sympathetic hearings in the past, it is hard for me, as a constituency MP, to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Let me set the scene, which I am sure will be familiar to hon. Members, by giving two examples. First, I will quote Mr Charles Macfarlane living in Shinness near Lairg in Sutherland, who gave written evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. He referred to
“the behaviour of businesses, most particularly couriers, in either refusing to deliver to the Highlands and Islands, or else doing so charging rates so grossly inflated as to be completely unrealistic.”
He gave two examples. The first was that delivery for an eBay item costing £10 would cost £4.80 if delivery was in the UK, but when the business hears that it is for the postcode IV27 in Sutherland, the cost goes up to £15.47. Mr Macfarlane also quoted, rather charmingly, the cost of four chair castors being delivered. The cost was £11.41 to buy the four chair castors, and the cost of UK delivery was £6, but when the business heard that it was to the highlands of Scotland, the cost went up to £15. As Mr Macfarlane says,
“click ‘Buy’ on a product on the web, put in a Highland postcode, and at a guess about 75% of the time a significant delivery surcharge will be applied, very often even when the product was advertised as ‘free UK delivery’…Then, to add injury to insult, the overcharged service from such couriers is slow and unreliable—often two or three times slower than sending it by second class post, and during this time the product may have been jolting around the Highlands in a van for up to a week before finally being delivered—I’ve had a computer hard drive be Dead On Arrival as a result, and had to wait a further time for it to be returned and replaced.”
Considering the number of emails and letters that I have received about this issue since being elected as an MP, I could fill up the entirety of my allotted time quoting, but I shall give just one more example, which particularly stands out to me. A constituent has written to me about ordering a sheet of perspex from a London company. My constituent says:
“They wanted £16 for delivery, until I told them the postcode, when the charge was revised to £212.”
That absolutely stopped me in my tracks.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I know that this issue affects his constituency more than that of most of us here. The Scottish Affairs Committee looked at the issue in, I think, December 2017 and we found lots of examples of just what he has been referring to, including people placing orders and then being contacted after the fact, when the order had already been accepted, to be asked to pay an exorbitant delivery charge. Do we not have to address the issue so that when people go online to buy a product, the delivery charge is there for all to see, and the website does not say “Free mainland delivery” if that is not the case?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want to take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members from both sides of the House who take this issue seriously. The fact that it is taken seriously means a lot to my constituents.
Surely, if a consumer sees delivery advertised as to the “UK”, it should be to the UK. Surely these companies are failing to realise that the highlands are every bit as much part of the UK as Wales or Yorkshire. It could be suggested that delivery to the highlands might be cheaper were the goods going only as far as Inverness, at which point the buyer could drive down to get them, but when we consider that for many of my constituents the return journey to and from Inverness is 200 miles and we think about the cost of petrol and the wear and tear on the vehicle, we see that these extra costs are most unwelcome.
I want to touch on Amazon, because there is a worrying new development. In the past, Amazon has, very honourably, had most of its retailers advertise a set rate for delivery to all parts of the UK, and it had a good reputation for that. However, Amazon has recently suggested intentions to move away from standard charges and allow marketplace sellers to surcharge for the first time. That would be seriously bad news and yet another financial burden on my constituents.
As I said at the outset, this issue has been around for a long time. Many of my constituents say to me that the charges are nothing more than a geography tax—one that they can ill afford. Living in my remote part of the UK already entails a high cost of living that simply cannot be avoided. I am sure that everyone has heard now and again that Altnaharra, in the middle of Sutherland, is the coldest place in the UK. There is, in particular, the cost of winter heating, while the cost of the distance of unavoidable transport is a burden on families, and sadly the prices in our national supermarkets are often slightly higher in my constituency than they would be in other parts of the UK. Of course, the latter point will have to wait for another day, because supermarket pricing per se is a separate issue and nothing to do with delivery charges.
The lion’s share of my contributions in this Chamber and the main Chamber during my two years in this place have been about sustaining local people in local jobs and local enterprises. As hon. Members will know only too well—and as will anyone who has studied Scottish history—depopulation has been the curse of the highlands for hundreds of years. If we want to enable people to live and prosper in the highlands, we have to ensure that the economic climate in which they live is on the same level playing field as other parts of the UK. What we know about delivery charges means that that is not at all the case. To put it simply, people on basic incomes are having to pay far more for many consumer items than their friends and relations have to in Glasgow, Birmingham or London. That is not fair and it means a stark warning for us this afternoon. I will put it this way: if this inequality is not addressed, many local people might simply decide that life to the south would be a lot easier and move away. It would be a tragedy to return to the bad old times of the past. Those empty schools are a sight that none of us wants to see again.
There is a good historical example. When the penny post was introduced in 1839, it was based on the fundamental principle that a letter or parcel would cost the same to be delivered to an address in, say, Ealing or Westminster, or Wick or Durness in Caithness and Sutherland. That is why the Post Office and the Royal Mail are so dear to our hearts and why this is as popular an institution today as it ever was. It was seen to be fair, and that was seen to be good. I put it to hon. Members that today, alas, we have moved rather far from that early 19th-century concept of what was basically a right of ordinary people.
If people read, as I am sure the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has, today’s edition of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, they will see my erstwhile colleague and former member of the Scottish Government, Mr Richard Lochhead, talking about this issue. In particular, he mentions something called consumeradvice.scot, an initiative launched a couple of months ago. It offers free advice on delivery law and urges shoppers to report misleading practices, and it tells companies what would be best practice for them. I applaud Mr Lochhead. He speaks of “rip-off” delivery charges and I commend his words.
However, there is a hitch, and that is really why I am making this speech. The Scottish Government are indeed to be praised for grasping the issue, and so too is the Highland Council, which I am bound to mention—I was a member until two years ago. The Highland Council certainly understands the issue of delivery charges in the highlands. However, the awkward truth remains that although there is a mechanism whereby complaints are logged and best practice is suggested to retail companies, there is no power, with teeth, to change the way that the companies operate. That, for all the best intentions of the Scottish Government, the Highland Council and others, means that we are not going to get to the nub of the problem.
It is my deeply held belief that with this Government or, indeed, a future Government, we do not know what is ahead of us; we are peering into a dark glass at the moment. I think that all of us, on both sides of the Chamber of the House of Commons, would agree with that, but I do think that the Government in the future, whoever they may be, would do well to look at putting in place proper legislation to bring the system into some sort of order whereby fairness is built in for people.
I am bound to put it on the record also that members of the UK Government and this Minister herself have given me a sympathetic hearing in the past and that that is appreciated. There is food for thought here, and if we could come to a constructive dialogue about how we could put in place some sort of legislation, that would be helpful.
There is a second and final warning—I think I have taken up my allotted time. If we fail to tackle this issue, which makes my constituents and many others living in remote parts of Scotland and elsewhere in the UK slightly second-class citizens, we will be failing them. There is an example from history. In the 1960s, the then Labour Government recognised the needs of the highlands and islands, recognised that the highlands and islands, in the phrase of the time, were on the UK’s conscience, and took the bold step of establishing the Highlands and Islands Development Board. That altruistic move brought great good to the highlands and islands. It was very much to the credit of that Government. I very much hope that a similar generosity of spirit and attention will be taken up by the leaders of our nation today and tomorrow. We have waited a very long time for real action. If something can be done and serious consideration given to this issue, on a personal level that would mean a great deal to my constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I give my genuine and heartfelt thanks to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for securing this debate. I am both delighted and frustrated that we are here again to debate this matter—delighted because a Minister will respond to the concerns of MPs representing their constituencies across much of the north of Scotland, and frustrated because it is not the first time the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue, nor is it the first time I have raised it.
Since mentioning this matter in my maiden speech two years ago, I have mentioned it at Prime Minister’s questions, held a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate, raised it at Business questions and suggested that the Scottish Affairs Committee hold an inquiry into it, which it did. This matter has been raised many times, on the Floor of the House, in Westminster Hall and in our Committee Rooms. I have also met with the Minister a number of times to discuss this matter.
The issue of excessive and rip-off delivery charges affects not just the highlands of Scotland, but the whole of my Moray constituency. It is absolutely incredible that in 2019—in this day and age—couriers and companies still say that Moray and the highlands are not part of mainland United Kingdom. I do not know how many times we have to say this to get the message through, but they seem blind to the fact that Moray, the highlands, the north-east and other parts of Scotland are part of the mainland United Kingdom. One does not need to take a plane to get to Elgin or Caithness; it is all joined together as part of mainland UK and it should be treated the same.
At this point I want to congratulate the postmen and parcel people who work for Royal Mail and deliver six days a week to all areas, in all kinds of weather. All we are asking for in Royal Mail is a level playing field. Some of these couriers are charging ridiculous prices. We can do it; all we ask for is a level playing field for everyone. I congratulate all the postmen who do their work there.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman might need to correct the record. As a former postman, he should have declared his interest to the House. He is clearly still a part of that, as twice in a short intervention he said “we”. I say that in jest, because he brings great experience as a postman from before he was elected to this place. It is useful to have his contribution, because those workers undoubtedly do a service. However, we are really challenging the couriers’ add-on prices, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross set out clearly in his opening remarks. Someone might go online, view a product, decide that they want it and agree the price, only to find an additional cost on top of that simply because the company believes that they live too far away to deliver the product easily.
As a fellow Member of Parliament for the north-east of Scotland, I thank our friend, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for raising this important issue. I share my hon. Friend’s frustration at having to bring this issue up again. On the point that he has just made, I wonder whether he has had the same experience that I and others have had at the final check- out point online. I was ordering a sofa, which happened to be for my flat in London, but at the last minute the website said, “Not available for delivery in Scotland”—nowhere in Scotland, never mind AB or IV postcodes. I nearly refused to order it on principle, but I needed a sofa. There are great frustrations with getting deliveries to the north of Scotland, for example to Moray. I received an email last week from a constituent with a business in Peterhead, in my constituency. He was concerned that deliveries are going to Elgin and Aberdeen, but they are missing out what seems to be thought of as the extreme north-east corner.
That is even worse! In all seriousness, my hon. Friend raises a valid point. He can get something delivered to London, but not to his constituency of Banff and Buchan. I will mention some examples that have been raised with me since I last held a debate on this matter, because there are some anomalies with the practice that these companies use. It is frustrating that the charge is added on at the end of the purchase.
I want to give a couple of examples. The first one was really remarkable. A constituent of mine in Fochabers went online and found the product they wanted. Their postcode for Fochabers in Moray is IV, like the rest of the highlands. When they put their postcode in, they immediately incurred a greater charge. He phoned up the company, which said, “We put this charge on all IV postcodes, but not AB postcodes.” My constituent happens to have another address in Clochan, which is three or four miles from Fochabers, but has an AB postcode. When he put in that address, there was no delivery charge.
What makes this even more remarkable is that the product was delivered by Parcelforce from its depot in Inverness, and to get from Inverness to Clochan, one has to go through Fochabers, to go further down the road to Clochan. There my constituent had free delivery, but had he wanted the product delivered closer to the Parcelforce depot, he would be charged extra simply because of his postcode. Not only do the couriers not understand that Moray and the highlands are part of mainland Scotland; they do not even understand the local geography and will deliver something further away at no cost, as compared with delivering something to a different postcode.
A constituent has emailed me another example, which I have written to the Advertising Standards Authority about. This constituent is a charity fundraiser. She wanted to purchase five tins to collect money for her charity. The tins cost £2.98 each. She was happy with that price and was going to purchase them for the charity. However, there was a £10.50 charge to deliver those five tins, because the charity, Outfit Moray, is based in Moray and has an IV postcode for its headquarters in Lossiemouth. The price to deliver the product was equivalent to the cost of three and half charity tins. It is simply wrong that charities, individuals, consumers and constituents are being punished in this way.
I want to give some examples of action taken in response to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and other Members from all parties having raised this matter. Every time I get a case regarding this—I get many—I write to the Minister, with whom I am in regular correspondence, and I write to the Advertising Standards Authority, because it is wrong and unacceptable that the charge is added only after the purchase is made.
I have had two examples in the last couple of months where the Advertising Standards Authority has written back to say that it agrees. The first case involved chums.co.uk, which said it was offering free standard UK delivery for orders over £50. However, when the ASA received my complaint it investigated and agreed that IV postcodes appear to be charged a delivery fee. As well as that, “The delivery information section of the website states that there is a standard postage fee for the UK mainland and that is clearly not the case.” The ASA continues: “The delivery information on the company’s website looks like it is misleading and our compliance team are taking action by sending an enforcement notice.” Another case came up last month, this time involving amenity.co.uk. The ASA said that it agreed there was a problem with its delivery claims, and it too will be sent an enforcement notice.
I use those examples not because I condone what was happening, but to show what happens when we raise the matter and get in touch with the companies—I always write to the company and say that I am reporting it to the Advertising Standards Authority. It is encouraging that the ASA is now taking enforcement action to deal with this. However, we are only picking at the surface. Of all the constituents who contact me and those in the hon. Gentleman’s geographically vast constituency, which is punished in the same way as Moray, many will just give up, move on and buy something elsewhere. They should not be forced to do that. They should be able to purchase a product that anyone else in Scotland or across the UK could purchase for the same delivery price.
May I start my intervention with an anecdote? Many years ago, a letter from the United States of America arrived in my home town, addressed to “The representative of the Lord Jesus Christ, Tain”, and some wag in the post office wrote “Try Jamie Stone” on it.
The point about delivery companies is that they do not always leave the parcel where they should. I have heard too many examples of old ladies finding their parcel months later in the garden shed or some other completely inappropriate place.
As the Leader of the House sometimes says at business questions, that is an excellent topic for an Adjournment debate. The hon. Gentleman rightly raises an important issue that we could debate for many hours and links it to the important issue of excessive, rip-off delivery charges.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to support what MPs across the parties are trying to do on the issue. Considerable work has been done in the Scottish Parliament, both by the Scottish Government and on a cross-party basis. The Scottish Government have launched an excessive parcel delivery charges map, and they want constituents to contact their MSPs so that they can put their information on it—they say that that will highlight where the problem exists. However, although there are some examples outwith the north-east of Scotland, the highlands and islands, and Moray, I think that we can comfortably say that those are the areas most affected. I am sure that the map will tell us what we already know, but what we need is solutions.
It is right that the Advertising Standards Authority should take action when cases are raised, but we need it to be proactive rather than reactive. I am pleased to have been invited to join a new body that it has set up for MPs to work with it on the issue. Ultimately, we have to get a simple message across to the companies and the couriers. First, it is not acceptable for the companies to say, “That is a charge that our courier puts on.” They should change their courier. If a courier cannot tell the difference between mainland UK and the islands, or if it thinks that Moray and the highlands are an island, it does not deserve to be a courier. Secondly, the couriers need to wise up. Inflicting these charges on people in Moray, in the highlands and across the north-east of Scotland is unacceptable, inappropriate and damaging to their reputations and to the reputations of the companies that they pretend to serve.
I know that the Minister takes the issue seriously. She has met me and we have done some good work on the issue, but we need to do more. It is unacceptable that this practice continues in this day and age—we need to stop it once and for all.
I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for securing this important debate. I am delighted to participate in it, although I wish it were not necessary, because it has a pressing relevance not just to people in the north-east, but to my constituents—particularly those who have the great pleasure of living on the islands of Arran and Cumbrae. Like a million other consumers across Scotland, they face the challenges of coping with unfair delivery surcharges and late deliveries, or are even excluded from delivery services altogether when shopping online.
We must be under no illusion, because this is more than an inconvenience; it has a genuinely negative impact on rural businesses as well as consumers. Citizens Advice research tells us that the UK parcels market has grown by more than 50% since 2010, and much of that growth has been driven by parcels sent to consumers who shop online. The Scottish Parliament information centre has costed additional parcel delivery surcharges for Scottish consumers, in comparison with the rest of the UK, at approximately £38 million per year, which is completely unacceptable. A shocking £11.4 million of that is spent by consumers over the Christmas period, simply because of where they live.
Despite a fair delivery charges campaign, the figures are rising, and at a time when more and more of us are shopping online, for a variety of reasons. That is self-evidently and necessarily the case for those who live in rural areas. Some of us pay what can only be described as a postcode tax, which is often imposed randomly by some retailers, although not all. Such charges are discriminatory and hit consumers and rural businesses in fragile areas very hard indeed. The problem is deeply concerning for my constituents and other rural constituents. The penalising of the delivery of goods bought online and the consumer exclusion are such that 10.9% of retailers exclude some Scottish islands from a delivery service altogether.
The statement of principles on parcel deliveries has had little effect on the problem. The UK statement of principles is designed to assist retailers in their policies on the delivery of goods purchased over the internet by individual consumers. It sets out best practice principles for how retailers can ensure that their delivery services meet the needs of consumers. The UK-wide statement of principles builds on the Scottish guidelines that were launched in November 2013. The principles have arisen following agreement between representatives of the UK and Scottish Governments, online retailers, parcel delivery operators and consumer organisations. The logic is that having companies follow the course of actions outlined in the principles is helpful in ensuring that the UK parcels delivery market works in the interests of consumers and businesses. However, the last time I checked—perhaps the Minister has more recent figures—only four out of 449 businesses had even heard of the principles.
There is no doubt that the UK Government need to use the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to support education for businesses about the requirements under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. There also needs to be support for education for consumers about the information that they should be provided with and the minimum standards defined in the regulations. The principles were designed to secure a better, fairer deal for consumers in our rural areas, but not enough work has been done to increase delivery operator and retailer buy-in to the principles with a plan of action to promote the scheme.
There is no doubt that the Scottish Government’s road equivalent tariff ferry fare structure should have helped to reduce the costs of delivering goods to islands such as Arran and Cumbrae, but I am afraid that the reductions seem not to have been passed on to consumers. More work must be undertaken with delivery operators for our rural and island consumers across Scotland. We need to ensure that customers on islands and in rural areas can access a full range of delivery options to their local post office, local shop or any other place that is convenient to them and may reduce costs.
The Scottish Government have done all they can about the issue with the very limited powers they have, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross pointed out, but not a great deal has changed in reality. The Scottish Government have unveiled the “Fairer Deliveries For All” plan to protect rural consumers and businesses and empower online shoppers to recognise and act on unfair and misleading delivery costs. The Scottish Government’s work on a voluntary code is also important, but the real power to put the matter right lies with the UK Government, who need to act. Our rural consumers and businesses need them to use their powers to regulate and do the right thing, so that they can access a fair deal.
I want a better deal for my island constituents on Arran and Cumbrae, and for rural constituents across Scotland and the UK. That is why I support a people’s delivery guarantee to pull together all aspects of delivery charges and guarantees, and to ensure that consumers are getting the fair deal that they deserve—not being misled by claims that delivery will be free, only to be told during or after purchase that that is not the case. The Minister may tell us that the Advertising Standards Authority launched a crackdown last year on misleading claims about rural delivery charges to consumers, but that has not really delivered the change that rural communities need.
I understand the hon. Lady’s argument and her point that more could be done, but I have given concrete examples of the ASA taking action. We should at least recognise that companies are now receiving enforcement notices, which was not happening in recent months and years.
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Advertising Standards Authority has been launching initiatives to crack down on such practices, but my point is that the kind of real change that he and I hope for has not come about.
A million consumers in rural Scotland face punitive surcharges. That has to stop. There needs to be better and greater dialogue between the UK Government and the delivery operators. The UK Government can and should regulate charges. Concrete and decisive action is needed to ensure that consumers in large areas of Scotland do not face higher delivery charges or even have their orders refused.
I first spoke out on this issue four years ago, weeks after first being elected as an MP, and in that time I have seen the Scottish Government do what they can to improve a bad situation over which they have no real power. This Parliament and this Government have the power to deliver the fairness and the inclusion that is needed. I urge the Minister to use her good offices to deliver change at long last. For the most part, self-regulation has failed. I really hope that we will not still be debating this injustice four years from now. We know what the issue is and we know that it can be remedied, so I hope that we can stop endlessly debating it and instead act. It really is time that my constituents on Arran and Cumbrae, and rural consumers right across Scotland and the UK, are no longer disadvantaged by this postcode tax.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing this important debate. I recall his excellent contribution in a debate on broadly similar themes that was secured by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) around 18 months ago.
However, it is disappointing to see that there has been so little progress in tackling this unfairness since that previous debate. The Minister responsible at the time, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), assured us that the consumer Green Paper would be the start of the process of finding an answer, but the Green Paper did not mention the issue at all. We are still awaiting the response to the Green Paper consultation, and by later this week we will have been waiting for one year. Can the Minister here today say when we can expect the response?
It has been valuable today to learn about not only the problems that consumers continue to face, but the actions that have been taken since the previous debate. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has already referred to the Scottish Parliament’s actions, and hopefully there will soon be some clarity on many of these issues, including misleading delivery charges. However, I take on board both his comments and those of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who also issued a plea to the UK Government to assist them in this matter, because it is Government action that is needed. I was interested to hear the hon. Lady talk about the people’s delivery guarantee, which I think is an excellent idea. I hope that the Minister will take that up and tell us more about it later. There should be more work with delivery companies, and more information and reporting, but those things are useful only up to a point. The evidence that we have heard today has shown that the core problem—the hugely inflated delivery prices that many people face—still exists.
The universal service obligation ensures that firms that use the Royal Mail for deliveries are able to charge precisely the same amount for the highlands as for any other UK address. Regrettably, however, many UK online retailers have moved away from using the Royal Mail. The Government must consider how, in the deregulated postal market, the universal service obligation protects consumers in rural Scotland. Will the Minister examine and assess the effectiveness of the universal service when it comes to protecting rural customers?
The Postal Services Act 2011 sets out the universal service obligation as a service that must simply be available, rather than guaranteeing a consumer the right to access a universal service when a third party, such as an online retailer, is contracting the delivery. The obligation means that for anyone sending post below 20 kg, there is a fixed price to any UK address. That is all well and good in protecting citizens’ rights when people send items themselves, but the majority of online deliveries are by retailers that operate across the UK.
A retailer’s commercial motive will lead it towards wanting to offer incredibly cheap or free delivery to the majority of its customers. In recent years we have seen nearly every online retailer splash an offer of free delivery on their homepage. In fact, led by Amazon, same-day delivery is being pushed as the new ultimate convenience. However, Members will know that not only is that promise rarely universally available, but the desire of online sites to offer delivery leads them to move away from the somewhat higher price of the universal service offered by Royal Mail and towards competitors who can offer cheaper services. Clearly, that is at the cost of consumers in the highlands and islands, who have to pay the exorbitant rates that we have heard about today.
In the previous debate, I said that Ofcom needs to be empowered to take action to ensure that this geographic discrimination is tackled. The then Minister disagreed, on the basis that some delivery firms do not charge additional rates in Scotland. That is true, and I encourage all retailers to choose one of these firms to deliver their goods, if they do not use Royal Mail. However, the Government’s position completely misses the point that consumer choice should naturally be about choosing the best quality and value products. Other than by using a few select retailers, consumers cannot choose to go with Royal Mail as an option, so in this environment a universal service does not really exist.
Ofcom continues to report a fall in the cost of parcel postage, due to increased competition. That is good news for the majority of UK consumers, but with margins becoming tighter it represents quite the opposite for consumers in rural locations, as it makes it increasingly unlikely that the highlands and islands will be included at equal rates. I fear that without genuine action the outlook for many Scottish families is bleak. The market is moving at pace towards a low-cost convenience model, and it is difficult to imagine that rural Scotland will be a beneficiary of the change.
It is clear that there is a market failure that must be corrected. I believe that Ofcom can make that correction, if it is correctly instructed. There are two approaches that the Government should consider. First, when there is an option to select Royal Mail delivery, there is a degree of protection available to consumers. The Government should consider how they can ensure that as large a part of the delivery market as possible has an option for Royal Mail delivery, either by a voluntary agreement or, if necessary, by regulation.
Secondly, Ofcom could add geographic delivery to its list of regulated prices. That could certainly curb the worst examples of overcharging faced by rural Scottish communities. Ofcom has used its regulatory powers to cap broadband and phone prices. Therefore, given the evidence of overcharging for delivery, it is logical to cap parcel delivery costs too.
In conclusion, will the Minister recognise that the Government must move beyond guidance and warm words, and instead take real action to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people do not continue to suffer this unfair penalty?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing this important debate on an issue that continues to be important for his constituents and those of other Members. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions and the passion with which they represent consumers in their communities.
As the hon. Gentleman will remember, we met last November to discuss his concerns about this issue and we have since corresponded, including my recent responses to the parliamentary questions that he has tabled. I understand the concerns that he and others who are here today have raised that consumers in some parts of Scotland are being charged more for delivery than those in other parts of the UK. I also recognise that similar issues exist for consumers in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to take part in the debate and to outline the progress that has been made since this issue was last debated in Westminster Hall in a debate responded to by a previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), back in December 2017. The Government are committed to promoting growth in the UK economy. The growth in online shopping is increasingly important in achieving that and it is of particular importance to rural communities, where access to physical retail outlets is limited. As hon. Members have said, it is crucial that retailers are up front about their delivery charges, including where they deliver to, what they charge and when premiums apply. Consumers will then know where they stand and can make an informed decision before they purchase. That is what the law requires.
The Government strongly encourage businesses to provide consumers, as far as possible, with a range of affordable delivery options. To help to achieve that, the Government have ensured that everybody, including retailers, has access to an affordable postal service for deliveries across the UK under the universal service obligation, which has been mentioned in the debate. Through the universal service obligation, Royal Mail delivers parcels up to 20 kg, five days a week, at uniform rates throughout the UK. Let me make it clear that it is up to businesses themselves to determine the most appropriate delivery option for the consumers of their products. There are no rules to prevent differential charging between businesses for deliveries, and I do not believe that, for example, imposing a price cap is a practical answer. We should not seek to force retailers to use a specific supplier, such as Royal Mail, because competition in the delivery market is an important driver of efficiency. A competitive market should be a sufficient incentive to put pressure on charges applied by retailers and delivery operators.
There are positive signs that things are changing and businesses are listening. Wayfair took the decision earlier this year to scrap delivery charges for orders over £40 to anywhere in the UK and to charge a standard rate of £4.99 for orders below that threshold. That type of commercial decision will set the company apart from its competitors, drive competition and lead to lower costs. On the delivery side, Menzies Parcels launched a highland parcels service last year, which enables delivery to a virtual address for onward delivery at a fixed price.
Provided that consumers have the information they need at the point of purchase and the ability to shop around, shopping around is effective. Research from December 2017 shows that 59% of those faced with a surcharge often, or always, find the item elsewhere online. However, I can reassure hon. Members that the Government are not complacent. The Consumer Protection Partnership, chaired by my officials in the Department, has recognised the issue as a priority that needs to be addressed.
As hon. Members know, the CPP has been looking over the past year to improve online retailers’ compliance with consumer protection law and considering concerns raised about the level and fairness of parcel surcharging. Its work has involved partners including Citizens Advice Scotland, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, the Advertising Standards Authority, and the Competition and Markets Authority. The partners have been working with both the parcel and retail industries and other external organisations, including Ofcom. The work has included liaising with bodies representing both operators and retailers to try to understand the pricing models and structures that influence pricing decisions. The aim is to help industry—both parcel operators and retailers—to find a solution that works for all parties, including consumers.
We have also been liaising with officials in the Scottish Government, who launched a fair delivery action plan last November that maps both delivery hotspots in Scotland and what might constitute a fair charge. The CPP work will be informed by the outcomes and conclusions of that action. The CPP also worked with highland trading standards, the Citizens Advice consumer service and Advice Direct Scotland to launch the delivery law portal last year, which will gather information about delivery charges and parcel surcharging to inform the work and support enforcement. In the past year, the portal has received up to 1,000 hits per day. Referring potential breaches and unfair practices to the site will help enforcement agencies to ensure that retailers meet their legal obligations.
Significant work has been undertaken by the ASA and the CMA to ensure that businesses comply with the legislation, and both have acted swiftly where that has not happened. The ASA, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with the British code of advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing, has issued more than 200 enforcement notices to online retailers regarding their parcel surcharging practices and has achieved a compliance rate of more than 95%.
The CMA has issued a number of advisory notices to major retail platforms and, as a result, eBay and Amazon have reviewed and improved their policies and guidance for retailers who sell via their platforms. However, on the back of this debate, and the intelligence mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that suggests that Amazon may be taking a retrograde step in what it allows its online retailers to do with delivery charges, I would be happy to raise the matter directly with Amazon. I would be very grateful for any information that could be provided to me as the Minister, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue.
I reiterate that the advisory notices are making companies such as eBay and other online platforms look at their practices and review them. The CMA continues to work through primary authorities to ensure continued improvement in this area. On the legal compliance side, significant progress has been made and our enforcement partners will continue to monitor and take action where necessary.
I want to touch on a few of the issues hon. Members have raised, beginning with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He is right to highlight that we expect more of our online retailers and that they should be up front and transparent with their consumers. Applying large surcharges after a purchase has taken place is therefore something we take seriously on the enforcement side. I concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) said about when he has had issues and has been able to get the ASA involved to carry out enforcement. That is highlighted by the number of enforcement notices the ASA has levied over the past year.
I highlight again that the CMA has issued, and will continue to issue, advisory notices where it sees fit. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray was absolutely right to raise a concern about postcodes. Such issues need to be raised directly with retailers. I co-chair the Retail Sector Council with Richard Pennycook and, although this is not a workstream within the council, I commit here today to mention it at the next meeting as an issue that particularly affects Scottish consumers. At least then we can ensure that from a knowledge and a lobbying point of view those retailers understand that there are problems for their Scottish customers.
Companies are missing out on business when they choose to employ couriers that charge large surcharges for deliveries into the highlands. If the information is transparent, the consumer has the opportunity to shop around, and we have seen from research that 60% of consumers will do that and will find a cheaper price or a different supplier. Retailers need to understand that they are potentially missing out on a very valuable market by being restrictive with the Scottish market. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is absolutely right about Scottish consumers. The evidence suggests that people in Scotland pay 30% more for their deliveries, and in the highlands the figure can go up to 50%. That is why the CPP’s work has yet to be finished; we are still monitoring the matter and will continue to engage with the industry and retailers.
I am not sure whether I have stood with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and spoken about Scottish surcharges, but we have spoken about most things consumer. She is absolutely right to challenge me on when the potential White Paper will be launched. I can assure her that I have been particularly interested in and working on the enforcement side and, although I cannot guarantee a date today, we hope to introduce it as soon as possible. She is right to highlight the beauty of our universal service, which offers 20 kg at a fixed price to anywhere in the UK, and it is a shame that some retailers have moved away from using it.
We can never forget that the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who is no longer in his place, is a postman. Every opportunity he gets, he bangs the drum on behalf of Royal Mail, our posties and the great service they provide. It is correct that businesses can choose to use different couriers. Some businesses will argue that in certain cases, further costs are incurred for delivering within Scotland and the highlands, which need to be passed on to the consumer. However, we are committed to continue working on that.
On the point that the Minister has made about further costs sometimes being involved, I take her back to my example, in which companies are not looking at the costs involved; they are simply looking at a postcode. In Moray, when they deliver further because the address has a different postcode, some companies charge no more for delivery than they do for an address that is closer to the depot. If companies were looking at it strategically, based on their costs, I could maybe understand it, but they are not; they are taking a blanket approach for any IV postcodes, and that is not right.
I agree; my hon. Friend has highlighted a particular example. Since he has been elected, he has spoken with me many times, and he is known as a champion in this area. He has been pushing me as much as any constituency MP to take action. He has raised the issue of postcodes with me, and he is right that in that particular circumstance, there seems to be an absolute unfairness for the Scottish consumer. That is why one of the most important things is that we are working with couriers and highlighting the unfairness of that example.
We are putting pressure on businesses to make sure that when they instruct a courier with a contract, they do so with the best interests of their Scottish and Northern Irish consumers at heart. In some cases, we are talking about large retailers that have buying power, and they have the ability to go into negotiation with those couriers and negotiate better prices and services. I am particularly concerned about the small online retailers that do not have buying power with the couriers and, because of the number of parcels they send out in a day, cannot negotiate with them to perhaps get those surcharges reduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray is absolutely right: we need to continue to move forward and get more transparency.
I welcome the work that the Scottish Government have been doing on this, because they are close to this area. We in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the CPP will keep engaged with the Scottish Government, and a lot of their work and its results will inform what we are doing with the CPP. I understand hon. Members’ frustration about what they perceive as a lack of progress, but I believe we have made progress, although it may not have been along the lines they would have liked to see. We have taken enforcement action; we are looking at this area, and it is being monitored. It is also right that we continue to do our best to make retailers consider their consumers who are being disadvantaged, because in not being able to supply products to those Scottish consumers, those retailers are ultimately the ones that are missing out. I congratulate the CPP on its work to ensure that when consumers purchase goods online, information is up front and transparent, and to take action swiftly when that is not the case.
Although there might be no quick fix on this issue, and although I am unconvinced at this moment about the need for further legislation, that does not mean that the issue is being ignored. I look forward to hearing about further progress through the CPP’s work and the Scottish Government’s initiatives. I am happy to update Members about progress as that work continues, and I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for having secured the debate.
I understand the concerns of Members. After the next meeting of the Retail Sector Council, I commit that I will write to Members present today to outline what I was able to raise there. This is about a two-pronged attack: dealing with the couriers, but also making the retailers recognise that their decision making has an impact on consumers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the consumer Minister, I of course want there to be fairness and transparency for consumers throughout the United Kingdom, including those in the Scottish highlands and mainland Scotland.
It falls to me to thank each and every one of the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. In contrast to Westminster 25 or 30 years ago, a lot of people these days watch these events, thanks to the internet and the televising of Parliament. I know my constituents will be pleased that such thought has been given to an issue that matters greatly to them.
Secondly, I will spare the blushes of the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney)—who is no longer with us—but it is true that the Royal Mail is held in very high esteem. If we look at the level of esteem of various professions, I am afraid that postmen and postladies are held in much higher esteem than politicians.
The answer, when we reach it, has to be thorough and to work for consumers, and I very much hope that it will involve the Royal Mail. I do not want to over-dramatise the issue, because using language that is too strong will not help the cause. The Minister has taken on board the points made, and I am grateful for that. In brief, it seems to me that it would be a terrible thing if the sheer cost of living for people who live in remote straths and glens in the highlands led to their considering moving away. People moving south was the old curse of the highlands, so I hope we will never see that day. When the public good is in all of our hearts, I am sure we can avoid that situation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered additional delivery charges in rural areas in Scotland.