Wednesday 3 July 2019
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
Red Squirrels: Potential Extinction
I beg to move,
That this House has considered potential red squirrel extinction.
“This is a tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin. He had a brother called Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.”
That is from “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” by Beatrix Potter, written in 1903. The lake and the island that Beatrix Potter described are of course St Herbert’s Island on Derwentwater in my Copeland constituency. Sadly, the abundance of red squirrels that Beatrix Potter described—or sciurus vulgaris, to give our only native tree squirrel its Latin name—could never be enjoyed today. I believe that the decline of the red squirrel is a national tragedy. Its numbers across the UK have declined from an estimated 2.5 million, as recorded over 100 years ago, to the latest count of just 140,000, with only 15,000 left in England. It is a harrowing tale of human intervention, bounties, woodland destruction, predation and disease, but there is hope.
In Cumbria, we are just about retaining our red squirrel stronghold, thanks to the dedication of volunteer conservation groups such as the West Lakes Squirrel Initiative, which I have been proud to support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this matter, which I spoke to her about last night. I am very pleased that in my constituency of Strangford—particularly in Mount Stewart, which is run by the National Trust—there is a red squirrel conservation project, which is ably supported and very successful. Alongside that, there are the red squirrel projects at Rosemount in Grey Abbey and on the Ballywalter estate, which are two shooting estates. Does she agree that when it comes to preserving the red squirrel, the eradication or removal of the grey squirrel is important, because of the pox that it carries, and that to do that we need the co-operation of landowners, shooting organisations and rural pursuit organisations? If so, does she feel that perhaps the Government should encourage those groups to be involved in efforts to save the red squirrel?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent intervention and pre-empts much of what I want to say today. I share his sentiment entirely. The threats from squirrel pox and deforestation in the form of clear felling, and the difficulty in accessing land to control grey squirrels, mean that the task of red squirrel conservation is far from easy.
“The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” was written in 1903 by a wonderful author and illustrator who obviously adored red squirrels. However, in that same year, and for decades afterwards, a bounty on red squirrels would lead to more than 100,000 being killed in the Scottish highlands alone. Rewards were paid for their bushy tails for over 43 years. If only those gamekeepers, foresters and country folk could have had a crystal ball. Man has a lot to answer for.
In 1876 some bright spark thought that it would be a good idea to introduce the larger and more prolifically breeding grey squirrel from North America to Cheshire. The grey squirrel out-competes our native reds for habitat, food and reproduction, and grey squirrels carry, but are not affected by, the fatal virus of squirrel pox. It is estimated that there are now 3.5 million grey squirrels living in the UK, compared with just 140,000 red squirrels, and it is widely agreed by scientists, Government Departments, wildlife trusts and conservationists that grey squirrels and red squirrels cannot cohabit. Without exception, where there are live greys, there will be dead reds.
I am sorry that I am unable to stay and listen to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), as I have red squirrels in my garden on the Island. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real point is that besides having more trees and the right trees—I speak as a life member of the Woodland Trust—we need to move the boundaries, so that red squirrels get more land area and grey squirrels get squeezed out? It is not a question of eliminating grey squirrels from the whole country; it is a question of expanding the area where red squirrels can thrive and prosper.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Creating such a ring of steel around the red squirrel strongholds is absolutely imperative. This debate is not about a national effort to control greys and secure the reds; we have to concentrate on stronghold areas if we are to win the battle.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. We in Barrow and Furness are with her in wishing to preserve the red squirrel. However, what does she say to those detractors who would say that in fact she is nothing more than a squirrel racist? 1870—the time when grey squirrels were released into Britain—was also when Barrow shipyard was built and most Barrovians arrived in the area. I do not imagine that she would suggest herding up Barrovians and removing them from their native Cumbria. Can she say more about how grey squirrels will be protected alongside what is rightly a drive to preserve the red squirrel?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that I of course would not want to see Barrovians rounded up and banished from Barrow. The point is that the native red squirrel and the North American grey squirrel cannot cohabit, and that is because grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus but have themselves developed immunity to it.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She will be aware of the pioneering work on the Isle of Anglesey by the well-known Red Squirrels Trust and by Dr Craig Shuttleworth. Being an island, we have natural boundaries and we have preserved them. However, an important point was made about woodland. We need the correct woodland, and in the forests of Newborough and Pentraeth the number of breeding pairs of squirrels has gone up from none to more than 350. That is a success story, where we have natural boundaries as well as the proper woodland and habitat. With the onset of the debate on climate change, surely now is the time to plant the right trees in the right places to help the environment and squirrels’ habitats?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. This is a really worthwhile debate and I think that, perhaps with the exception of the comment from the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), we are aligned on what must be done.
It was a probing amendment.
Planting the right kind of trees is absolutely imperative, but we must also be careful of unintended consequences, because allowing trees to be planted that can create a wildlife corridor for grey squirrels to infiltrate red squirrel strongholds would be disastrous. It takes just one grey squirrel to infiltrate a red squirrel community, and then the squirrel pox virus will tear through the entire population, with devastating consequences.
“Belinda: The Forest How Red Squirrel” is another book that I find utterly enchanting. Red squirrels from the Forest How guest house in Eskdale are brought to life by Peter Trimming, who I am pleased to say is in the Public Gallery today. The bushy-tailed, tufted-eared, bright-eyed visitors to the garden feed tables are portrayed as tame creatures, with brilliant and detailed photography. However, the book goes on to tell the story of red squirrel suffering, as one by one there are fatalities until the last red squirrel, affectionately known as Belinda, sadly dies.
The first signs of squirrel pox are that the squirrel is lethargic and lacking in co-ordination, and the sick squirrels will develop open lesions on their eyes, mouth, ears and paws. The little tufty ears wither, leaving the blind and helpless animal to die a painful, slow death of hypothermia, starvation and, inevitably, predation. Squirrel pox does not discriminate between an old red or a lactating mother, and an infected female with young in the drey would probably leave her kittens to perish, too, through hypothermia, starvation or predation. It is highly unlikely that a red squirrel will recover from squirrel pox—in over 90% of cases they die. Some say that only 5% survive. Indeed, some say that it is unheard of for a red squirrel ever to recover from squirrel pox.
Given the current rate of decline, if we are agreed that our children and grandchildren should, like us, be inspired by Beatrix Potter’s books and see for themselves our most iconic native British wildlife in the wild, we must act quickly. It has been said that the fight for red squirrel survival will be futile, but thankfully in life, although there are those who say things cannot be done, there are also people who refuse to accept defeat. There are people who give up hours, days, weeks and years of their own time and spend their own money because they are determined to be part of this greatest revival—people such as Peter Armstrong and Steve Tyson, who work throughout the year in my Copeland constituency in the name of red squirrel conservation with a committed team of supporters. I commend their efforts, and those of all volunteers who go out in all weathers, across rough terrain, in wind and rain against the odds to save the reds.
Red squirrel conservation requires many factors, including the permission of landowners, the skills of a marksman or markswoman, and the bulk purchase of nuts and corn, feeders, trail cameras and traps. It is a costly hobby; it requires risk assessment, quality control, promotion and fundraising, bid-writing, account-keeping, and driving for miles and miles. It requires monitoring and collaboration, dealing with countless setbacks, and relentless commitment. The revival of the reds is possible—perhaps not right across this great nation, but in areas of the north of England, Devon, Anglesey, Scotland, and in the glens of Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Wight, we can effectively keep areas of our countryside free from grey squirrels and therefore avoid unhelpful competition for habitat and food and the awful, painful, deadly squirrel pox virus.
I ask the Minister to consider the asks of those volunteers and conservation groups ahead of the development of a strategy for red squirrels in England. During my research for this debate, what really struck me was the extent of consensus and collaboration. Nobody—no organisation or wildlife trust that I have spoken with—disagrees that where there are live grey squirrels, there will be dead red squirrels. The North American grey squirrels will always outcompete our native reds, and there is currently no vaccination or cure for the deadly virus that will be spread throughout a red squirrel community.
There are some solutions in the pipeline, from the release of predatory pine martens to infertility potions being administered to grey squirrels in Nutella chocolate and hazelnut spread. In the name of red squirrel conservation, a pile of research is being invested in, but those solutions will all take time to develop and may not be deemed viable in all areas. It is extra tricky in the few areas of the UK that currently enjoy a red squirrel population. Although the pine marten release project may work well in areas void of red squirrels, and it may be that the pine marten would struggle to capture the lighter, more nimble red squirrel, the same could not be said for a drey of young red kittens, which would surely make a tasty, easy meal for such a voracious carnivore.
Pine martens may have their place in the great grey challenge, but introducing a predator when a population is already on the edge of survival does not seem like the best idea. There have been reported sightings of pine martens carrying dead red squirrels, which confirm my concern. It is also important to note that the red squirrel is one of many mammals and birds that are threatened in our countryside. The pine marten, a member of the weasel family, became extinct in England over 150 years ago because we humans decided that it was eating too many birds’ eggs and small mammals. However, it is thriving in North America, where its main source of food is the grey squirrel.
The concept of a contraception or infertility potion is being developed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. It requires a method of administration that is targeted only at grey squirrels, because the compound is not specific to squirrels and would, if ingested, cause other mammals to become infertile. Research on a contraceptive compound is currently in the second year of its five-year project, and hopes are high that in future it will provide another tool for the humane management of grey squirrels and perhaps other mammals. However, until then, the compound is not being used; the last thing we would want is for a red squirrel, or indeed any other wildlife, to become infertile because it happened upon a tasty dollop of chocolate and hazelnut spread. Much research into a squirrel pox vaccine is underway by the Wildlife Ark Trust; that vaccine is being heralded as a possible saviour of the red squirrel, but that is also some way from being the finished article.
From what I have seen in our Cumbrian countryside, the simple, clean shot cull is by far the most effective and humane method of grey squirrel control, and therefore of red squirrel conservation. However, one landowning organisation requires some further encouragement to embrace those commendable volunteer actions, and I call upon the Minister to gently urge some progress in that regard. The Forestry Commission does not allow volunteer groups to shoot grey squirrels on its land, even though those groups are trained and fully insured. In contrast, deer control is undertaken in those same publicly owned forests, using high-powered rifles. Where red squirrels are present, trapping clearly carries the risk of the unintentional entrapment of a lactating mother, and the subsequent death of her kittens, which, even if left alone for only a short period of time, would starve, become hypothermic or succumb to a predator.
Grey squirrel re-invasion is a major threat, even to successful eradication projects such as those in Anglesey and west Cumbria. Ongoing grey squirrel control is necessary in all mainland areas where red squirrels are present, to prevent grey squirrels making re-incursions. That requires continuous effort, and there is a need constantly to find resources. Landowners may obtain grants to control grey squirrels, which are paid providing there is some evidence of effort. That is not necessarily the most efficient use of resources.
The Forestry Act 1967 does not allow authorities in England and Wales to refuse tree-felling licences in order to conserve or enhance flora or fauna. Although red squirrels are protected from deliberate injury or killing, and their nests or dreys are also protected, the habitat they need is not. Clear felling of habitat happens even in the breeding season. I understand from many conservation groups that responded to my call for evidence that timber harvesting companies can use that legal loophole—the incidental result of an otherwise lawful act. I ask the Minister to consider making tree-felling licence authorities able to refuse licences or issue enforceable wildlife conditions. The Forest Stewardship Council’s stamp of approval must require the protection of red squirrel habitat if it is to be worth anything meaningful.
This year, as part of the Government’s commitment to delivering the 25-year environment plan, the Red Squirrels United project—funded by the EU LIFE programme and the National Lottery Heritage Fund—is developing a strategy for red squirrels in England, in collaboration with the UK Squirrel Accord and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is my request that this strategy and action plan reflects today’s debate, and considers what more could be done by a Department that has achieved so much in the name of environmental protection.
I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on securing the debate, but on her enduring interest in the matter, which I and many others share. Does she agree that we need to hear from the Minister, and from the various other Ministers across the United Kingdom, about a project or plan for the next 15 or 20 years? A written answer that I got from the Minister indicates that in England alone there are 150 greys for every single red, so there needs to be a 15 to 20-year project that would ensure not just the survival but the flourishing of the reds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely correct; the issue requires a long-term strategy of collaboration that is appropriately resourced. That is the only way we will ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy the benefits, as we have, of our native British wildlife.
The hon. Lady is talking about funding, which is important. One important source for conservation in the UK has been European structural funds, particularly in relation to public land owners and the community working together to preserve and increase the number of red squirrels. Will she join me in pressing the Minister to use the shared prosperity fund post Brexit in the same positive way when it comes to wildlife and the preservation of species such as the red squirrel?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I join him in making that point to the Minister. As we lose some funding, we must ensure that alternative funding pots become available for this worthwhile and urgent project.
I thank the many individuals and organisations who have contributed very helpful and detailed briefings, including Dr Craig Shuttleworth, Jackie Foott, the National Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Red Squirrels United and the UK Squirrel Accord, which is a UK-wide partnership of 37 leading conservation and woodland organisations, Government agencies and companies, founded by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
The key asks from all those organisations focus on: ensuring long-term, sustainable funding; amending the Forestry Act 1967 to ensure that key vulnerable flora and fauna are protected in the licensing process; ensuring that the 1967 Act contains a requirement to consider the landscape level of impacts of continuous tree felling licences; and, most importantly, effectively enforcing the Invasive Non-native Species (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. I also thank the Wildlife Trust, which shared a photograph of a litter of four red squirrels orphaned after a tree hosting their drey was felled, and the Woodland Trust, which rightly points out that grey squirrel control is not at all effective unless control is undertaken by the majority of neighbouring landowners, whose combined efforts improve viability and effectiveness.
I commend, celebrate and thank the thousands of people who work all year round to protect our wildlife in the fight against decline. I hope that the Minister and colleagues across the House will join me in appreciating the selfless effort required.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this debate. Formby in my constituency is regarded as the mainland’s southernmost stronghold for red squirrels. We have red squirrels on the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island and Anglesey, but Formby is the furthest south on the mainland. Reds are found elsewhere in the Liverpool city region too. My wife and I enjoy walking our dog in the pine woods by Formby beach, where we find red squirrels. The National Trust has done superb work over many years to ensure that the woods, the dunes and the habitat there are maintained and that the red squirrel population is looked after. That red squirrel wood at Formby is a real treat for anyone visiting the area and is a place to find red squirrels in good numbers.
Conservation is going on in a strong way in Formby. It follows the foresight of Weld-Blundell family in planting pine woods on the dunes at Formby in the late 1800s, which created the ideal habitat for red squirrels and many other species. The trees provide a valuable windbreak for the asparagus fields and the neighbouring residential area. The next-door dunes are also home to the natterjack toad, the sand lizard, the northern dune tiger beetle and birds including skylarks and willow warblers. It is a fine place of nature conservation.
In Formby, other neighbouring villages and some of the smaller towns, the red squirrels have a place of affection among the public. People are fully aware of the precarious position that the red squirrel is in and how endangered the species really is. People are extremely fond of them and are encouraged by the National Trust and other conservation organisations to look out for grey squirrels and to alert the authorities when they come across them. They are also encouraged to look for signs, particularly in late summer and the autumn, of potential squirrel pox. As the hon. Lady said, it is almost certainly fatal to all reds, whereas greys have acquired immunity to it.
The reds are extremely tame. They are happy to approach humans and are generally not put off by humans being nearby, although I think my dog is probably a bit too much for them on the occasions when we walk him near the squirrels. He is always on a lead, I hasten to add, in case anyone has concerns, although I am not sure what he would do if the opportunity arose. I think he would be more curious than a threat to them. The squirrels can be found in gardens, although when I told some of my constituents that this debate was taking place, one of them pointed out that when she was encouraged as a child to feed red squirrels, she was bitten. We had one discordant voice, but that was the only such piece of feedback that I received. They are genuinely very popular, and with good reason, too. I filmed a red squirrel that decided to dart between my legs in the course of what he was doing. He was quite happy to be close to me. That was actually in Cumbria. Cumbrian red squirrels are very friendly, but they are very friendly in Formby and across the Liverpool city region too.
The hon. Lady spoke about the impact of greys. They impact not only on red squirrels, but on trees, which are the habitat for the reds. The damage that greys cause is widespread. I am tempted to wander into a debate on climate change at this point, because when trees are damaged, it reduces their effectiveness at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Greys certainly cause damage that undermines the habitat for red squirrels and the other species I have mentioned. It is extremely important that we protect native species, and this debate contrasts the importance of native species against those that have come from overseas.
I am grateful to the National Trust in Formby and the national organisation for their briefings about the good work done at Formby. I am also grateful to the Woodland Trust. All the briefings stressed the importance of controlling the numbers of greys. The National Trust also stressed to me the importance of the funding it receives and of having greater funding to maintain and enhance the landscape—the habitat and the trees. There have been concerns about the thinning out of trees at Formby, for example. Important work has been carried out by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, including on the Merseyside red squirrel project. It is also part of the national Red Squirrels United project, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Those projects are extremely important. The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of supporting the existing strongholds, and she is right about that as a strategy, but we can never take it for granted. We have to be extremely alert and work extremely hard to maintain that work. Funding is extremely important. I hope the Minister can confirm that the Government intend to maintain and potentially enhance funding in this area.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the strongholds of Formby, the Isle of Wight, Cumbria and my constituency of Anglesey. The money to conserve this important species and habit also creates an economic benefit from tourism coming to the area. He knows that the Anglesey beaches, with the woodlands in close proximity, are a great example of that, so does he agree that this is about giving money not only to conservation groups, but to the local economy and community to invest for the future?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was heartened to hear from his previous interventions and in my research for this debate about the work in Anglesey and the impressive way in which the red squirrel population has been defended and the greys pushed back. Certainly in Formby, the investment promotes tourism and we get many visitors, but that also brings challenges, as he will know. Sometimes too many visitors try to get into a small area with limited roads and parking, but that is for another debate.
The Woodland Trust briefing made the point that the introduction of pine martens as a natural predator against the greys has seen early signs of success. I understand that that is also the case around the country. Because the greys are slower, the pine martens are more likely to attack and catch them. As the reds are faster, nimbler and smaller, they are more likely to escape, so natural predation is effectively being used to control the greys and protect the reds. I am interested in the Minister’s analysis of the evidence on that point, which the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned. We could do with some clarification, so let us look at the evidence and at what works.
Control of greys is a real problem. In Formby in 2007-08, squirrel pox led to the deaths of 85% of red squirrels in the area. Thanks to the brilliant work of the National Trust and the many local volunteers, there has been a good recovery, but I am sad to report what has been described as an “intense burst” of red squirrel deaths in Formby recently. The Wildlife Trust is currently testing to see whether squirrel pox is the cause.
Finally, I want to turn to the environment Bill. Protections of habitat are crucial, as we have discussed. The proposed office for environmental protection will have responsibility for monitoring, and it is vital that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose once we leave the EU. Currently, the European Commission exercises influence and power in an effective way. The current proposals suggest that the office for environmental protection will sit with the Government and will not have the independence that the European regulatory arrangements give. Concerns have been raised about that level of independence and whether the regime will be sufficiently robust to maintain the necessary oversight. We need a little more detail from the Minister and the Secretary of State in the part of the Bill that is yet to be published, with tangible and clear targets for restoring the natural environment to support red squirrels and other species.
I have two asks in this debate. The first is for funding for control and protection work, including spreading the word about red squirrels. They do not often bite. They are a fabulous part of our natural world in the UK. We need to raise awareness and provide support to prevent the spread of grey squirrels and disease. Secondly, we need a robust framework in the environment Bill. There are 17 strongholds for this iconic British animal. The red squirrel deserves our full support, but it needs action, not words.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this important debate. I declare an interest: my family own and manage woodland in Northumberland and we are passionate red squirrel protectors, so I am proud to come with a natural bias. The reason why the native British squirrel, which happens to have red fur, is under threat of extinction, is because men of wealth—I have yet to find any evidence of female culpability—with an interest in zoological matters in the late Victorian era, when travel and discovery of previously unknown wildlife became fashionable, decided that bringing grey non-native squirrels from the United States would improve their standing, feed their curiosity and perhaps even help to advance scientific understanding.
Every mother dreads that moment over tea when her child declares that they need to bring into school some strange object or picture that clearly requires parental assistance and time, just as they are trying to put their kids to bed. And so it was that when I was told by my then six-year-old that a project on the red squirrel was the following day’s activity and we needed to take in project information and pictures, my heart sank. I wondered how on earth I could assist that very enthusiastic young boy by providing something that had not simply come off the internet. We were in the stage of development when the internet was not the solution to all questions and we could still use books to elucidate new material.
We disappeared into an old musty corner of the house where my father-in-law’s grandfather’s books were kept—they had never been opened in my time in the house—and discovered a series on interesting zoological subjects. I pulled one off the shelf and flicked through, looking for “red squirrel”, but could not find it, which was very confusing. I looked through again and saw “squirrel”, only to realise that in 1923, when the book was published, the conversation was still about the squirrel. The red squirrel was a given; that was the colour of our squirrel. We flicked through and saw a wonderful line about a gentleman who had brought some grey squirrels to London and placed them at the Zoological Society—London Zoo—and everyone was fascinated to see the big grey squirrel, which was described as a curiosity. Also, they had bred so successfully that they had let them out into Regent’s Park. It was fascinating to watch a six-year-old go, “How did that happen? Weren’t they a scientific curiosity?” Perhaps no child understands this, but the point is that something entirely exciting and positive can have incredibly long-term repercussions.
My son took in the musty old book, which did not match the internet submissions that other parents had dug out late at night to support the project of the day, but it led to a school trip to Wallington Hall, a National Trust property in my constituency. It is a wonderful place with 13,000 acres of farm and woodland that now has a vibrant community of red squirrels, thanks to the conservation efforts after near extinction in 2011. When the schoolchildren went to visit in 2008, the red squirrel population had almost disappeared. They went with their exciting project in mind and were told by those working at Wallington that there was a real problem. It was fascinating to watch that next generation become aware of the need for conservation. Wallington is a wonderful house and garden to visit. It is a huge part of the Northumberland tourism industry and provides an opportunity to bring people out from Newcastle to enjoy a beautiful rural existence.
The National Trust has led in investing in finding ways to preserve and restore the red squirrel population. At Wallington, we have our very own red squirrel ranger, Glen Graham, a wonderful man, who has led the way in supporting and protecting our native squirrel population, and working out the best ways to do that in what is, helpfully, a relatively contained woodland environment. He provides food, because the greys eat more than the reds, and he keeps predators away with a lot of humane trapping. He also tries to keep the humans away.
We have wonderful traffic signs on the roads that say, “Squirrels crossing here—please slow down”. Realising how much we all need to do has been a really interesting part of the community’s involvement in the red squirrel project. Every time people drive into town they drive past those signs and slow down, sometimes so that they can peer over the hedge to see the red squirrel who might just be crossing. The National Trust has been profoundly involved, and was a founder member of the UK Squirrel Accord. Across Northumberland and the rest of the UK, landowners and farmers are committing time and resource to trapping grey squirrels. The only way is to rebalance the numbers. The greys will just take over the woodland space if they can.
There are three real threats, one of which is clearly disease. We have discussed the squirrel pox, for which the grey is a carrier and by which the red is almost always fatally affected. That is a technical problem, which we need to continue to work on. We must find a vaccine against it so that the red has a chance to compete, at least on that level, in a fair and balanced way. Competition for food is also clearly a huge challenge, simply because the grey eats more in a day and has more of an impact on trees. The reds just cannot keep up.
A fundamental part of that is the question of the amount of woodland habitat that we need. The grey poses a greater threat to our woodlands, as they strip bark from the broadleaf trees for food and for building dreys. That can leave a tree vulnerable to disease, creating weaker, disfigured trees, and that can reduce seed production through crown loss and then depressed timber values. There is an all-round negative impact on the woodland, which requires long-term investment.
We need to plant more broadleaf woodland to create more areas of potential home for our native red squirrel. I raise again with the Minister the logistical challenges put before any landowner wanting to plant new woodland. Our manifesto commitment to 11 million new trees through this Parliament is proving far from likely to be achieved. The Forestry Commission and Natural England seem intent on thwarting progress, with endless internal battles that leave the private investor at a loss regarding how to make any progress.
The Minister will recall the interventions, for which we are still grateful, that she had to make to help the Doddington forest project to get under way. She will be pleased to know that it is now planted, despite years of effort to slow its progress. Local children helped to plant it. The Northumbrian red squirrel population is now waiting for those trees to grow into a new home for them and their families in the decades ahead. In the meantime, because trees grow very slowly, I call on the Government to increase their support for and investment in grey squirrel reduction projects, in order to leave space for our Squirrel Nutkins.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this important debate. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and thank you for interpreting the rules generously enough to allow me to speak. I will be very brief, but I think the debate would benefit from having an opinion from the Isle of Wight, where we have a sizeable red squirrel population.
As we have heard, red squirrels are the only squirrel native to the British Isles. They are disappearing from the mainland at an alarming rate, having been replaced by the American grey squirrel. Looking at a map of England, what is truly upsetting for people who love the reds, as I do, is that there are only two red squirrel hot spots south of the Mersey: one is in Anglesey, of which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) just spoke; the other is on the Isle of Wight.
Out of a red squirrel population of 140,000 in the United Kingdom, between 3,000 and 3,500 at its height are on the Isle of Wight. We know that thanks to excellent work done by the Wight Squirrel Project and the Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust. We also produce some fantastic T-shirts and hoodies with red squirrels holding up a 30 mph speed limit sign, like those my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) mentioned. I have, on a couple of occasions in the last few years, seen the bodies of red squirrels on the road. It always angers me when they wind up dead on the road, because we do not have enough of them.
The Isle of Wight is a stronghold for red squirrels because we are an island. The Solent is thankfully a barrier to grey squirrels. I was told recently—I am not sure whether it is an urban myth—that we once turned back a ferry, not because it had mainlanders on it, who are very welcome to visit, but because there was a grey squirrel on it. The ferry was held up, we found the grey squirrel, and it got off—it probably did not have a ticket anyway. We do not want greys on the Isle of Wight. As we know, it takes only one grey to spread disease among the population of reds. It is illegal to bring a grey squirrel into red squirrel territory and the penalty is two years imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
Red squirrels are truly beautiful animals. About five years ago, I was living in an even more remote place than I am now. It was a mile and a half down a single-track lane, and as I drove back in the evening buzzards would fly overhead, and badgers and the occasional red squirrel would run across the road. I drove very slowly. A red squirrel came and sat on my porch once and ate some nuts. It was no further away from me than my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is now. It was the most beautiful and special animal, and we need to ensure that we protect their habitats.
The Island is about 10% woodland, and that is increasing slowly. What we have not done, and what we probably need to do nationally, is ensure that where possible we link woodland environments together to enable the reds to have greater space in which to flourish and reproduce, because reds have a lower living density than grey squirrels. They need more woodland and undergrowth to support the same population, because they are slightly more solitary animals than grey squirrels.
We do not have many deer on the Isle of Wight, so I think an environmental expert would say that our understory trees and our young shoots are in better condition than those in parts of Britain with a deer population that tends to eat shoots and harm the growth of understory trees. However, I would be delighted to hear from the Minister what more the Government can do to support projects to reforest parts of the United Kingdom with broadleaf trees—not conifers, which acidify the soil and do not do enough to support insect life, bird life, and red squirrel and other mammal life.
I have been listening to the points made by my hon. Friend and others about the connection between red squirrels and greys, red squirrels and predators, and red squirrels and trees. There is a connection between all those different elements of wildlife management. We have some red squirrels on the island of Caldey, in my patch. In order to get them there, we had to eradicate rats, which led to a revival in ground-nesting birds. Is not the point that the Government should take a holistic approach—not picking on one species and one method of enhancing or controlling it, but looking at wildlife, and the way in which we manage it, in the round to make it a success?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valuable point: what is good for red squirrels is generally good for most native species. As we know, three varieties of tree—oak, hawthorn and English willows—support hundreds more insect varieties, which in turn support more bird life and wildlife of all sorts than conifers especially.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about all the good work that the Government are doing to support red squirrel populations and other wildlife populations in Britain.
I had not intended to speak but, there being a little time available, I will do so briefly, largely because I serve on the Environmental Audit Committee, which is currently carrying out an investigation into invasive species. Of course, the grey squirrel is a classic example of what can happen when an invasive species arrives on these islands.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this extremely important debate, and I listened very carefully to the contributions of other Members. We are unanimous in thinking that the red squirrel is a wonderful native creature, which we must do what we can to preserve. There is no question about that at all. I do not think that a single person would disagree, although I must admit that I rather agree with the flattering remarks made about the greys all through the debate—that we are stronger, more aggressive and bigger—but that is on a personal level, rather than on a squirrel level. I mention in passing an interesting point that so far no one has mentioned this morning. The House will be interested to know that Germans cannot pronounce the word squirrel; it is the only word in the English language that no German can pronounce. Rather curiously, we cannot pronounce the German word for squirrel either. That is a curious little fact that the House ought to know!
The Environmental Audit Committee is studying invasive species at the moment, including such exotic things as the floating pennywort, the American crayfish and all sorts of Asian wasps, as well as the grey squirrel. They all have one thing in common: once they are here, it is almost impossible to get rid of them. In the Environmental Audit Committee, we are looking at the degree to which we can control such species—for example, keeping them in one area—or whether extermination is better.
I had a very interesting time last year when I visited the island of South Georgia in Antarctica, where there has been an immensely successful operation to remove rats. Rats and mice were brought there by whalers over the centuries. Over the last couple of years, the South Georgia Heritage Trust has invested in the order of £10 million in using aerial dispersal of rat poison to eradicate the rat population entirely. As a result, we have seen a significant improvement in the pipit and other native species on the island of South Georgia as a result. They also eradicated 10,000 reindeer, which were devastating the habitat that the native South Georgian population needed.
It has been interesting to hear the description of the Isle of Wight this morning; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). We also heard of an island I did not know about in Wales from my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) spoke of Anglesey. These are islands. Although this is not exactly easy, as these things have to be carried out very carefully—biosecurity is enormously important, and the biosecurity going on to South Georgia was simply extraordinary, as we had to inspect every aspect of our luggage and clothes and so on to make sure that there was not a single possibility of any kind of invasive species getting on to the island—none the less, islands can be protected. It is reasonably straightforward and simple to make sure that we do.
The mainland of the United Kingdom is, of course, more difficult. A glance at the maps of the red squirrel population over the centuries and that of the grey squirrel over the last 150 years demonstrates how they move inexorably forward. I very strongly congratulate some of the initiatives that we have heard about this morning. There has been wonderful work done in Northumberland and elsewhere, where individual organisations have fought manfully—personfully—to make sure that they keep the grey squirrel at bay. They do wonderful work, and, in one or two places, they have forced the grey squirrel back, but it is pretty much an ad hoc operation. If they take their eye off the ball for one second, the grey squirrel will be right back to where it was before, and pushing further northwards, until such time that—as the motion for the debate says—we risk the extinction of the red squirrel. Unless we do something about it, that is what is going to happen, and we should be aware of that in this place. We have lost so many species over the centuries and within the next century or so there is a very real risk, if not a probability, of the total and utter eradication—extermination—of the entire red squirrel population in the United Kingdom, perhaps leaving aside pockets here and there.
We have not yet discussed the solutions, and perhaps the Minister will come on to that in a moment. There are the ad hoc solutions we have discussed and there are things we can do with regard to forestry and in individual areas to make sure that we preserve the pockets of red squirrels, but is that going to win in the long term? Are we going to preserve red squirrels? Are we certain that 500 years from now there will be a red squirrel population in the United Kingdom? I doubt very much that a single person in this Chamber or elsewhere this morning would swear on their lives that that would be the case, and I think it is extremely unlikely to be the case.
I hope that when the Minister addresses the matter she will consider the holistic solution described by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, which will not just preserve what we have but allow the progressive extermination of the invasive species that is the grey squirrel. It seems to me that unless we can find a way down the road—we are talking about many decades from now—unless we find a way of sending the grey squirrel back to where it came from, that is, the United States, and unless we exterminate it from the United Kingdom, it is extremely unlikely that we will keep the little blighters under control. All we have to do is to glance at South Georgia, where the rats and mice arrived with the whalers, absolutely ran over the entire island and destroyed the biodiversity of the island. Only by their eradication can we now preserve the very delicate balance of biodiversity in that island. Precisely the same applies here. The interesting and worthy projects that we have heard about are great, but we cannot be certain that they will work. If we are to be certain that we are going to keep the red squirrel for generations to come, there is only one way to be certain, and that is through finding means for the final eradication of the grey squirrel from these islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing the debate, and on her opening remarks, the originality of which was commendable. Her knowledge of squirrels and the management of their habitat was very impressive and certainly superior to mine. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his short intervention, and other Members for their points and concerns. Apart from one, most points have been very well made. Like the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee and agree that invasive species are a problem for this country and its biosecurity. A recent visit to Cambridge University revealed challenges we all face that are way beyond our ken, as far as I could see. I hope that we will learn more about how to deal with those challenges over the next few weeks.
Scotland is home to 75% of the UK’s 140,000 red squirrels. Although they are one of the most popular mammal species in the country, they are facing a number of ecological challenges, which have reduced the population. Scottish Forestry, the Scottish Government’s responsible body for forestry policy and regulation, is working with a number of partners, including Scottish Natural Heritage, to save the red squirrel for future generations.
The red squirrel is a priority species under the species action framework, which sets out a five-year plan for managing species in Scotland so that effort and resources are targeted to offer the greatest benefit. The Scottish squirrel group was established in 1996 to oversee conservation efforts and, in 2006, published the Scottish red squirrel action plan for 2006 to 2011. The plan integrates grey squirrel control, survey and monitoring with measures to combat the threat of squirrel pox, and the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project has been putting the strategy into action since 2007. Its present priorities include defending red-only areas in the northern Highlands by the targeted control of grey squirrel populations, controlling grey squirrels in north-east Scotland to reduce their distribution and abundance, defending the areas where the food sources and the environment favour red squirrels from grey squirrel incursion, and controlling grey squirrels in priority areas within the grey squirrel range in certain areas of southern Scotland, as well as the island woodland habitat of Arran.
Thanks to those conservation initiatives, and unlike in England, where there is a possibility that the red squirrel could become extinct within the next 10 years—we need to face up to that possibility—red squirrel numbers stabilised in Scotland in 2017 and grey squirrel numbers have declined. In fact, there has been a significant boost in red squirrel numbers in Aberdeenshire and they are holding their ground in the central lowlands, recolonising areas they previously abandoned. Unfortunately, however, red squirrel numbers are still falling in parts of the Scottish borders, especially where squirrel pox is present.
Since 2018, efforts to stop grey squirrels moving north of the highland line appear to be succeeding and we are all delighted. Red squirrels are now thriving in areas where they have been reintroduced into the northern highlands. There have even been suggestions of an expansion of the range of red squirrels into my own area of Falkirk and Stirlingshire. I hope those sightings are well founded.
There are many groups helping with red squirrel conservation. Men’s Shed members in Gala, Dalbeattie and Hawick made feeder boxes for this year’s Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels annual survey. The boxes have a small piece of sticky plastic—I do not know if we should be using plastic; I hope it is recyclable—that traps hair from visiting animals, which enables the presence of different species to be recorded. That is a good example of red squirrels bringing communities together, as was mentioned earlier.
The Forestry Commission of Scotland has five principles for managing a red squirrel stronghold. I will not go into the detail, but I will lay them out. The first is to manage the forest to maintain a dependable food supply. The second is to resolve conflicts with other management objectives without compromising the success of red squirrel strongholds. The third is to have a plan for red squirrels at the landscape scale. The fourth is to plan forest operations to reduce short-term impacts on populations and sustain long-term resilience. The fifth is to establish a monitoring system, which is extremely important, and a review process. That is sound advice, and we in Scotland hope this good practice will continue to show positive results for all our communities, to endure for all future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate. I am grateful for the excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), and from the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray). I thank the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) for giving us the Scottish perspective.
I am not only Labour’s shadow Environment Secretary; I am also hugely privileged to have red squirrels in my garden. When we have visitors from outside the area, I notice that their seeing a red squirrel is an extraordinary experience. My father-in-law had wanted to see a red squirrel all his life, and it was not until he came to stay with us that he managed to do so. There is huge affection, and it demonstrates how rare they are across Britain.
My comments apply mainly to the situation in Cumbria, because I have first-hand experience of it. As we heard, everybody knows just how serious the plight of Britain’s red squirrels is. They are afforded the highest protection possible but are still hugely threatened. Sadly, they have suffered serious population decline despite our best efforts. According to the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, however, evidence is starting to suggest that the red population is being maintained in the north of England through the commitment and dedication of conservation groups. The trust estimates that we have a population of around 15,000 reds in the region.
In Cumbria, we have 14 red squirrel volunteer groups dedicated to preserving our red squirrel population. Without their important work, the long-term survival of the species would not be possible. We have five designated red squirrel reserves across the county. Although the presence of non-native grey squirrels has been the primary cause of the decline in the red population, that is not the end of the story. We heard from hon. Members about the loss of habitat, insensitive forestry operations—for example, the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned the felling and disturbing of dreys, where young squirrel kittens are present during the breeding season—and woodland fragmentation, all of which are factors that add to the pressure.
We heard a lot from hon. Members about the squirrel pox virus, which is carried by grey squirrels, and about how it has the biggest, and potentially catastrophic, impact on red squirrel populations. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central gave a good example of how that can happen. The fact that the pox has nearly a 100% mortality rate in reds shows how devastating it can be. We also know that there are problems with competition with greys for food, and their direct aggression contributes to the decline in red populations.
Volunteers do an excellent job of monitoring the grey squirrel population, and members of the public also help by reporting sightings. As in many villages in Cumbria, our village noticeboard has a sign with the details and telephone number of the local red squirrel warden, whom we call when we see greys—I have done so on a number occasions. The warden then comes out and traps the greys, in order to protect the red squirrel population in the area.
In Cumbria, the National Trust supplements reds’ diets by putting a small quantity of nuts and seeds into special squirrel feeders every morning. In fact, my husband does that in our garden and is very keen on watching and feeding reds. It helps not only monitor the population, but look out for any sick or injured red squirrels, which we can report to the volunteers and squirrel monitors.
The UK Squirrel Accord consists of 32 leading woodland, timber and conservation organisations. As we heard, it was created at the invitation of Prince Charles, with the aim of bringing a concerted and co-ordinated approach to securing the future of red squirrels and woodlands. Habitat loss is a major threat to red populations, so it is essential that protections for the areas that support them are maintained and properly enacted. That would fall under the proposed Office for Environmental Protection post Brexit, so it is absolutely vital that the proposed body and the regulations underpinning it are fit for purpose. A number of stakeholders, and the Opposition, have set out our significant concerns about its lack of independence and the lack of powers to force the Government into action if necessary. As things stand, the OEP would be weaker than our existing arrangements under EU law. Can the Minister tell us when the rest of the environment Bill will be published, and whether it will have rigorous targets for the restoration of Britain’s natural environment?
People rightly think of Cumbria as a very green county, but only 10% of it is covered by woodland. That is 3% lower than the UK average, and well below the EU average of 38%. Protection and enhancement of our woodland is absolutely paramount. The Government have talked a lot about tree planting—we heard from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that it is becoming very challenging for a number of reasons. Can the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of targeted tree planting in areas where it would benefit our red squirrel populations?
In May the House declared a state of environmental emergency. Many of our animal species are facing extinction, and the UK is set to miss our 2020 biodiversity targets. Tackling climate change and restoring our precious natural habitats go hand in hand. Restoring ecosystems not only makes significant contributions to carbon sequestration, but can safeguard populations of iconic British wildlife species such as the red squirrel.
The hon. Member for Copeland mentioned the Forestry Act 1967, and I support her request to the Minister to ensure that red squirrels are protected as part of the tree felling licensing process. Can the Minister tell us whether the Act could contain a requirement to consider the landscape-level impacts of continuous tree felling licences? Does she agree that a red squirrel conservation strategy is required to help co-ordinate and prioritise their protection and recovery across England? If we want future generations in Britain to be able to enjoy species such as the red squirrel, we need the Government to take serious action to protect and enhance the populations and their precious habitats.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing the debate.
I am concerned that the squirrel is at risk of dying out. Several of the hon. Members who contributed today have left the debate. We need to be warriors if we want to protect red squirrels, and that includes staying to listen to all of the debate, which has been excellent and shows people’s passion for protecting this iconic native species. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland mentioned, Squirrel Nutkin has gone down in history, and I am just about old enough to remember Tufty from the road safety films that were shown in the ’70s. I believe Tufty has already reached the age of 65, so popular was he at pushing forward road safety—at some point he was replaced by the Green Cross Code Man.
The red squirrel is certainly a very special species. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) is unfortunately no longer in his place, but he knows the importance of the species. I grew up in Formby and, to be candid, I did not realise that grey squirrels existed until I came to London as a student—I could not see a single red squirrel anywhere, and there were grey squirrels all over the place. That is when I learned of the terrible impact that grey squirrels have had on our native species.
As has been pointed out, the red squirrel is protected by domestic legislation and is currently found in a number of strongholds across England, including the north of England and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). The red squirrel is also present in larger numbers in Scotland, and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) quite rightly set out the great success of protection north of the border. There is also a limited population on Anglesey in Wales, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is no longer in his place, highlighted the projects undertaken there to increase the number of red squirrels. That is a devolved matter, but I am sure that hon. Members will recognise the contributions that we can make, which is why, as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) pointed out, it was important that all four nations came together for the UK Squirrel Accord and to work with many non-governmental organisations, landowners and so on.
The red squirrel is under attack; not from humans, but from the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel is an invasive species from North America that has a significant impact on our native trees—broadleaves in particular—by stripping bark and eating bulbs, and on our protected species, including the red squirrel. The Government are committed to protecting and expanding red squirrel populations, and to tackling the threat that grey squirrels pose to them, particularly the tendency to spread squirrel pox, to which red squirrels are far more susceptible. Preserving biosecurity, including the elimination of non-native species, especially those that jeopardise our native species, is very important to us. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) rightly mentioned the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry, and I assure him that this Government are absolutely committed to doing what we can to eradicate such species.
I fear that that point was missed by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who tried to accuse us of being racist about squirrels. I have never heard such nonsense. I really think that he needs to go on an education tour in Cumbria to understand the importance of red squirrels and why they are so special to our nature.
The Minister may move on to this so I might be picking up unreasonably on a slip of the tongue, but she talked about the “eradication” of invasive species, no doubt in the context of our current inquiry on the Environmental Audit Committee. Will she suggest that we might find ways not just of controlling but of eradicating the grey squirrel?
I think that I used the word “elimination,” which is the same. I agree that has to be our target, rather than just control.
We have made sure that strict protections are in place for those species. Regulations are in place and we need to ensure that they are effectively enforced in England and Wales, as well as at the UK border and in the offshore marine area. Similar legislation is being prepared by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments.
The Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 requires us to put in place management measures for widely spread invasive species, including the grey squirrel, that have been risk-assessed and found to be highly damaging. Management measures must be aimed at the eradication, population control or containment of the species concerned. Under the order, releasing listed invasive species back into the environment will be prohibited unless it is part of further control efforts authorised by a licence, although that is effectively already domestic law.
Grey squirrels have attracted much attention. As I said in response to a recent petition, rescue centres may continue to rescue and treat grey squirrels; they are not obliged to kill grey squirrels, but they cannot release them into the wild without a licence. When the order comes into force in the coming months, it will bring England’s approach to controlling the release of grey squirrels into line with that of the devolved Administrations, who also acknowledge the impact of the species.
The population decline of red squirrels, a species that was once common in England, is of significant concern to the Government and we want to continue to find ways to address it. The Forestry Commission undertakes a number of actions to protect red squirrels from the impact of grey squirrels, as outlined in the grey squirrel action plan for England. DEFRA, in partnership with the UK Squirrel Accord, has provided funding for work by the Animal and Plant Health Agency to develop a fertility control method for grey squirrels. Although I am assured by officials that the research continues to show promise as a potentially effective and humane method of controlling grey squirrel numbers in the long term, I am conscious that it has been worked on for several years, and I do not want us to keep relying on it as the only way to tackle grey squirrel numbers.
On bolstering the populations of pine martens, I am conscious of what my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said about the impact on red kittens. The pine marten is a natural predator of grey squirrels, and its reintroduction in places such as the Forest of Dean and Northumberland is expected to have an impact on grey squirrel populations in those areas, reducing their threat. Red squirrels co-evolved with pine martens, which they evade by scurrying to the tips of branches, where the larger pine martens cannot reach them. The greys do not know this trick and as a result are predated upon in higher numbers by pine martens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland also referred to felling licences. They simply authorise the felling of growing trees and do not absolve landowners of compliance with the legislation in place to protect wildlife, including red squirrels, as set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Forestry Commission considers whether to grant felling licences against the UK forestry standard, which covers the impact on biodiversity, including the habitat of red squirrels. The Forestry Commission checks all applications against a large number of records, including red squirrel reserves. That allows the Commission to highlight any potential issues and advise the applicant on how to avoid the disturbance or damage of protected species.
I am pleased to say that later this year there will be a consultation on an English tree strategy, which will provide the opportunity to consider the need for further strengthening of wildlife protections during forestry operations. In the preparation of the environment Bill, we are considering extra powers for the Forestry Commission in some regards, and there may still be an opportunity to consider clauses to strengthen those powers.
The environment improvement and recovery networks will be a key part of fulfilling the 25-year environment plan. One does not always need specific legislation targeting one species; as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, it is important to have a holistic approach. Although we need to focus on our iconic native species and the elimination of invasive non-native species, it is absolutely right to take that wider approach. With the development of local nature improvement plans, more focus can be given to those iconic species in areas where they are particularly important, rather than having a one-size-fits-all plan.
One of the best places in Scotland to spot red squirrels is Montreathmont forest, just outside Forfar in my constituency. A number of years ago, an application for a wind farm in the forest received widespread opposition from locals and organisations because the forest was registered as such a significant habitat for wildlife, including red squirrels. Will the Minister join me in celebrating those local people who invested a huge amount of their time to ensure that wildlife sightings continued to be registered? We must ensure that planning applications are in the right spaces so that we do not destroy those habitats.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that important point, and I recognise the importance of what is now called “citizen science” in ensuring that data is available to local authorities and Governments, to inform policy and decision making so that policies are properly implemented.
There has been a lot of discussion about trees. In the wider discussion about biodiversity, it is important to remember that habitat degradation is one of the major reasons for the global biodiversity challenge. On the kinds of trees that we have, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke specifically about the need to plant more broadleaves, but we actually need a balanced biodiversity and a balanced tree strategy to take that forward. Both conifers and broadleaves will work for red squirrel habitats but, as has been pointed out, they thrive mostly in areas where there are conifers. Largely, greys do less well there, because there are not the same kinds of nutrients as in broadleaf woodland, so there is less competition for the reds.
It is important to recognise the multi-purpose of trees. As we have discussed many times in this Chamber, the right tree in the right place offers multiple benefits, whether for flood situations, for habitats, for protection from heat in urban areas and for all sorts of other things, as well as being a general force for good. The hon. Member for Workington mentioned the 10% woodland coverage in Cumbria, and I agree that Cumbria is absolutely under-forested. A year last December, I too planted a tree up in Cumbria—I cannot recall the constituency, but it was on the Lowther estate—in what is one of the largest such developments, alongside Doddington moor on the other side of the country. I encourage my hon. Friends from Cumbria to speak to the national park authority about what it will do to encourage the planting of more woodlands and forests, because that can make a difference.
Countryside stewardship schemes will support landowners who want to develop habitats specifically for species such as the red squirrel. As we develop the design of the environmental land management scheme for when we leave the European Union, it will in effect turn the existing common agricultural policy on its head so that we pay for public benefits. Those schemes will attract more and more attention from landowners, rather than them just considering commercial forestry.
In Cumbria, the first forestry investment zone, or FIZ, is a small test of that, but what else are the Government doing to encourage such activity? As I said, the challenge for landowners is the active support of the Forestry Commission to make something happen.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), is now responsible for domestic forestry and the Forestry Commission, so I no longer have day-to-day contact in that regard. I hope that the tree strategy will be a way to make progress.
I suggest that some of the biggest forest and woodland planning applications had particular issues. We have to balance compliance with the habitats directive and the different assessments that have to be made, and I know how expensive those can be. Applications for financial support from the Government need to ensure that they are not only absolutely compliant with UK forestry standards, but taking wider environmental regulations into account. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), however, that lessons could have been learned from some of those major applications, and I hope that they will be for future developments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland asked why the Forestry Commission does not allow more shooting. Shooting, or culling, of grey squirrels is an important driver in their elimination. The Forestry Commission has asked me to point out that it has responsibility for public access and public safety on its estate. However—I will be open about this—I do not think that the commission does a very good job of tackling non-native invasive species. We have the wild boar problem down in the Forest of Dean, and other such problems across the country. I would like to see a more proactive approach, such as the deer initiative, in which people who are not Forestry Commission employees work in partnership to tackle the deer problem. I would like to see more of that happen with some other non-native species.
In speaking about other elements of the issue, many hon. Members paid tribute to the important role played by volunteers in the protection of our domestic red squirrel populations. As they said, a variety of charities up in Cumbria raise public awareness of the threats to red squirrels, engage directly with local landowners, and created a citizen science system in which members of the public record red and grey squirrel sightings. Pockets of improvement could happen elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about the nature networks and the woodland and habitat links in his constituency. I see that as something we could take forward in the environmental improvement plans that we expect across the country.
As for grey squirrels being a carrier of pox, I have already tried to address some things, such as dealing with grey squirrel procreation success—I think that is the best way of putting it. We also have to be open about this: for red squirrels to survive for the next 500 years —although none of us will be alive then to keep that guarantee to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—we must significantly or entirely reduce the threat from the grey squirrel and its diseases. We must also ensure that any future introductions of species align with international guidelines. Such threats have to be tackled head on.
I have already referred to the fact that landowners, if they wish to do more and possibly designate reserves, may apply for countryside stewardship scheme funding. That is open to them. Many different challenges will of course continue but, in response to other questions about funding, it is available. Natural England still funds a variety of activities such as species recovery programmes, which are very much alive. There is also what we will do with the shared prosperity fund. The choices about future funding in Wales are a decision for the Welsh Government, but certainly the environmental land management scheme will be a real opportunity for farmers and landowners to consider carefully where, in the right place, we can continue to invest significantly in a species.
In conclusion, the passion to protect our red squirrels touches many right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to keep our focus on ensuring that iconic native species, whether fauna or flora, remain important in the future. That is a key part of our 25-year environment plan. I am confident that some of the measures in the forthcoming environment Bill will help, but equally important is direct action through the nature improvement and recovery networks that we will establish.
For the record, I point out that Members who have made a speech ought to listen to the following two speeches and to be present to hear the wind-ups. That does not apply to those Members who have only intervened.
Thank you, Sir David. It has been a pleasure to serve under you today. I thank the Minister for her robust response. I am pleased that she agrees that the Forestry Commission could do more. In answer to the point about public safety, of course that is a paramount consideration, but when the shooting of wood pigeon, pheasant and deer already happens, I fail to see the argument against considering similar controls, under licence, of the grey squirrel.
I thank the many Members who have made speeches and interventions. We have a real consensus. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) referenced the importance of tourism. The Lake District national park, where my constituency is, has 18 million visitors, and so many of them come to see and appreciate our wildlife, which is perilously in danger of extinction. I think of the hedgehogs—Mrs Tiggy-Winkle—or the Kewick hatchery project that I am involved with to ensure that we still have salmon and sea trout in the rivers of Cumbria. We learned the awful fact that the Formby stronghold has lost 85% of its red squirrels. I am pleased that they are making some recovery, although there has been the recent outbreak of squirrel pox.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) had told me her enchanting story in the Tea Room, but just think that some time ago books about red squirrels referred to them simply as “squirrels” because that is all we had in the British Isles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) for looking after and promoting his stronghold. It was the best tourism advert—I am really looking forward to a trip to the Isle of Wight.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and from the hon. Members for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and for Workington (Sue Hayman)—how lucky is the hon. Member for Workington to have red squirrels adorning feed tables in her own garden. I commend her husband for looking after our wonderful native reds. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to the importance of a holistic ecosystem approach. I talked about the salmon and sea trout, but we also worry about the pearl mussel in our area, which needs to lay its eggs in the gills of a salmonoid—so without the salmon and the sea trout, the pearl mussel would also suffer.
I am pleased to hear from the Minister that the consultation on further strengthening forestry protection will indeed happen, and I encourage all Members across the House to urge their conservation groups to get involved. Thank you, Sir David, for paying attention to us speaking about such an urgent issue, and for allowing me to speak in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered potential red squirrel extinction.
NHS Dentists: Cumbria
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of NHS dentists in Cumbria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue of enormous importance to my constituents and many others around Cumbria.
NHS dentistry in Cumbria has reached breaking point. More than half of all adults in our county have not had access to an NHS dentist in the last two years, while one in three of our children does not even have a place with an NHS dentist. In rural areas such as ours, lack of access to an NHS dentist results in families having to make ludicrously long journeys to reach the nearest surgery with an available NHS place. Often, people are not able to make, and simply cannot afford, those journeys for a simple check-up.
The hon. Gentleman refers to his constituency, but the problems occur across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does he agree that the lack of dentists in rural areas is incredibly disconcerting? Perhaps we need to look at bigger incentives for those willing to open a rural practice, and incentivise those training in dental surgery, since one in five has to wait three months to have dental surgery. In other words, a rural strategy is needed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; in a moment I will come to some answers to those problems. The challenge is especially acute in rural communities when it comes to attracting and retaining dentists to work in NHS practices in places that are relatively close to people’s homes.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on all our behalves. The problem affects not just rural areas but more remote urban areas such as Barrow. Does he share my huge concern that people in Barrow face a 90-mile trip to Whitehaven if they want access to a new NHS dentist? That is the longest trip in England, for a town where more a third of young people suffer tooth decay, compared with 5% in more affluent areas.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which I will come to. He is absolutely right that the distance from the nearest available treatment affects urban as well as rural areas. It is a problem across the country that relates specifically to the NHS dental contract, which I will come to in a moment.
According to the most recent data available, taking a child living in Windermere to their nearest NHS dentist will involve a 60-mile round trip to Morecambe in Lancashire. That will mean a three to four-hour journey by public transport, with multiple changes. However, poor signposting by the NHS—it was not easy to decipher—means that that place is not obviously available. The nearest place advertising for new child NHS patients is in Appleby, which is an 87-mile round trip—two hours in the car or a five to six-hour round trip by public transport. It was only with the help of the BDA that we managed to identify availability at the far-distant yet ever so slightly closer practice in Morecambe.
I am sure hon. Members will agree that this is beyond ridiculous. NHS dentistry is a public service. It should not take scouring the internet forensically with a fine-toothed comb and with the expert help of a national professional body to find a space for a child with an NHS dentist. That space has already been paid for through our taxes. Let us imagine for a moment the outrage if it were similarly impossible for people to get access to a GP.
For adults, the situation in Cumbria is even worse. I was appalled to discover that the nearest practice with available NHS provision for a new adult patient in Windermere involves a 98-mile round trip by car to Wigton—a six-hour round trip by public transport, involving three different trains and bus rides. The nearest practice that is adverting is even further away and involves a 104-mile trip, there and back, to Alston, taking over six hours by public transport. After that, the next option listed involved going 123 miles there and back to Blackpool.
Despite those obstacles, families in our communities are still trying to secure places at dental practices but are refused. In Sedbergh, Windermere, Grange, Ambleside and Kendal, dentists are working to their full capacity and even beyond, and are doing a brilliant job, but they simply do not have the numbers or the funding to meet demand. The Government have, cleverly or accidentally, dodged confronting the extent of the problem by doing away with official waiting lists. For the last six years, the NHS has held no waiting lists locally or nationally, and patients cannot depend on their clinical commissioning group or NHS England to support them in their quest to find a dentist who will treat them or their children. Will the Minister rectify that and ensure that reliable and up-to-date waiting lists are kept from now on?
We took the matter into our own hands locally. The Westmorland Gazette and I rang round our local dental surgeries to see whether there was availability, and found that in Kendal, not one of the 10 dental practices in our biggest town had a single space available for an NHS patient. Some 33% of new patients tried and failed to get a dentist appointment in the wider Morecambe bay CCG area last year. That is the equivalent of nearly 16,000 people. When we include those already on the books with a dentist, that figure rises to 18,000 people, and they are just the ones who have tried. That is a disgrace, and the situation is only getting worse.
The consequences should not be underestimated. Children across Cumbria have some of the worst dental health in England, with one in three suffering tooth decay by the age of five. In some areas, almost 20% of children under three have tooth decay, and a fifth have tooth decay when they are still toddlers. Often, that does long-term damage to their oral health before they even have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. If children cannot see a dentist in a regular and timely way, preventable conditions become emergency conditions and the pressure is piled on NHS services, along with all their other responsibilities.
Nationally, tooth decay is the leading reason for hospital admissions among young children, despite being almost entirely preventable. In 2017-18, over 45,000 children were admitted to hospital to have multiple teeth extracted under general anaesthetic because of tooth decay. Children face completely unnecessary pain and distress, and the NHS faces a £36 million annual spend for that dental work. Dentistry in Cumbria is understaffed, underfunded and overstretched. Although this a local problem, it is a symptom of a systematic one, the effects of which are felt right across the country.
The primary cause of the increasing problems with dental access in Cumbria and across England is the way that this Government choose to commission dentistry. The NHS dental contract is completely perverse. Based on units of dental activity, it sets quotas on the number of patients an NHS dentist can see and the number of dental procedures they can perform in any given year. If a dentist delivers more than they have been commissioned to do, not only are they not remunerated for the extra work, but they have to bear the cost of any materials used, any necessary laboratory work or other overheads from their own pockets.
That is not the only issue. Last November, I managed to secure the agreement of health bosses to increase the contracts of local NHS dentists in Kendal, so that they could see and treat more patients. It was great news—I thought. However, when NHS England contacted our local dentists, it found that not one of them was able to take up its offer because, as it told me,
“the practices are already working to capacity within the staffing resources they have available, reporting they are having difficulties recruiting additional staff.”
Additional resources were made available, but there were not the dentists to provide the service for local people.
The problem is at least in part the result of the contract, which pays a set amount for particular types of treatment, in some cases regardless of the number of teeth the dentist is treating. In practice, that means that a dentist gets paid an average of £75 for an entire course of treatment, including six fillings, three extractions and a root canal, but that is not enough to cover their overheads. They get paid exactly the same amount of money for a single filling. That acts as a serious disincentive for dentistry, full stop, but especially in more deprived areas, where evidence shows that more significant treatment is often required.
Perhaps the most significant issue with the current dental contract is that it totally fails to provide any serious recognition or budget for preventive work. The work of educating adults, parents and children to maintain good dental health receives no funding, despite the fact that that would significantly ease the burden on dentists and the NHS as a whole further down the line. Indeed, check-ups are the smallest and least-remunerated part of the unit of dental activity worksheet. As a consequence, there is no massive incentive to up the number that a dentist does.
None of that is helped by the Government’s decision to cut £500,000 in the last few months from Cumbria’s public health budget this year, undermining vital preventive work, especially in our schools. Nor does it help that we are currently in limbo when it comes to the future of emergency dental services under the soon to be defunct Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Will the Minister tell me which trust will be responsible for emergency dentistry in south Cumbria after October?
Morale among dentists practising in the NHS is at an all-time low. The latest British Dental Association membership survey shows that nearly three in five dental practitioners in England are planning to scale down or leave NHS work entirely in the next five years. Those with the highest NHS commitments are the most likely to want to leave. In recent months, I have received countless letters at an increasing rate from residents, many of them very elderly, asking where they can go for dental treatment, as their current dentist has gone private and they have effectively been kicked off the list. A lot of parents have contacted me saying that they have been asked to pay now that they have been kicked of their local dentist’s NHS list. If they pay, the dentist might provide NHS provision for their children. It strikes me that that is a form of bribery. Many parents cannot afford to pay for themselves just so their children can get free care. That is not right.
The current system also fails to use the skills of all dental staff to their full potential. The NHS dentist contract restricts the initiation of a course of treatment to dentists alone. I met the British Association of Dental Therapists, which explained that dentists often refer the patient to a therapist to carry out the treatment if it is within the remit of their qualification. The fact that that can be begun only by a dentist creates a bottleneck that prevents patients from receiving the treatment that they need when they need it. The dental therapists made the case to me—and, I believe, to the Government—for reforming the system to allow them to initiate a course of treatment, ease some of the burden on dentists, and enable patients to be seen more quickly. I ask the Minister to action that request, or at least to look into it as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the Government’s steps to reform the system by beginning to carry out a few pilots and trials in different forms of commissioning, but the pilots have not gone far enough, there are not many of them, and the proposed systems do not provide a complete break from the old “unit of dental activity” system. Rather, they blend it with new systems. In the face of the crisis that we have on our hands, I am afraid that a piecemeal change is simply not enough for the people of Cumbria. We need total system reform. The Government need to sit up, take notice and change the contract so that people get the dental treatment they need. The current system is unjust, not fair to dentists and patients, and not fit for purpose. It is not good enough for Cumbria.
Urgent action is needed to roll out a system that fairly rewards dentists for the work they do, includes incentives for preventive work and allows all dental practitioners to use their skills to their full capacity. If we want our NHS dentists to feel that their vital work is valued and not to feel encouraged to move into working privately or give up the profession altogether, we need to take swift, far-reaching action. We need a funding system that does not feel like a treadmill, that rewards preventive care and that is not riddled with unfairness, idiosyncrasies and perverse incentives.
Those of us living in Cumbria are seeing the colossal impact of the current system on the health of children and adults alike, and we are further affected by the huge distances that we have to travel to get care, if we are lucky enough to stumble across an NHS dentists with available space. My question to the Minister is this: what action will she take to provide my constituents with the NHS dental healthcare that they desperately need and that their taxes have already paid for?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for securing this debate. He raised some important issues about dentistry, some of which are national problems that I have been looking at since I came into this role about three months ago, and some of which are pertinent to both the urban and rural areas of Cumbria—I know that there are problems in the constituency of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) relating to geography and economics. I will talk a bit about what we are doing nationally, but of course there are some distinct issues to do with the geography in Cumbria.
Cumbria has struggled to attract dentists. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has raised that issue, which I take very seriously, on many occasions. National access to NHS dentistry is high, but I know from my conversations with colleagues from across the House that there are notspots, and that in isolated areas it is very difficult to get to a dentist. We are taking steps to address that issue to ensure that everyone has access to an NHS dentist. It is NHS England’s responsibility to commission dentist services to meet the needs of local people, and it has been actively looking into dental access issues in Cumbria. Its regional team covers my constituency, so it is looking at Lancashire and south Cumbria together. It has urgent work in hand to explore and implement schemes to improve local access.
In south Cumbria, NHSE will be working to help practices that are under-delivering on their contracted levels of dental services. If despite that support a practice remains unable to deliver its full contracted level of dental activity, the unused funds will be diverted into other local practices. NHS England believes that that could support care for about 3,000 patients. Alongside that, work is being taken forward across Lancashire and south Cumbria to integrate dental services within primary care networks. It is important that dentists are part of the integrated primary care network team, enabling oral health advice and prevention work to be offered across the primary care network. Oral health needs, including gaps in services access difficulties, must be part of the wider health picture. The hon. Gentleman touched on that when he talked about access to GPs.
That is the local action. I want to touch on what we are doing nationally.
The Minister made a very interesting point about people who under-deliver on their contract. It is important that we do not misunderstand what that means. A dental surgery can be working flat out, but if it is, for example, spending more of its time doing preventive work or reacting to people who want consultations and so on, it gets only one unit of dental activity for that. It could be absolutely full to the brim but be doing the lower-tier work just because that is how it is, reactively. That dental surgery is not failing or not working hard enough. It is doing the preventive stuff that we want it to do more of, but the UDA system, with its perverse incentives, does not reward that.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my speech: I will talk about contract reform later. He knows much better than me that the problem with the previous contract was that it was introduced with perhaps a bit too much haste, and we are now living with the consequences. We are mindful that we need a contract that works well and is sustainable for the future.
Nationally, we are introducing so-called flexible commissioning, which allows local NHS commissioners to commission a wider range of services from dental practices. That is expected to make NHS dentistry more attractive to new performers. Another key recruitment and retention challenge—of course, this is not confined to dentists; it applies to a whole range of healthcare and other professionals—is the growing demand among younger dentists for more varied portfolio careers. NHSE is working closely with Health Education England and a wide range of stakeholders to make portfolio careers a reality for dental professionals, allowing dentists to move between specialities such as prevention, restorative work, oral health and special care dentistry.
We want UK-trained dentists in the NHS, and we want them to stay in those careers, but dentists from overseas also play an important part in delivering NHS care. I am pleased that the NHS and the Government have taken steps through the launch of the EU settlement scheme to maintain that essential supply of dedicated and skilled workers, including European economic area-trained dentists, when we leave the EU. Last summer, doctors and nurses were removed from the tier 2 cap, leaving more places for other highly skilled professionals, including dentists.
The interim NHS people plan, which was published early last month, commits to creating a capable and motivated multidisciplinary dental workforce of a sufficient size to meet population health needs. The full people plan will be published later this year.
We are working closely with NHSE to reform the current dental contract. Feedback from dentists who are testing the prototype contract suggests it is a more satisfying way of delivering care. It supports a better skills mix, allowing dental care to be supported by a wider range of staff, such as therapists and hygienists. At a meeting a couple of weeks ago with a wide range of dental stakeholders, I announced that a further 28 dental practices had joined the programme, bringing to 102 the number of practices that are testing the new prevention-focused way of delivering care. NHSE is considering carefully when that approach can be rolled out more widely across the NHS. It is important that we get the new contract right, but I am hopeful that the roll-out will happen as soon as possible.
I want to touch briefly on three questions hon. Members asked. The first and most important was about children’s oral health. I heartily agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about the importance of children’s oral health and all the preventive measures the Department can take to protect children’s teeth. He rightly pointed out something that not all hon. Members are aware of: the biggest cause of emergency admission for children is poor oral health. Of course, that is entirely preventable. The Government are committed to that, particularly among deprived children. We have made the Starting Well approach available to other NHS England commissioners, and that is promoting increased access and early preventive care for very young children.
That more a third of children under five in Barrow have tooth decay is truly appalling. The Government need to make faster progress. I assume the Minister would vigorously oppose any attempt to weaken the sugar tax, which is designed to move people away from that harmful substance towards a healthier lifestyle.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very timely intervention. We can see how successful the soft drinks industry levy has been in how it has helped to reformulate sugary drinks, the amount of money it has raised that has been recycled into school sports, and the fact that it is changing people’s tastes and behaviour. The prevention Green Paper is in train; let us hope that he is pleased with what is announced in it.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned emergency dentistry and I will have to write to him with specifics about the commissioning of services.
On the public health budget, I know from conversations with Members across the House that there are pressures on local government budgets. The ring-fenced public health budget will be a matter for the forthcoming spending review, when it will be assessed using all available evidence. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that I will take away all the evidence I gather from meetings with Members across the House and in my ministerial position to feed into the spending review process.
Just so the Minister is fully aware of the facts—I know this predates her time in this role—the NHS talked in its long-term plan about its vision for early identification of conditions of all sorts, and about preventive care, and then literally a fortnight later, just before Christmas, the settlement for public health spending for Cumbria was reduced by £500,000. I would be grateful if the Minister intervened to ensure that that does not happen again, because it has a huge impact on our ability to keep children in good practice in their early years so they have good dental health.
Of course, part of prevention comes from the public health budget. That now sits back with local authorities, which is where it was historically, and of course—the hon. Gentleman knows my constituency well, having grown up there—there are different needs in different areas. What the NHS does through the immunisation and screening programmes is also part of that aspect of preventive health, but I take on board his comments about the specific public health situation in south Cumbria.
I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that significant action is being taken locally in Cumbria and nationally, both now and for the future, to improve access to NHS dental services. The new prevention-focused dental contract in particular, which is a key part of our reforms, should attract people to and keep people in the dental profession, and make dentistry a more varied and rewarding career. It will ensure better access to dentistry in places such as Cumbria and across the country for all our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
English for Speakers of Other Languages
[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for the provision of English for speakers of other languages.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate, which is about a subject that is close to my heart and to my community: the urgent need to invest in English as a second language, particularly for refugees.
I am fortunate to represent a place that is diverse, inclusive and welcoming. I am proud to be from a city of sanctuary, because almost 500 people living in Birmingham have arrived since the beginning of the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme. Last summer, I was fortunate to meet 12 people from Syria who have started new lives in Birmingham, supported by Refugee Action. They shared with me their experiences of life in the UK, and spoke about how respectful and kind those around them have been, how comfortably their children have settled into local schools and what a great place Birmingham has been to live in. The biggest problem that almost everyone wanted to raise with me was the lack of sufficient access to English language learning.
People had different reasons for wanting to improve their English. For one family, it was to ensure they could communicate properly with healthcare professionals to support their daughter with her complex health needs. For another, is was so that they could speak English well enough to pass their UK driving test. For another man, it was so that he could take up the profession he held back home in Syria as a football coach.
Earlier today I met Nour, a Syrian refugee living in Birmingham—he is in the Gallery listening to the debate. Nour is a passionate champion of the importance of learning English, and I want to share with Members his powerful words:
“When you start to speak English fluently, it means you can get a good job and make your dreams come true. I am working hard. I want to create a company like Microsoft. You will see—I will achieve my dreams and goals.”
The experiences of this group of refugees is mirrored by many people of different backgrounds, who have different motivations but the same ambition to be able to communicate better with the community around them. We should support that ambition and be a country that is open and welcoming, but that requires providing people with support after they arrive here. Language classes are fundamental in building cohesive communities, yet many barriers exist for people to access classes and they struggle to find the opportunity to learn to speak English.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It is clear that there is support from both the refugee community and the British public for having these classes. Does she agree that there are particular concerns that women with children are prevented from accessing these classes, because there is no provision for children?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I will touch on that later in my speech.
Government cuts to English for speakers of other languages over the past decade have been ruthless; let us not pretend otherwise. Refugee Action’s report, “Turning Words into Action”, shows that Government funding for ESOL in England fell from £212.3 million in 2008 to £105 million in 2018. That is a shocking real-terms cut of almost 60% in a decade. Unsurprisingly, this decline in funding has been accompanied by a decline in adult participation in ESOL classes by nearly 40% over the same period.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate, which is about a subject many of us have been raising over the last nine years as we have seen the erosion of courses. Does she recognise that there is a new threat to funding for ESOL courses, because the European social fund has been a significant supporter of those courses? Does she hope that the Minister will today give a commitment to match, pound for pound, funding from the European social fund for ESOL courses in future?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention, and he is right. So many Members across the House have been campaigning for this over the past decade. I hope that the Minister will respond to his request.
Last month a report by the Government’s social research team, using methodology agreed with the Department for Education, found that the demand for English language teaching was high, with almost three quarters of survey respondents reporting a “significant demand” for English language learning provision in the communities they serve. However, providers are struggling to meet that demand. Over half the respondents found it “fairly difficult” to meet demand, and one in eight found it “very difficult”. The overstretching of these providers hits learners hard, particularly the most vulnerable. New research carried out by Refugee Action found that 59% of refugees did not think they had received enough ESOL teaching hours and only 34% of respondents felt that their current level of English was enough to make them ready to work in the UK.
Third sector organisations are unable to fill these gaps because limited funding means they have little or no access to hardware and technology to support their teaching.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. She makes the point about third sector provision. In my constituency, First Step and the Angelou Centre provide ESOL classes, as well as Newcastle City Council and Newcastle College, but because of the devastating cuts they are in no way able to meet demand. My constituents and refugees in Newcastle often speak to me about the need to increase ESOL provision so that it is not just a lucky few who are able to receive the gift of the English language.
It is important that we hear first-hand experiences from Members representing their communities about how difficult it has been and the impact of cuts.
It is disingenuous for the Education Secretary to praise ESOL as a way towards social mobility and inclusion without providing much needed resources. Women are disproportionately impacted by barriers to ESOL and they miss out on the benefits that those who are able to learn English gain. More than three quarters of parents said that a lack of childcare had been a barrier to their ability to attend English lessons. For those on a low income, practical and logistical barriers exist. A quarter of refugee respondents, for example, had not been able to access any financial assistance to pay for travel to classes. That can mean people are forced to miss classes because they are unable to travel to them.
Some groups are excluded altogether from accessing English, such as asylum seekers, who in England become eligible for funding only if they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for six months or longer. That includes a broader issue with the current resettlement process that researchers from the University of Sussex found is leading
“to a tragic waste of refugees’ unfulfilled potential”.
The Government frequently talk about the importance of ESOL provision for refugees. Back in 2016, after many years of ESOL cuts, pressure from the Opposition Benches, from charities and from civil society organisations forced the Government to give additional funding for people arriving under the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme. Although welcome, this fairly modest pot of money supported only one group of people to learn English, and therefore cannot be seen as a solution to the wider problems of access to ESOL.
The Government’s 2018 integrated communities Green Paper acknowledged the vital importance of English for integration but gave no new money specifically for ESOL. In their 2018 immigration White Paper, the Government committed to
“an ambitious and well-funded English language strategy to ensure that everyone in this country, especially those with newly recognised refugee status, are supported to speak the same language”.
Once again, however, there was no new funding. The Government’s failure to act flies in the face of public opinion, which is strongly in favour of supporting people to learn English. For example, recent independent polling by YouGov shows that 91% of the British public believe it is important that refugees who come to the UK learn to speak English. If the Government are serious about allowing everyone the possibility to learn English, investment must be made, not empty promises.
Informal ESOL learning groups run by volunteers and community organisations across the country are a vital part of learning, and we know that they are often fantastic community assets. There is good work ongoing to help reach learners in segmented communities, and we should continue to work to ensure that such groups are joined up and co-ordinated.
There are other innovative forms of ESOL that should also be encouraged. In September, the adult education budget will be devolved to six combined authorities and the Greater London Authority, allowing for creative regional ways of delivering ESOL teaching. For example, the West Midlands Combined Authority is currently exploring ways of delivering more ESOL in workplaces, specific to certain sectors, to firm up the link between learning English and employment. Those new powers and responsibilities need to be matched with appropriate resources, so will the Minister tell us what they will be?
Thus far the Government have ignored the moral case, but perhaps they will listen to the economic one. Much of people’s passion to learn English comes from their desire to find work. Although it is certainly only part of the integration picture, for many it is the main motivation to learn. If people had access to eight hours of ESOL classes a week, the taxpayer would be fully reimbursed for two years of those classes after an individual’s first eight months of employment at the national average wage. In the case of supporting refugees to access ESOL, the cost of providing that volume of learning would be just £42 million a year.
Moreover, leaving people to flounder without the ability to speak the language can have a detrimental effect on their mental health and wellbeing, and lead to isolation and loneliness, all of which are extremely costly to the state and society. Investing in people who want to learn English is a smart thing to do.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Will she join me in suggesting that the Minister might do well to look at the German example? All refugees in Germany have access to a 600-hour language course, which enables them to learn to speak German. Clearly the German Government and the German economy see an economic return on that investment, as well as a social return in terms of mental wellbeing.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. I was not aware of the German example, and I think that the Minister will be keen to look at it after this debate.
All political parties talk of the importance of helping people to become productive, equal partners in their communities, and supporting people such as Nour to achieve their goals. However, too often the cuts to ESOL that we have seen under the coalition and Conservative Governments have prevented that from happening.
Today I want to ask the Minister four questions. First, will she act now to ensure that everyone can learn English? Secondly, will she commit to producing a formal ESOL strategy for England? Thirdly, what steps is she taking to ensure that people who face particular barriers to learning, such as those with caring responsibilities or difficult travel arrangements, are given the resources they need to overcome them, and to ensure that ESOL provision is always accessible? Finally, in order to have an inclusive, welcoming country, additional investment is necessary to ensure that everyone who needs it is given the opportunity to access high-quality, sufficient English language teaching, so will she support my call and take these demands to the Treasury in advance of the forthcoming spending review?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will start with a reference to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which correctly provided a statement that, to be successful at getting ESOL taught, we had to recognise that we were up against cultural norms among the groups to whom we were trying to provide the language training. I remember 11 or 12 years ago, when I was a councillor in Oxford, seeing groups of women in particular who had been coming to English classes for five or six years, but whose English was no better than on the day they first went. It was an opportunity for them to get out of the house and have social interaction with other people on the course.
ESOL teaching can be useful for that purpose of providing social interaction, but that does take away from the purpose of providing the language tuition that we all think is important. Fortunately, most refugees do not fall into that category; they passionately want to learn English. There are many reasons for doing that: for talking to neighbours, for having that normal family social interaction, for studying and, most importantly, for work-related activities.
Much of the thinking about teaching English stresses the need for a community-based strategy. I am not sure that I understand what a community-based strategy is in this case, particularly given that so much of the English-language training is provided by large local government organisations that can hardly be described as community-based in the way they operate. At some point we will have to bottom that out when we talk about how these services should be delivered in the best possible way.
I have mentioned that it is essential to run language training courses for large refugee communities; it is essential to run them for all refugees, but particularly so where there are large refugee communities. My own constituency does not have any, so I can speak on this with a touch of objectivity, and look at that training to see how it proceeds. I have also already mentioned the importance of English language training for people getting a job, but that also leads to another question: what role should employers have in providing English language training for people to whom they offer jobs? That is much more than simply the social mixing that I talked about at the beginning.
The ability to teach the English language affects so many other areas. One area that it affects particularly is that of loneliness; if a refugee is lonely and does not have the right language skills, they will be even lonelier. It is essential to be able to address that. I remember reading the story of a refugee lawyer who spoke very little English, but who wanted to be able to continue to practise law when she came to the UK with her family. To be able to practise UK law in the UK, she had to take a conversion course. The stories that were told of the difficulties she faced in finding that sort of language training, just to be able to keep her family alive in the way to which they were normally accustomed, made for a sorrowful tale, and it is one I would recommend to all hon. Members.
Finally, I will mention, as I frequently do in this Chamber, the work of the Council of Europe. The UK is a member of the Council of Europe and it is rare that we take what it does into account. It has a programme called “Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants”, which is there specifically to ensure that member Governments of the Council provide the linguistic training that is essential for migrants to be able to improve themselves by learning the language so that they can do all the things that we take for granted.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) not only for securing this debate, but for her incredibly insightful opening speech, in which she very articulately made the case for ESOL funding.
Only a week ago, I had the pleasure of showing a group of ESOL learners from Halifax around Westminster, as part of a trip organised by Halifax Opportunities Trust to complement their studies. They were a wonderful group of people, each with a different story to tell, but all of them enthusiastic about the opportunity to gain a better understanding of their adopted Parliament, how it works and its relationship to their lives. While they are still studying English, it was their ability to ask questions and understand the answers that empowered them to truly experience Parliament as participants, rather than simply as observers along for the ride.
However, although almost everyone understands the value of being able to speak English, ESOL provision is harder to access than ever before. As we have heard, Government funding for ESOL in England fell from £212.3 million in 2008 to £105 million in 2018—a real-terms cut of almost 60%. Unsurprisingly, Calderdale College in my constituency has had to reduce its ESOL provision by 50%, despite an increase in the number of learners seeking it. We expect the publication of the national ESOL strategy in the autumn. With YouGov polling suggesting that 91% of the British public believe it important that refugees and others who come to the UK should learn to speak English, we know that there is overwhelming support for investment in ESOL as a means for that to happen.
Here in Westminster, I vice-chair the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned. In 2017, we published our “Integration not Demonisation” report, which argued that the ability to speak English is one of the key principles underpinning healthy and successful integration within communities. As part of the call for evidence for that report, it was a pleasure to welcome the all-party parliamentary group to Halifax, where the chair and I met with those involved in integration work.
Office for National Statistics research published in the report suggests that approximately 800,000 people living in the UK at the time of the 2011 census could not speak English—2% of the population. In some areas with large numbers of immigrants, including Newham, Brent, Tower Hamlets and Leicester, that can be as high as 9% of the population. Further to this, 22% of Muslim women in the UK self-report that they are unable to speak English well.
To address that, the report recommended that the Government should introduce a national strategy for the promotion of English language learning, which would unleash the economic potential of immigrants, enabling newcomers to participate fully in British life and ensuring that everyone in our society can benefit from meeting and mixing with others from different cultures. We went so far as to say that enrolment in English language classes should be compulsory, acknowledging the Casey review findings that, in some communities, regressive cultural and family norms and practices can prevent the most vulnerable from learning English.
We also asserted that the ability to learn English should be a right extended to everyone. We argued that, while the Department for Education should lead that work, it should be delivered with input from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other relevant Departments to ensure that it was as effective as possible.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a lot of good points. The Government found £10 million in 2016 for Syrian refugees to undertake ESOL classes. If there is money for Syrian refugees, surely there is money for all the communities that need it.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that we recognised the importance of Syrian refugees being able to speak English, but we have not delivered the funding to extend that programme to other newcomers to our country. We should reflect on that.
Ahead of the publication of the national ESOL strategy in the autumn, I was glad to see that the Government’s immigration White Paper, published in December last year, commits to
“an ambitious and well-funded English language strategy to ensure that everyone in this country, especially those with newly recognised refugee status, are supported to speak the same language.”
However, these proposals contain no new funding for English language teaching, which the strategy will have to address later this year. The ability to speak English is important for many reasons, not least, as I have mentioned, because it is integral to integration. If someone cannot speak English, their ability to find work, meet and converse with people and access everyday services is severely restricted. For someone to be trapped in a world where they cannot interact with those around them will leave them desperately isolated and vulnerable.
There is strong public support for ESOL, not least because it would be a sensible investment. Research undertaken by Refugee Action—I am pleased to see members of the team in the Gallery—shows that it would cost £42 million a year to ensure two years’ ESOL for each refugee arriving in the UK, which would in effect be fully reimbursed to the taxpayer within the first eight months of that individual’s employment at the national average wage.
The Casey review looked at opportunity and integration. Published in December 2016, it made it clear that good English skills are fundamental to integrated communities and particularly important as a means of empowering marginalised women and other socially isolated groups. However, when it comes to working with those groups in particular, and as much as I welcome learning in the community, I am sympathetic to some of the points already made about how effective learning in the community needs to be. I have seen good examples of that and I have seen bad examples.
The Women’s Activity Centre in Halifax, which does a great deal to support older, isolated women, predominantly from the Kashmiri community, for whom the inability to speak English is a significant contributor to loneliness and isolation, was approached by an organisation that offered to come in and deliver ESOL. The organisation came in, signed everyone up, took some photos and then brought in an eastern European interpreter who unfortunately could not communicate with that specific group of learners at all. After two lessons, on realising that this approach was futile, they failed to return, letting all those women down. When funding for ESOL is so precious, knowing that dedicated funds can be wasted in that way, delivering no social benefit to those who most need it, is painful for everyone involved.
I have been working closely with Sisters United in Halifax—truly inspirational women who are working alongside Refugee Action to support its “Let Refugees Learn” campaign. Refugee Action has called for refugees to have a minimum of eight hours formal, accredited tuition a week for their first two years in the UK, which, as I have mentioned, would cost £42 million a year, although that would be repaid within the first eight months of a refugee’s being in work. Alongside this, I lend my support to Refugee Action’s “Lift the Ban” campaign, which seeks to promote integration and facilitate opportunities to improve language skills by allowing refugees to work while awaiting a decision on their status.
ESOL provision represents value for money. We know that the demand is there, but at the moment the provision is not. If we are looking for ways of ensuring, now more than ever, that we foster healthy, integrated communities, investing in ESOL would be a really constructive way of supporting those aims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries; many thanks for squeezing me in at the last minute. I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for introducing this important topic and for securing the debate.
It is only two weeks since Refugee Week, when Citizens UK came into Parliament with a young man from my constituency from Syria, Mouteb, who spoke for the first time in beautiful English, even though he had never been to school before because he was in a refugee camp. He appeared in a beautiful school uniform and looked so proud, which was such a wonderful tribute to the work done with refugees when things go well. The group that he is with is supported by Citizens UK but is part of the Government’s Syrian community sponsorship programme, which I am sure the Minister is aware of. That programme could stop in September 2020 if it is not renewed. I hope that the Minister will think about passing that on to Home Office colleagues, so that this important programme, which is a great example of community cohesion, can be maintained.
One local sponsor, who goes to the Methodist church in Muswell Hill, said:
“Community support leads to more successful, faster integration of new migrants than local authority support, and the involvement of people across communities in resettlement can, in time, change the way a whole society treats refugees.”
That is a real tribute to this group, from all different faith backgrounds, who have clubbed together to provide a sort of family around the family, if you like, for these Syrian refugees. Mouteb’s speaking in a meeting in Parliament is a great example of that.
The other group I pay tribute to on its teaching of English as a second language is the JAN Trust, a fantastic organisation in my constituency that particularly helps isolated women, a group that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) mentioned. It helps women to escape the drudgery of housework and endless hours of childcare; much as one loves one’s children, those hours can go on and on. Getting in front of a whiteboard and being taught by a lovely teacher—ESOL teachers happen to be lovely people, on the whole; that is a terrible stereotype, but they are—provides a wonderful escape for those women.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. I have worked with older women in my community who are at an age where they need regular medical appointments and support in the home, but because they are unable to communicate, not only do we deny them that escape, but they struggle to access basic services that the rest of us take for granted.
Absolutely: it provides a crucial line into a more purposeful existence as a member of the community. There is a real opportunity here, particularly for older women who might not necessarily have had education through to 18 or 21 in the way that many of our younger women do now. I often think about my own grandmother. She left school at 14 and had some quite unusual views, many of which we had clashes over. I often think that if she had had the opportunity to go to school to the age of 21, she would have made a fuller contribution in her different roles.
A lot of women, including those who escaped violence and conflict and who therefore stopped school very young, have this amazing lifeline through our colleges and places such as the JAN Trust, and with the support provided by Citizens UK. Further education colleges have been cut by 50% since 2010 and they are really struggling, but in my constituency, the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London is doing a fantastic job to provide a lifeline, not just for women but for all adults, to escape that terrible prison that people find themselves in when they do not speak the language of their host country.
I want briefly to mention the issue of teachers’ pay. Six months ago, a fantastic teacher of English as an additional language came in to lobby me. She is a constituent, but teaches at City and Islington College, which has now merged with Westminster Kingsway and the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London. She said that if she taught in a school, she would be paid way more than for teaching ESL. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at the wage level, because in these difficult times it is important that we assist people to stay in these important roles in the public sector. Those on a relatively low wage also have lower pension contributions, and sick leave and annual leave entitlements can also be different. In general, that two-tier approach to teaching must be stopped.
I reiterate the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) that funding to support ESL be continued, or that the Government at least pledge to continue that important work. It would be terrible to lose that. There are important campaigns, such as “Lift the Ban”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax mentioned, which aims to assist asylum seekers, once they have made their application, in being able to work more flexibly, and to start as quickly as possible. It would be a shame for English language classes not to go alongside that.
I moved a private Member’s Bill a couple of months back and was extremely impressed by the range of people I met who would love to be in work. As we are all aware, many refugees come from well-trained backgrounds, perhaps with a medicine degree, or have backgrounds in pharmacy, teaching or engineering, and they arrive in the UK without any English. If they could learn English as quickly as possible, they would be able to work. The “Lift the Ban” campaign calls for the Home Office’s occupation shortage list to be much more flexible and open.
I have raised that issue with the Home Secretary on two occasions in the House, and he said that it was under review. I also raised it with the Immigration Minister, who said that the Government were looking at it. In the way that our wonderful civil servants are used to passing on little notes to other Departments, I hope that the Home Office will look at this again with some urgency, particularly as we have people who are often very well qualified, but find it difficult to find work quickly.
Prior to entering Parliament, I helped the Cardigan Centre in my constituency to gain lottery funding for an ESOL café. Because they were asylum seekers, many of those people could not access ESOL elsewhere. They were learning English to try to enter work, but they could not, because of the ban. A lot of them had backgrounds from the occupation shortage list. There is a demand and there is this waiting. They cannot get statutory ESOL and have to use charitable ESOL. Those people face both those issues.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There is also a terrible issue with transport to colleges. For destitute asylum seekers, it is very difficult to manage on the current rate of £5.37 an hour. It is doubly difficult when they need to pay for expensive buses, particularly outside London. I understand from recent debates in the House that buses outside London are more expensive even than in our high-value city. There are costs associated with getting to lessons, and this all needs to be looked at in the round.
I thank you again, Ms Dorries, for allowing me to speak with very little notice. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston again, and all other colleagues who have made such fantastic contributions to the debate. I look forward to hearing the shadow spokespersons and the Minister’s response.
I am particularly grateful to you, Ms Dorries, for fitting me in, almost beyond the last minute. As I often am, I was inspired to speak by my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). Keighley often looks for inspiration to Halifax—I say that as someone who was born in Halifax—and there are similarities between the communities.
In Bradford, there are 25,000 people who cannot speak English or do not speak it well. In Keighley, the figure is just under 3,000. Together with Bradford Council, I hosted a conference on integration in line with the Government’s strategy earlier in the year. One of the top targets that we agreed on was to try to get that figure down in the next five years. We will never get it down to zero, but we will try to get everyone in Keighley speaking English, because it is a liberating and progressive thing to be able to speak English in our society.
We have heard the arguments about employability and loneliness and so on. Let me add one more that comes up, which I find works in the discussions I have with different communities: it is really up there if parents can to speak English. How can anyone possibly guide their children in towns such as Keighley, where many good things but also one or two bad things go on from time to time, and how can anyone make judgments about their children’s friends and the activities they take part in, without speaking English?
It is a wonderful thing that there are so many groups in Keighley. The Sangat Centre works very much with the Kashmiri community. There is the Good Shepherd Centre, a redundant church that was not needed by the Catholic Church that has now become a vibrant centre; English teaching is one of the things that goes on there. In all the centres, there is a big waiting list for the free English lessons, which are largely financed by the community.
We must be inventive. In colleges of education—Keighley stands out in my mind, of course—people are sometimes reluctant to take examinations, but to get the funding, examinations are needed. The one course that really works in Keighley is in driving test theory with English language. Everyone wants to learn to drive in Keighley. Adding some English language teaching to that means it suddenly becomes even more popular, and it also suddenly becomes eligible for funding.
There is also innovation in some of the schools in Keighley. In St Andrew’s, Holycroft and Victoria Primary Schools, English language lessons—and maths lessons as well—are held between 11 am and 1 pm, with a second session from 1 pm to 3 pm, so that parents can come along during the school day, knowing that their kids are at school.
Is my hon. Friend aware of Duncombe School, a school of excellence? It provides GCSEs in Turkish and other community languages, so that those who missed out—once again, it is particularly women—can complete qualifications in other languages, meaning that they are proficient in two languages?
That is an inspiration; that example is not from Halifax, but we can take inspiration from all round the country. Second chances are very important in learning.
I have little else to add, other than to say that we are grateful in Bradford and Keighley for the money that has come from the integrated communities programme, which I hope will last for more than the current period of three years, because by the time it gets up and running we are halfway into it. To really integrate communities and use the power of the English language to bring about cohesion takes a while, and it can take years, so I hope that in the coming months Ministers will give greater certainty about the future of funding. We are excited in Keighley and in West Yorkshire generally about trying to make sure that eventually everyone in our society can speak English and participate fully in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on securing this important debate, and I congratulate all the others who were inspired to take part, even if they did so quite late on.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston spoke authoritatively about the problems faced by refugees struggling to learn English in England. She spoke fluently on an issue that she obviously cares passionately about and gave many relevant examples of why it is so important. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke about the all-party group on social integration and was able to inject an objective view as there are not many refugees in Henley. He gave us good information about the Council of Europe and the linguistic integration of adult migrants programme. I was not aware of it per se, but it is something that we can all take from here.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) referred to the 60% drop in ESOL funding in England and talked about the work of her all-party group in trying to push Government Departments into doing better. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) talked about funding for Syrian refugees and reminded us all that it is only two weeks since Refugee Week. I, too, was inspired by some of the refugees I met in Parliament during that time. She talked about funding, the JAN Trust and the wage levels of ESOL teachers. As a former further education lecturer, I can vouch for the fact that no one in FE is a slacker. You have to be nimble, light on your feet and able to do several jobs at once, but the sector will always manage to retain staff if they are paid appropriately.
I want to reiterate the point that someone often needs to be more skilled to teach in an FE setting than in a standard school setting. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I do indeed, based on my own long experience and that of my friend who is in the Gallery listening to this debate.
The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) hosted a conference on integration and he talked about how the ability to speak English is liberating. I loved the idea of Keighley College doing a course in driving test theory with English. We often need a hook to draw people in and to get funding—again, another problem in further education—and that is a real winner.
The Scottish Government are committed to the principle that all Scottish residents for whom English is not a first language should have the opportunity to access high-quality English language provision. Access to English language lessons allows people to acquire the language skills to enable them to participate in Scottish life: in the workplace, through further study, within the family, the local community and Scottish society, and through the economy. It is one of the joys of life to hear immigrants from all over the world speaking with a broad Scottish accent.
Language skills are central to giving people a democratic voice and supporting them to contribute to the society in which they live. Scotland’s population at the last census was recorded as 5,295,403. The census also showed that more than 310,000, or about 5%, of that population over the age of three spoke a language other than English in the home. ESOL learning is crucial in supporting residents in Scotland for whom English is not a first language. It equips those residents with the communication skills necessary to contribute and integrate economically, culturally and socially, as we have heard from all the speakers today.
To support the delivery of the ESOL programme in line with the national strategy, during 2016-17 funding of almost £1.5 million was allocated to community planning partnerships, which are wide ranging in Scotland. As a result, almost 13,000 learners were recorded as accessing provision, a 24% increase on the numbers recorded in the previous year. Funding is necessary and must be given to promote ESOL. Some 20% of those learners achieved a Scottish Qualifications Authority accreditation, which represents almost 21% of the total number of learning opportunities made available. A total of 129 projects were proposed for the fund and 116 are reported as being complete, giving a 90% completion rate, which is, from my own experience, extraordinary.
Society has changed since the 2007 adult ESOL strategy for Scotland was first launched. Social, political and economic factors have impacted on ESOL provision; these include a change in the profile of refugees and asylum seekers coming to Scotland, and migrants become part of settled communities. There have also been changes to the requirements for English language skills for immigration and welfare benefits and the reform of public services following the Christie commission on the future delivery of public services report. Public services in Scotland are adapting to cuts in funding under Tory austerity, while technology becomes increasingly prevalent and public services and personal lives are challenged to maximise the use of technology, which someone cannot access and use if they do not have the language skills.
We know more about the ESOL provision in Scotland, including who delivers, how it is delivered and what is delivered. As a result, the Scottish Government refreshed the English for speakers of other languages strategy for adults in Scotland. The refresh provides an updated and informed context for the provision of publicly funded ESOL in Scotland. It sets it in the broad context of learning in Scotland with the expectation that providers will look at the broader context to inform the direction of provision.
We in the Scottish National party believe that refugees and asylum seekers should be welcomed, supported and integrated into our communities from day one. The New Scots refugee integration strategy for 2018 to 2022 sets out a vision for a welcoming Scotland where refugees and asylum seekers are able to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive. The strategy commits to better access to essential services such as education, housing, health and employment. It recognises the skills, knowledge and resilience that refugees bring, and aims to help people settle, become part of the community and pursue their ambitions. There is not a hostile environment for refugees in Scotland.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for taking a second intervention. Would the Scottish National party join with others in the House to support the Lift the Ban campaign to lift the ban on asylum seekers working once they have done their paperwork?
Absolutely, because the ban undervalues people and the skills that they can bring into the UK. As has already been stated, many refugees bring really good skills with them. If they can then learn English, they can contribute a huge amount to the economy and our society.
In 2010, the literacy action plan emphasised the Scottish Government’s commitment to raising the literacy skills of Scotland’s citizens. The strategic guidance, “Adult Literacies in Scotland 2020”, notes the importance of literacy and language skills for ESOL learners:
“Some adults whose first language is not English may have reading, writing and number difficulties very similar to those encountered by ‘traditional’ literacies learners, due to limited schooling in their first language or because they come from a mainly oral culture.”
It is important to support people whose first language is not English to become full and active citizens. Those adults can make an important contribution to the economic success of Scotland, but to do so they must be able to read, write, speak and understand English. I talk a lot about Scotland, which is my role here, but much of what I am talking about could happen in England as well, with the political will.
For young adults, the 16-plus learning choices framework is a commitment in the senior phase of education that guarantees a place in learning for every eligible young person who wants it. It is the model for helping young people to stay in learning post-16. Provisions that support ESOL learners to find employment have great returns personally, socially and economically. Economic integration can help to reduce isolation in a new country. Increasing the opportunities for individuals to develop and use their skills as best they can is not just a strategy for improved economic performance. It is also an effective way of improving the satisfaction and security of work, promoting the health and wellbeing of individuals and enhancing the fabric of our communities.
Language learning remains an important curriculum area in schools and is supported by “Language Learning in Scotland: A 1+2 Approach”. That policy is aimed at schools, but it notes the potential of language learning in general. Work-based ESOL and ESOL for employability can be considered in the context of the Government’s employability and economic strategies. Refreshing the employability framework for Scotland provides a framework that focuses on jobs and growth and recognises the importance of ESOL in helping to address inequality issues that impact on employability. Providers and practitioners report that migrant workers are now becoming part of settled communities in Scotland. ESOL learners in general are becoming less transient. In that regard, I thank those who work tirelessly to improve the lives of Congolese and Syrian refugees who have settled in my constituency. Those people are welcome, and they contribute to our communities.
Refugee Action has made five recommendations for change and I think it important to restate them. It wants a fund to be created to allow all refugees to receive a minimum eight hours a week of formal, accredited English language teaching. It wants the Government to publish an ESOL strategy for England. It wants to ensure that all refugees have access to ESOL. It wants free English teaching to be provided to people seeking asylum in England from the point of their asylum claim. It wants a national framework for community-based language support to be facilitated. Community-based language support is so important. I have talked jokingly—but perhaps I was not joking too much—about asylum seekers and refugees speaking with a Scottish accent. That absolutely helps to empower them, and to embed them in their communities. When the weans start school at five the mothers know what is going on at the school gate.
All those asks are in line with the SNP Scottish Government strategy. Will the Minister commit to providing for them in England?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. First I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), on a speech that not only was superbly constructed but got to the heart of the individual issues. It gave us information about how to address strategy more broadly than the Government have previously done. That breadth was particularly apparent when she listed the different types of refugees she had been dealing with in her constituency, and when she said that starting to speak English fluently means people can get a good job and make their dreams come true.
That applies not only in Birmingham; the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) may have seen what I thought was a moving piece on BBC Oxford the other day about an Afghan cricketer who came to this country as a refugee and asylum seeker and now plays in the city league in Australia. It was the support of the people of Cumnor, and particularly the cricket club there, that got him through the Home Office barriers. It is important to talk about structure, but we should never forget individuals, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston did not do that. She rightly paid tribute to the report by Refugee Action and pointed out that there has been no new money. She also made the important point that informal ESOL learning groups are run by volunteers and community organisations. The Minister and I have often jointly supported adult education, but I recall her talking a couple of years ago, at the Learning and Work Institute, about the importance of informal learning and how to coax people into doing things that they might not otherwise do.
There is a moral as well as an economic case for the Government to address. I pay tribute to other Members for their comments and observations in interventions and speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) is of course the Labour Home Office spokesperson on such matters. He talked about how provision for children is a key element of the matter, and also a barrier. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made the important point that the European social fund had been a significant contributor to ESOL and asked whether the Minister would guarantee to match that. As far as I am aware, that will probably come substantially from the shared prosperity fund that the Government have talked about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and other colleagues tried to get some detail about that from the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), in an excellent Westminster Hall debate two months ago—but detail came there none. I do not know whether the Minister today is in a position to say any more today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) talked about the importance of first steps and colleges. The hon. Member for Henley talked about the need to get people’s motivation right, and about issues of loneliness and participation. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) rightly paid tribute to the work being done in her constituency, and also the work of the all-party parliamentary group on social integration. She and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) made a particular point about the needs of older women. The stats that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax gave and the two examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green talked about powerfully illustrated that argument.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), as well as telling us about the challenges in Bradford and Keighley, probably gave the most memorable soundbite of the afternoon, by combining driving with English, but it is an important point because people want to learn English for specific reasons. That relates to the discussion of and concerns about older people—not just older women—who need ESOL.
Finally, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke on these matters from the Front Bench for the SNP, with her customary crispness and warmth. She illustrated some of the challenges, particularly in relation to teaching and further education in Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, and discussed changes in the profile and the specifics of what is happening in Scotland.
ESOL classes offer vital support for people across this country whose first language is not English. They offer them the ability to get the knowledge and skills they need to live more active lives. People rely on those services for many reasons—to be able to speak English and enter work, or as a starting point for education here—in order to feel able to integrate and participate in their communities. Those are important aims, and I know that the Minister will agree with me and colleagues present in Westminster Hall that we must give everyone the support and opportunities to achieve them. In fact, I hope there is cross-party consensus on the issue.
As I have already said, the Minister and I have at various times talked about motivation and the need to reach out to people. The Secretary of State himself has said:
“Improving literacy is vital to improving social mobility”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 6.]
In her review of integration, Louise Casey said:
“English language is a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration.”
Indeed, one would expect Ministers to have been investing substantially in these services for years, given how important they say English language is. As I am afraid has been demonstrated today—it is too often the case—that rhetoric has not been matched in reality since 2010. ESOL funding has been cut by over 50%, from £203 million to £99 million. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that participation has also plummeted. In 2009-10 there were 179,000 learners on funded ESOL courses, but by 2017 the figure had fallen to 114,000.
Will the Minister at least acknowledge that the indifference or—let us be charitable—inability to provide funding since 2010 has contributed significantly, if not directly, to the decline in ESOL participation? I know that she will say that funding has increased in recent years, and it is true that there have been small increases in ESOL funding and in specific areas, which we welcome. The Syrian refugees settlement scheme has been talked about. Given that the Government knew, and now have proof, that additional funding is needed to provide ESOL to specific vulnerable groups, it is a matter of concern that they have not gone further. Will they move beyond that piecemeal approach and offer long-term, sustainable investment to deliver ESOL in all our communities? The fact is that the lack of investment makes it impossible for those who need these vital services to access them.
As shadow skills Minister, I have been talking a lot recently about our urgent need to empower two groups of people: young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in education, employment or training; and adults who are without basic literacy and numeracy, of whom there are probably between 5 million and 7 million. We cannot separate that from ministerial failure to fund ESOL properly—and not just in further education, but in the Home Office and with others who have shared responsibilities in this area. I appreciate that it is complex—I know what the silos are like in Government—but the Government have to deliver on the matter.
I hope that the Minister can tell us how many refugees and asylum seekers are not currently, and have not previously, enrolled in an ESOL course. I and many hon. Members of the House are concerned that they are not getting the support they need. Some 59% of respondents to a Refugee Action survey said that the number of hours of teaching they received were not sufficient, and 66% said that their current level of English did not make them feel ready to work in the UK. That is simply unacceptable. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers get the support they need to learn English?
It seems to me that Ministers support that goal, because their own integrated communities Green Paper said that everyone should be able to learn English. I agree, but when will it become a reality? If we will the ends, we must will the means—to be more old-fashioned and colloquial about it, there is the old phrase: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Well, no money has been saddled up to power the fine words and exaltation of the Green Paper, and the Government cannot say that they have not been given chapter and verse on what needs to be done.
I pay tribute to Paul Hook and all his colleagues at Refugee Action, which is a national charity that works to enable asylum seekers and refugees to rebuild their lives in the UK. It is the
“leading provider of reception and integration services”,
and in the past three years it has been indefatigable in reminding the Government and Members of the House where we need to go. I am quoting from Refugee Action’s July 2018 reaction to the Green Paper, which lists the problems for refugees. They include long waiting lists, difficulties enrolling in a class, inadequate learning hours, gender barriers, unsuitable classes and travel difficulties, many of which have been touched on in the debate. That is what Refugee Action said last year.
As we have already heard, Refugee Action has now produced a response to the integrated communities Green Paper. I have looked at it, and I am sure that other hon. Members will have looked at it, either the whole thing or a summary. It is an excellent summary of where we are, but unfortunately what it summarises is not good. Refugee Action makes the point that there has been a real-terms cut of almost 60% between 2008 and 2018. I have already mentioned the new research: 59% of refugees do not think that they have had enough ESOL teaching hours. To probe further into that, more than three quarters of parents said that a lack of childcare had been a barrier to their ability to attend English lessons. That bears out in anecdotal and other comments that colleagues have made.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have an enormous problem that results from that? There is isolation and there are resulting mental health problems, which add further costs to the national health service as a result of failing to provide these important preventive services.
I agree. I do not wish to take us into another area, but although the significant cuts to the Sure Start programmes and children’s centres impact on native English speakers, they also have an effect on refugees and asylum seekers, particularly in areas where there is ethnic concentration and a large number of migrants.
Refugee Action’s recommendations have already been touched on. They include a fund to support all refugees to learn English; ensuring a minimum of eight hours a week teaching for refugees, which requires an investment of £42 million a year; an ESOL strategy for England; full and equal access to ESOL for female asylum seekers, with the right to access free English-language learning; and facilitating a national framework for community-based support.
This is an issue that I have taken up with the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults, Refugee Action and others over the past couple of years. I went back to an article I wrote in FE Week in March 2018, to see whether anything I said then was not up to date. Unfortunately, I do not think much has changed at all. NATECLA said that the
“focus on informal community learning…does not go far enough to address the needs of learners…it is sustained and accredited English language learning”,
which rather supports the point that the hon. Member for Henley made on the need to have progression in those sorts of courses.
Following Brexit, when we will increasingly have to rely on a smaller pool of workers than we have done for decades, it will become absolutely clear that a skill system that is fit for the future must include a minimum competence in the English language for everyone living in the UK—and not just in London, but in other major cities. We should not neglect the challenges in smaller towns and rural areas where there are recent influxes or long-standing ethnic communities. However, ESOL funding has been whittled away, which has inevitably depleted the cohort of dedicated teachers. It is no good the Education Secretary waxing lyrical on ESOL and social mobility if the Department does not provide—either from its own resources, by lobbying the Treasury, or by combining with other Departments—the hard cash to go with it.
The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), met a group of Congolese and Sudanese refugees in her constituency earlier this year. She says:
“They told me about their experiences of seeking shelter and safety in my area and of the welcome they had received in my constituency. But they also told me that they were desperate for more opportunities to learn English”.
She wrote in an article:
“From my own experience, I know that the opportunity to learn alongside managing childcare responsibilities is crucial.”
Without the opportunity to do that, they will not be able to succeed.
This is not an issue that only well-meaning people in prosperous areas are concerned about. I have received quite a lot of letters on the matter from my constituents in Blackpool. I will quote from a letter that I received from Raven Ellis:
“Without the opportunity to learn English… Being denied this opportunity means refugees can’t integrate properly or find work. Even the smallest everyday things are hard—catching a bus, going to the doctor, or making friends with neighbours.”
To invest makes sound economic sense. The Government’s integrated communities Green Paper had some welcome proposals, but that justifies the need to move further in this area and not to continue to do nothing. Many things can be done informally. Conversation clubs and volunteers are great, but they cannot replace formal teaching. A recent survey by British Future, which talked to a large number of refugees and asylum seekers, bears out that point.
We know from history, and I know personally and practically from the history of the north-west in towns such as Preston, Barnsley, Oldham and Rochdale, as well as Blackpool—we do not have such a proportion of people needing ESOL in Blackpool—how key it is that communities, whether new or permanent, can assimilate instead of just co-existing separately. We also see that in other parts of the country, such as Yorkshire and Humber—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) is not in his place, but my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is—and ESOL is key to that. It is key to social cohesion and individual advancement. It is key to enhancing local productivity and the local economy, especially where the number of people who need ESOL is high. It is also key to those people who are newly assimilated to learn to train and gain skills at whatever age. With that bundle of imperatives, I really hope that the Government, in whatever form or shape they take in the next six months, will put some effort into this area.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). We all know—there has been agreement in the debate—that English language skills are crucial. Last week I had the privilege of meeting adult education providers in Birmingham, who spoke passionately about helping students to succeed. I also had a chance to chat to some of the students not just about progress they had made to date but about the progress they hoped to make in the future and what that meant for them.
We estimate that 1 million people—quite a big figure—living in England cannot speak English well or at all, and we know how important English language skills are. The Government make funding available for English language through the adult education budget, and via the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for community-based provision. There is also specific support for refugees via the Home Office. We are keen to ensure that funding offers the best value for money for those learning and those contributing through taxes.
When I looked at the funding streams available for English language, I saw that the Department for Education, MHCLG, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions all put funding into this area. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) talked about silos, which are a problem because they are not always the most efficient way of delivering the services we want.
Last year, providers supported adults to access English courses with £105 million of investment from the adult education budget. We are developing a new strategy, as hon. Members will be aware, which we plan to publish in the autumn. I share Members’ frustration about Ministers always saying “in the autumn” or “in the spring” or “in the summer” because we are never quite sure when that is. However, we are keen to get the strategy out as soon as possible. I do not mean to be evasive, but it will need to be right before we publish it. It will set out shared aims across Government to ensure that the ESOL provision is effective. We will need to use evidence-based decisions about what we do, and we have undertaken research to ensure that we get it right, which has included speaking to teachers, colleges, adult community learning providers, charities and academics to understand more. Last week, we published a report that explores what barriers those who have not accessed English language support have faced, some of which have been highlighted in the debate.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston articulated extremely well the reasons why being able to speak, understand and communicate in English are critical to building cohesive communities. It has become a bit of political rhetoric to talk about cohesive communities, but we know what that means. It has to mean more than co-existing, which the hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston also pointed out that specific first-hand experiences are important in highlighting some of the more general problems with accessing ESOL. She raised several points about the devolution of the adult education budget, which is important. I saw some of that in the west midlands. I met staff and some of the Mayors of the combined authorities a couple of weeks ago, and it will be interesting and useful to us all to note what they do in their local areas, because we can all learn from best practice and experience of delivery in different areas.
The hon. Lady asked four questions, which I think I will have answered before the end of my remarks. On her last question, I can only give my wholehearted support to the fact that we must be an inclusive and welcoming country, particularly for refugees, who have often been through a lot and also have much to contribute to the rich fabric of our society.
The Minister mentioned the notion of devolution, which is a personal favourite of mine. However, devolving only really works if the money is not top-sliced first. Will she please give assurances that any further devolution will not lead to cuts on the way down?
Of course, around all this is the budget that we have available, and I know that the adult education budget has gone down in its totality. We have a spending review coming up. I am also a fan of devolution. It can make Governments slightly nervous as they hand over authority for something for which ultimately they will be held responsible, which can feel uncomfortable. But in an area such as this, devolution is the way to get solutions that work, because people know and understand their local communities, their population and the barriers in their area. Top-slicing is always a little trick of the Treasury; our job in the Department for Education is to ensure that nobody top-slices anything. We do not want top-slicing. However, as I said, there are a lot of complex funding streams, although not specifically for refugees.
I think it was the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) who asked whether I would give my word that money for ESOL will be replaced pound for pound. I cannot give any assurances, because the spending review is coming up.
I am really sorry to interrupt the Minister, to whom I am listening carefully. I do not mean this in any way sardonically—the mood music coming from her is great—but my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a point about losing ERDF and ESL funding, and we do have a real concern about this area and others. Can the Minister give us any details on when we will see some nuts and bolts about the shared prosperity fund?
I will refer to that later, but to answer directly now, there is a lot of work going on about the shared prosperity fund. In the Department for Education, we are very aware of the benefits delivered through the European social fund. Moral imperatives were mentioned, and that money plays a crucial part in giving people an opportunity to take a step on various paths in their lives, as will the shared prosperity fund that replaces it. I cannot give details—not because I do not want to, but because I do not know.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is not in her seat, mentioned a German example. We always have much to learn from other countries, although we can rarely transfer ideas straight across because they will not necessarily work.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) evocatively referred to the prison that people inhabit when they cannot speak English. I have never been in that position, but it must feel like that if people cannot speak or understand any English.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) referenced the all-party parliamentary group’s work and highlighted issues such as loneliness and isolation, which have been well articulated. He also referenced the Council of Europe’s work. Europe gets many mentions in this place and elsewhere at the moment, but we rarely hear about the Council of Europe’s work, so that was good because it does a lot of good work.
Several hon. Members mentioned the particular problems that women face, including cultural and more complex problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley also mentioned community provision. I saw an extremely good example of community ESOL where the local authority was working with primary schools to encourage women to come in to help their children with some of their SATs tests and end-of-year tests. That is a good vehicle for improving their English while helping them to help their children with the tests that they will sit in school. For women who do not find it easy to get to adult community provision, for a variety of reasons, it is a good way to bypass the barriers that they might face in their own homes.
The ESOL strategy emerged as part of the integrated communities strategy action plan. The strategy has involved officials across Departments, so we have a shared vision, including addressing the needs of refugees. As we set out in the integrated communities strategy, we want to create clearer and easier pathways, improve outcomes and get better value for the money that we spend.
We always come back to funding at the end of the day—funding matters. The hon. Member for Blackpool South and I have frequently discussed the financial pressures that FE is under, which we will look at in the spending review. Warm words from me do not necessarily bring more money—they are needed, but they do not guarantee it. I am sure that all hon. Members who are keen for things to be funded will lobby. Debates such as this add to the pressure on the Treasury. We rarely make a good case for education in a broader sense. For people who do not speak English, ESOL is the first step down a path that includes further education. It also enables refugees who have prior education—we have talked about refugees who are doctors—to come to life and feel that they are a useful member of the society and community that they have joined. We can also realise the benefits of that.
The 2011 census revealed that 59%—nearly 60%—of over-16-year-olds who could not speak English or could not speak it well were not in employment. According to the 2014 British social attitudes survey, 95% of people, which is higher than other figures that have been quoted, think that to be considered truly British, people must be able to speak English. About a third of those who completed entry level or level 1 ESOL courses in 2015-16 went on to sustained employment. Some 60% of completions in 2015-16 led to a sustained positive destination the following year in employment or learning, so we know it works.
Through the adult education budget, ESOL is fully funded for those who are unemployed, and all learners are co-funded at 50% of the course rate. For the academic year 2018-19, however, we are supporting those in work on low incomes to access the AEB through a pilot that allows providers to fully fund those on low wages. That is important and will directly help low-paid, low-skilled people who are motivated to move out of unemployment to progress further. We are continuing the pilot in the 2019-20 academic year for learners resident in non-devolved areas, and we will evaluate the 2018-19 outcomes to help to inform our decision on whether to fully implement the trial beyond 2019-20.
As many hon. Members have said, learning English is crucial for integration. In the year ending September 2018, the UK offered protection to 15,170 people. We have committed to settle 20,000 vulnerable refugees who have fled Syria by 2020. As of the end of March 2019, 15,977 refugees have found safety in the UK to rebuild their lives through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Refugees have immediate access to English language tuition. The Home Office and the Department have provided an additional £10 million so that refugees settled through the scheme can access language tuition.
We recently launched new teaching resources to support teachers working with refugees and others adults with the lowest levels of English language and low literacy, in recognition of the fact that they face the greatest barriers to learning. I hope that the English language strategy that we are developing will provide a shared vision for all publicly funded ESOL and will specifically address the needs of refugees. I note that, for those who come to the UK under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, additional funds are made available for childcare, which can be a huge barrier, and not just financially, for mothers and carers to learn English.
I could go on about devolution, which, as I said, is important. We will use the learning from that. I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. Last year, the Department alone spent £105 million on ESOL courses and qualifications. We need to improve the quality and effectiveness of what is delivered by commissioning new teaching resources for pre-entry level learners and by funding local authorities to trial the co-ordination of provision in their area.
The key is to put in place a co-ordinated system where we do not waste resources and where scarce resources get to the frontline. We need effective teaching and high-quality teachers—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised the issue of pay. We need to remove and overcome some of the cultural barriers. I also note the need to make sure that the system is fully integrated, so that people can learn English, access good employment and have continued training opportunities, and so that we realise the vision that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston set out, where communities do not just co-exist but are fully integrated.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. We have heard some excellent testimonies from hon. Members and their areas. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for her work on the all-party parliamentary group on social integration. Some of the work that it has produced is in line with that of Refugee Action.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), who mentioned Paul Hook and his work as head of campaigns for Refugee Action. I also put on record my thanks to Refugee Action and Paul Hook, and the many organisations that work not just on access to ESOL for refugees, but on the “Lift the Ban” campaign, which has been mentioned. I am grateful to the Minister for meeting adult education providers in Birmingham and the students who attended there.
Although we welcome the strategy, we have not heard much detail, which is disappointing. The case has been made today for investing in refugees, which means more funding, because post-16 funding has not been protected—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Chagos Islands: UN General Assembly Resolution
[Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UN General Assembly resolution on the future of the Chagos Islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to have the chance to debate the issue of justice for the people of Chagos and the country of Mauritius. The topic is not unfamiliar to Westminster Hall, or indeed to the Minister, but recent developments at the UN warrant a fresh perspective. Last week, at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Minister said that I could expostulate as much as I wish on this matter. Well, it seems that my wish has been granted. Incidentally, Mr Speaker was not sure whether it would not be better to expatiate on the matter. Whether it is expatiate or expostulate, what most people involved in the historical and ongoing treatment of the Chagos islands situation experience is exasperation. The UK Government’s obstinacy, especially in recent years, and their refusal to make any concessions to those seeking redress is astonishing and frustrating in equal measure. As I will show, it is becoming damaging to the UK Government themselves and to Britain’s global reputation.
I pay tribute to the many campaigners and champions working on this issue, many of whom have been far more deeply involved and for far longer than I or any of my colleagues have. They include the Chagossian community—both the original islanders who were forced off their homeland and their descendants, who have not given up and will not give up on the dream of a right to return, and especially Olivier Bancoult, who has led the community for many years—the lawyers, including Philippe Sands, Richard Dunne and Richard Gifford, who have supported those efforts over the years; David Snoxell, the former UK high commissioner to Mauritius, who ably co-ordinates the all-party parliamentary group of which I am an officer; Tom Guha, who runs a grassroots support group; my good friend and constituent William Henderson, who lectures in international law at Glasgow Caledonian University and first made me aware of the issue; and hon. Members who have kept the issue alive, not least the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who chairs the APPG.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene very briefly, as a fellow member of the all-party parliamentary group. Does he agree that this is about the dignity of the Chagossian people? This goes to the heart of their right to return to their homeland.
Absolutely. The question of the future of that community goes to the very heart of this debate. It is encapsulated in the issues that arose at the United Nations. The people who support the all-party parliamentary group have provided invaluable advice and briefing in advance of the debate. They can all be assured of the ongoing solidarity and support of the Scottish National party—our former First Minister was a champion of this cause—and our allies in Plaid Cymru.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I agree absolutely with my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), about the dignity of the people of the Chagos islands. I am sure that my hon. Friend will come to this, but does this not raise a critical issue for the UK: respect for the rule of law?
Absolutely—the rule of law and the rules-based international order, which the Government like to champion so much.
The immediate context of the debate is the overwhelming decision of the United Nations General Assembly on 22 May—by 116 to just six votes against—to back resolution 73/295, calling on the UK—in fact, demanding that the UK does this—to
“withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months”.
It called on
“the UN and all its specialised agencies to recognise that the Chagos Archipelago forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius...and to refrain from impeding that process by recognising, or giving effect to any measure taken by or on behalf of ‘the British Indian Ocean Territory’.”
The resolution affirms that
“because the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people of Mauritius, the decolonisation of Mauritius has not been lawfully completed.”
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. The issue of the Chagos islands is not unique. Many other self-determination campaigns are looking at this case. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua. If this is not a just cause, how can there be justice for other islands and peoples like those of West Papua?
Speaking as a member of a self-determination movement, I wholeheartedly agree. I had the huge privilege of meeting Benny Wenda from the West Papua campaign recently. The SNP has a long history of solidarity with that cause. These are not difficult problems for the Government to solve. I will come on to why there are some good reasons why they should do so.
The UN handed down that resolution in the context of an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice on 25 February, which reached exactly the same conclusions. It is a comprehensive, definitive statement made under the due process of the international rules-based order. The UK Government, who are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, self-define as a soft-power superpower, believe that Brexit will lead to a glorious new era of empire 2.0, have invested millions of pounds in a global branding exercise called “Britain is GREAT”, and repeatedly demand that any number of other countries around the world comply with decisions of the United Nations, have none the less chosen to reject the resolution pretty much outright. They have left themselves in a state of diplomatic humiliation and international isolation. The five other countries that supported the Government at the UN were the Maldives and Hungary, Australia and Israel—neither of which are without critics of their own human rights records—and the United States of America, which is led by a man who is basically an international laughing stock. It is pretty damning stuff.
Whenever any of us has questions about whether blindly ignoring the advisory opinion of the ICJ and 116 other members of the UN General Assembly is a good idea for a country that is busy trying to extract itself from the biggest and most successful economic, social and political Union in history, the Government and the Minister simply double down. They say that Chagos has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814 and has never been part of the Republic of Mauritius, but that ignores the fact that the islands were a dependency of Mauritius when it was administered first by the French and then as a British colony until 1965, when it was detached from Mauritius as a precondition of independence, the declaration of which was drafted by UK lawyers in 1968. It ignores the ICJ’s findings that the colony, by definition, could not freely agree to detachment as part of its territory prior to independence.
It is important to note that the judgment, so to speak, that came out of the ICJ was an advisory opinion, not a binding judgment. It is very important that we do not give the impression in this Chamber that it was more than it in fact was. Is the hon. Gentleman not overstating the case somewhat?
It is a very powerful statement that was made by a very significant number of countries, and it has left the United Kingdom isolated diplomatically.
The Government say that the UK needs to retain the Chagos islands in order to support the US military presence on Diego Garcia—as if supporting a base for weapons of mass destruction, which has helped facilitate extraordinary rendition, should somehow help us sleep more easily at night. However, the existence of the base is not dependent on British sovereignty, and it is only on the largest of the 55 islands. The rest remain uninhabited as a result of the forced deportation of the community in the ’60s and ’70s. It would be perfectly possible to settle there.
A few years ago, I visited the Chagos island, including the outer islands. I genuinely do not think they would sustain life. Even on the main island, where clearly there is sustainment of life, because there is a big US base, the cost per person is astronomical. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am about Mauritius’s motives? The Chagossians in Mauritius live in slum conditions in some cases. They are much better off in the United Kingdom.
I will have more to say about the UK Government’s support fund, which has not been spent on trying to improve the lives of the Chagossians in the United Kingdom, but surely that is a decision for the Chagossian community itself. The principle of the right to return is in some respects at least as important as the ability to return.
The Government say, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) did, that the ICJ opinion and the UNGA resolution are advisory and not binding, but the opinion confirms that the existing legal obligations already emanate from international law. The effect of all that is that the UK Government have got themselves into a petty and unseemly row with the Government of Mauritius. The Prime Minister of Mauritius, in his response to the UN resolution, described the forced expulsion of the Chagossian population as
“akin to a crime against humanity.”
The Rome statute of the International Criminal Court includes
“Deportation or forcible transfer of population”
“Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering”
in its definition of crimes against humanity.
The UK Government have repeatedly expressed sincere regret at the actions of the British state in depopulating the islands. In a recent written answer to Baroness Whitaker, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon conceded that
“the manner of the removal of the Chagossians from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s was wrong”,
so perhaps there is a case to answer. But instead of engaging constructively with Mauritius—instead of seeking some kind of arbitration method, seeking to build consensus around an alternative resolution at the UN or simply agreeing to take steps to implement the decisions—how has the UK reacted? How has the soft-power superpower, the defender of the international rules-based order, the Brexit Britain reinventing itself on the world stage, reacted? It cancelled the Queen’s birthday party at its embassy in Mauritius. Tyrannical regimes and terrorist cells around the world must be trembling in fear. Despots cracking down on human rights and freedom of speech, and illegal traders in arms and drugs, must be watching in horror. Mess with the United Kingdom—upset this diplomatic colossus, Mother Britannia, which once ruled the waves—and there will be no gin and tonic or cucumber sandwiches for any of you.
The Minister has rejoiced in his reputation as deputy Foreign Secretary—I am not sure whether that was ever an official status or just a title bestowed on him by Mr Speaker—and surely, like many of his colleagues, he will be reflecting over the coming weeks on his legacy from his time in office. What a hero he would be if he used the next few weeks to right the historical wrongs that have been perpetrated in the Chagos islands. What a legacy he would leave for the new Prime Minister—he has served under both candidates as their alleged deputy—if the Chagos issue had been resolved and the UK’s diplomatic standing had been picked up from rock bottom.
The Minister could arrange for a little more than £300,000 or so of the £40 million package that was promised to the Chagossian community to be spent. Let us start a genuine programme of facilitation that allows the original generation and their descendants at the very least to visit their ancestral homeland. To date, the management of that fund has been pretty shambolic. It was designed to
“improve the lives of Chagossians in the communities where they now live,”
but can the Minister tell us how much has actually been spent supporting projects here in the UK run by and in the interests of the Chagossian community? I understand that the FCO started a needs analysis to determine how that money could best be used, but that was scrapped, and since then there has been no news about how the Government intend to use the funds. Perhaps he can shed some light on whether that needs analysis will be picked up again or how the Government intend to use the money.
Will the Minister arrange to meet the all-party parliamentary group, perhaps with his colleague Lord Ahmad, to hear these concerns out in more detail and discuss a way forward? Even without acknowledging or complying with the full UN resolution, he could unilaterally reinstate the right of return for the Chagossian community—even a recognition in principle that that right exists would be an important first step. The UK Government’s own feasibility study of resettlement found that it was “practically feasible”, and a UK Government consultation with the community found that 98% of Chagossians are in favour of the right to return.
The Minister could work with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that all members of the Chagossian community on these islands are fully recognised as UK citizens should they wish to seek citizenship. He cannot argue on one hand that the Chagos islands are not part of Mauritius but have his Home Office colleagues argue on the other that new generations of Chagossians and their partners and spouses are not entitled to citizenship.
The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs called on the Government to back the British Indian Ocean Territory (Citizenship) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), which would give all Chagossians the opportunity to register as British nationals. The Foreign Affairs Committee has also called for urgent reforms to citizenship law for people from other overseas territories. At the very least, the Minister should grow his consultation and engagement with the Chagossian community. The Chagos archipelago was and is their homeland and, as the SNP has always held, sovereignty should ultimately lie with the people.
Even if the Minister moves on, this issue is not going away; he or his successor will continue to be held to account. I am afraid that I have not run out of written questions to keep Ministers busy. I still live in hope that the BIOT Administration will take up the permission so proudly granted by Her Majesty’s Treasury for overseas territories to mint their own commemorative £1 coins. There are lots of ongoing issues with the management and development of the marine protected area—not least, perhaps, the fact that the people best able to exercise stewardship of it might just be the communities that lived on the islands for generations.
The scrutiny will not just be here in Parliament or in the UK. The UN resolution finishes with a request to the Secretary-General to submit a report to the 74th session of the General Assembly on the actions of the UK to implement its decision. The choice for the Minister and the UK Government is either to take the bold but obvious step of complying with the UN resolution or to face further embarrassment and isolation on the world stage.
The UK can show that it is serious about the rules-based order and being a soft-power superpower by submitting itself to the conclusions of that rules-based order. It can show that it wants to be a good neighbour and to deal effectively and appropriately with its colonial legacy, or it can continue to promote splendid isolation and British exceptionalism. It can act as if rules are for other people and that might is somehow right, but that is a dangerous path to go down. It weakens and undermines, perhaps fatally, any credibility the UK Government might want in tackling other great international and diplomatic issues of our time. Mother Britannia can no longer get away with waiving the rules. As long as the injustice surrounding the Chagos islands stands out and remains unresolved, it provides an excuse for unco-operative regimes elsewhere in the world to ignore other resolutions of the UN and decisions of the ICJ. The UK and the Minister ought to do better.
I mentioned the solidarity and support that we in the SNP and our friends in Plaid Cymru have always had with the Chagossian cause. I just wonder what message the UK Government’s intransigence on this issue sends to the devolved nations. We were told in 2014 by David Cameron that Scotland should “lead, not leave” the UK. Well, the overwhelming majority of MPs returned from Scotland want the right of return restored to the Chagossian community and want the UK to comply with its international obligations. If we cannot have influence on a matter such as this, what is the point? Would we not be better having our own seat at the top table, with our own vote at the UN General Assembly? Perhaps we should even look at reforming the whole system.
So here we are. Here is the Minister’s opportunity to build his legacy. Let us not hear a rehash of the various written statements and written answers that have emerged from the FCO; let us have genuine engagement and dialogue, stand up for the rules-based international order and finally get the justice that the people of Chagos, and the Chagos islands themselves, deserve.
Thank you, Mr Sharma, for chairing our proceedings. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing the debate—at least, that is what I thought 20 minutes ago.
I think it would be helpful if I set out the background to the Government’s position on the British Indian Ocean Territory. The UK has administered the islands that make up the British Indian Ocean Territory since 1814, when France ceded the islands to Britain. It also ceded Mauritius, which then included the Seychelles. For administrative convenience, and following French practice, the islands were administered as a dependency of Mauritius until 1965, when, with the full agreement of the Mauritian Council of Ministers, they were detached to form part of the newly established colony of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which we know as BIOT.
Mauritius entered that agreement in return for certain benefits, including a sum of £3 million and a UK commitment to cede the territory when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. That UK commitment still stands. Mauritius affirmed the 1965 agreement numerous times following independence, and the agreement was held to be legally binding by a UN convention on the law of the sea tribunal in 2015. No international court or tribunal has ever found our sovereignty to be in doubt.
In 1966, the UK agreed with the US to make BIOT available for the defence purposes of the UK and the US. The UK does not lease the territory to the US and receives no financial payment from it. The US presence on BIOT is governed by a series of letters, called exchanges of notes, of which the overarching agreement sets out that the whole territory should be made available for UK and US defence purposes for an initial 50-year period from 1966 to 2016.
On 16 November 2016, the Government announced that neither the US nor the UK had given notice to terminate the agreement. Therefore, the US presence on Diego Garcia will continue for a further 20 years until 30 December 2036. BIOT has been a key strategic asset and continues to be vital for defence use by the UK and its allies. The joint UK-US facility on the territory has helped us and our allies to combat some of the most challenging threats to international peace and security, including from terrorism, organised crime and piracy. It is increasingly important at a time of conflicts of international significance, and those functions are only possible under UK sovereignty.
When Mauritius took the matter to the UN General Assembly in 2017, it did so using the argument that our continued administration of BIOT means that the process of decolonisation remains incomplete. That argument completely fails to acknowledge the 1965 agreement. Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty over the islands, which we strongly refute, is not a decolonisation matter, but a bilateral dispute between Mauritius and the UK. It is therefore disappointing that the matter should ever have been referred to the International Court of Justice by the UN General Assembly. It is an accepted international principle that states should not be compelled to have their bilateral disputes adjudicated on by the ICJ without their consent, particularly on questions of sovereignty. Circumventing that principle sets a very dangerous precedent.
Nevertheless, the Government have considered the Court’s advice carefully. We have concluded that the approach set out in the advisory opinion failed to give due regard to material facts and legal issues that the UK Government explained in detail in our submissions to the ICJ. For instance, it did not take account of the 1965 agreement with Mauritius or the numerous affirmations of that agreement made by Mauritius since independence. Furthermore, it fails to address the fact that the UK and US have entered into a binding treaty obligation to maintain UK sovereignty over the whole territory until at least 2036.
When the UN General Assembly voted on the matter in May this year, following the ICJ advisory opinion, we fully expected a large number of member states to support the resolution in Mauritius’ favour, framed as it was around the emotive theme of decolonisation. However, it is important to note that nearly 80 member states did not vote in favour of the resolution. Many of them shared our concern that Mauritius had circumvented the principle that the ICJ should consider bilateral disputes only with the consent of the states. Furthermore, some states explained publicly that they had voted in favour of the resolution out of respect for the ICJ and not necessarily because they agreed with the substance of the resolution.
The UK, too, respects the ICJ. Despite our concerns, we participated fully in the ICJ process so as to ensure that we could present accurate facts and arguments, including on why granting the Court jurisdiction on a bilateral dispute without the consent of both parties could have wider implications for all UN member states in the future.
The issue of sovereignty has recently become entangled with arguments about resettlement, which we have just heard. We need to remember that the outer islands are not just remote but tiny, the largest being no bigger than Hyde Park. They are also extremely low-lying and have no functioning infrastructure. The UK commissioned an independent feasibility study on the practicalities of resettlement, and the study recognised that there would be significant challenges. An interesting comparison to note in passing is that Scotland has 790 islands, of which only 94 are inhabited.
In my role as Minister for Europe and the Americas, I am proud to play my part in the UK’s efforts to defend and strengthen institutions such as the UN and to uphold the norms that underpin the rules-based international system.
In his speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) suggested that the UK was somehow flouting international law, but we are a nation of laws. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that it would be a gross mischaracterisation to suggest that that has happened in this case? What we are discussing is not a judgment that is binding on the UK, but an advisory opinion, which is not; there is a difference. Does the Minister agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as indeed was my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge); and, in acknowledging what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has just said, I say very clearly that the UK continues to be seen as one of the most prominent international champions of the rule of law across the globe.
The UK recognises the important role that the UN has played, and continues to play, on the issue of decolonisation, including in territories formerly administered by the UK. We will continue to engage fully in the UN General Assembly and to be a staunch defender of human rights institutions and norms. We will also continue to support the role of international courts when states have failed to meet their responsibilities. That is clearly not the case in this instance. We regret that this issue continues to occupy the time and attention of the General Assembly. The UK remains committed to seeking resolution of this bilateral sovereignty dispute with Mauritius through direct, bilateral dialogue.
I have to say, as I conclude, that I do rather sense—
Will the Minister give way?
Well, just this once.
The Minister is very generous. I think that he was directly asked whether he or another Minister would come to the all-party parliamentary group to discuss this issue in more detail, out of respect for Parliament. Is that date definitely in the Minister’s diary now? Has the United Kingdom had any direct discussions with Mauritius about this matter? Was it not a little bit petty to cancel the Queen’s birthday party, and was that a ministerial decision?
The party was cancelled because it did not seem appropriate. That was not a petty protest; it just did not seem appropriate to have a celebration of that sort, given the mood. Given that there are likely to be changes in this Government within three weeks and the primary responsibility for this matter rests with my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, I cannot commit as the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) requests. It is the responsibility of Lord Ahmad; I merely answer on the issue here in the House of Commons.
I shall conclude, having listened to so many salvos from the hon. Member for Glasgow North, merely by saying that I feel the reasoned and clear legal points that we have always put as the Government do rather sit in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I think can only be characterised as confected, specious, sarcastic nonsense.
Question put and agreed to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It is a great privilege to secure this important debate on genetic haemochromatosis. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for genetic haemochromatosis (iron overload). I want to raise awareness of the condition, within Westminster and beyond. I will explain what genetic haemochromatosis is and its prevalence within the UK. I will also look at how the condition fits into the NHS priorities. I will conclude with three asks to the Minister on behalf of the charity Haemochromatosis UK, which is represented here, and the APPG.
Until recently I knew nothing about the condition. Two or three years ago I visited the charity Haemochromatosis UK, which was based in my constituency, and the condition was explained to me. The lack of awareness of the condition and the importance of early diagnosis were brought to my attention. As a consequence of those discussions with the charity and some other hon. Members, some of whom are here, we formed the APPG earlier this year.
The APPG was based on the report published by Haemochromatosis UK in October 2018, which highlighted the previously underestimated impact of the condition, in terms of the number of people affected and the chronic effect it has on people’s lives. The APPG first met in January and we met again in May to talk about the adoption of clinical guidelines, which I will refer to later.
What is genetic haemochromatosis? It is a genetic condition in which the body fails to control the absorption of iron. Some hon. Members may have heard it described as iron overload or iron overload disorder. Iron builds up within the body and reaches a highly toxic level. That can lead to a multitude of different health problems. Iron builds up particularly in the liver and the damage is progressive. At its worst, iron overload can kill through liver and heart failure.
I stand as an ignoramus on this matter, but I want to support my hon. Friend who is leading the debate, and I want to know more about the matter. Is this something that is in a baby from birth, and if not, what is the normal age at which it develops?
This is a genetic condition that becomes apparent in some people who possess the gene. People are affected to a variable degree. I will come on to some of the debilitating consequences of genetic haemochromatosis, which include arthritis, joint pain, diabetes, fatigue, psychological or cognitive difficulties, skin conditions, menstrual problems in women, impotence, breathing and heart problems, abdominal pain, liver problems and hair loss.
Just because the condition is not widely spoken about, in either medical or public life, that does not mean that it is not prevalent in the UK. The white UK population of north-European extraction, particularly people of Celtic extraction, gives the UK the highest prevalence anywhere in the world. The condition is found around the world wherever the Irish and Celtic population has migrated to, including Australia, the Americas and South Africa.
One in eight people in the UK carry a faulty copy of the GH gene. That faulty gene is known as HFE. One in 200 people carry two faulty copies of the HFE gene. Those are the people at risk of iron toxicity. In layman’s terms, people must have two copies of the gene in order to be affected by the condition. It is estimated that around 380,000 people worldwide have the genetic haemochromatosis mutation. Of those 380,000 people, 200,000 are under 40 years old, which is why early diagnosis is important. If we can diagnose the condition early, people will not be overlooked and can attend to their symptoms.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I thank him for outlining, for those of us who do not have as much knowledge, how prevalent the disease actually is and how important it is that we get services and treatment right. I thank my constituent Roger Keyte, who is a trustee of Haemochromatosis UK. He has done a good job educating me. I thank him and others who are working hard to help the many people who are affected.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That charity, which serves to raise awareness, has done a fantastic job, and that includes her constituent. I should point out that this is a condition rather than a disease, because a disease may be considered to be contagious.
I mentioned that the prevalence is higher in Ireland. According to the Irish Haemochromatosis Association, in Northern Ireland one in five people are carriers. The incidence among people of Celtic origin leads to some people referring to genetic haemochromatosis as the Celtic curse, a term that is not looked on favourably, but does underline the prevalence among Irish, Scottish and Welsh people, and the need for them and their doctors to be aware of the condition. I am delighted to see hon. Members representing Welsh and Scottish constituencies here, some of whom I know will contribute to the debate.
I have already mentioned that the condition is poorly diagnosed. Recent research shows that at least 45,000 people affected in the UK are loading iron as their bodies fail to control the absorption. Only 10% to 13% of these cases are diagnosed. For every patient diagnosed, between eight and 10 have the symptoms but have not been diagnosed. They are suffering unaware of what is happening to them.
Dr Ted Fitzsimons of the University of Glasgow has done a great deal of work in this area. He highlights that 80% to 90% of individuals who have this condition are unaware that they have it. They do not know what it is. They know the symptoms, which affect them, but they do not have an explanation for them.
Professor David Melzer, from Exeter University, and the Haemochromatosis Research Group have conducted a UK Biobank study of half a million patients, which was published in January 2019. They found that people with the double haemochromatosis mutation had four times the risk of liver disease, twice the risk of arthritis and frailty among older age groups, and a 50% higher risk of pneumonia and diabetes compared with those who do not suffer from the condition. In the UK, there are currently 136,000 people with the condition aged 40-plus. The study found that of that generation of 136,000, approximately 12,200 will have had a hip replacement, which they would not have needed if they had been diagnosed earlier and treated for iron overload. However, the study has a caveat, as there is uncertainty about whether all those operations would have been avoided by early diagnosis. But as with any condition, we know that early diagnosis is crucial.
Two of my constituents, Jane and Andrew, have haemochromatosis and have contacted me about this debate, stressing the importance of early diagnosis. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it can be difficult sometimes for people to be clear about the symptoms, therefore making it can be difficult to get a diagnosis, and that we must work on that?
The hon. Lady is exactly right. Very often, people suffer from the symptoms and persevere. They feel tired and just generally unwell, but they do not know why they are affected, so awareness of the condition among the medical profession when people present with those symptoms is vital in identifying those affected.
In terms of the additional demands placed on the NHS, we can estimate an extra 564 patients diagnosed with liver disease and 125 new liver cancer patients every year from among those with the condition. If we can diagnose it, enable patients to be aware of it and deal with it earlier, we can prevent it from making such a substantial demand on the NHS.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As I am half-Scottish, have had my hip replaced and feel tired most of the time, I am worried, but not as worried as doctors must be, because it seems to me that if someone goes to a general practitioner with normal symptoms like that, it must be bloody difficult for them to diagnose the condition. Everyone here is nodding, so I presume that is right.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Next time he visits his GP, he can ask, armed with the knowledge that he has as a consequence of this debate, whether the condition might be something to consider.
Let me turn to the cost saving to the NHS. The basic test for iron levels in blood would cost only £1 per patient if routinely done at the same time as other blood tests. The test is not commonly done; perhaps it should be. Iron testing could be added to the NHS health check, which people receive at the age of 50. That might provide a pointer to some of the symptoms that my hon. Friend has referred to.
The UK Biobank study also indicates that the HFE gene is associated with significant morbidity, in particular associated arthritis and liver disease. Of course, because of the influence of the liver, there is a highly increased risk of liver cancer compared with the general population. There are approximately 6,000 cases of liver cancer per annum nationally, and the outlook for those with liver cancer is particularly poor. The survival rate for liver cancer is among the lowest of all cancers. Professor Ted Fitzsimmons of Glasgow University estimates the cost of a liver transplant at around £100,000. That is a broadbrush estimate, which excludes personal costs such as loss of employment and the need for family members to help with caring. Again, we know that early diagnosis could not only improve the lives of those affected but result in significant savings for the NHS.
Since my involvement with genetic haemochromatosis began, one thing that has had an impact on me is the stories of patients affected by it. I will read out a couple of patient testimonies. One comes from another trustee of Haemochromatosis UK, Michelle Weerasekera. This is her account:
“I was diagnosed with genetic haemochromatosis after suffering from chronic fatigue for some time. I had visited my GP and been told to take folic acid and wouldn’t have returned had I not had a routine blood test carried out for an insurance policy that I was taking out.”
She therefore became aware of her condition accidentally. She continues:
“I returned to my GP, who, thinking that I may be anaemic, ran a ferritin test. This showed that my results were elevated and I was referred to a Haematologist. I had a FerriScan carried out which showed some stored iron in my liver but luckily with regular venesections”—
the taking of blood—
“over the last eighteen months I have managed to reduce my ferritin levels and am now in what is called the ‘maintenance phase’. I hope to soon become a regular blood donor”—
an issue that I will raise with the Minister later on—
“so that my blood can be put to good use. I know how lucky I have been by being diagnosed when I was. Having talked to my GP since diagnosis, I know that Haemochromatosis was not on his radar and this is why raising awareness is so important. Had I not returned to the GP, my body would have carried on storing iron and the outcome and my future health may have not have looked so positive.”
The second piece of testimony comes from another patient with genetic haemochromatosis, a young woman. Katharine Hough is only 27 and has had to fight to be taken seriously by the medical profession, largely because genetic haemochromatosis generally affects older people. The key point about Katharine’s concerns is that she is relatively young. She says:
“Despite the advantage of being diagnosed young, I have often had to fight to be taken seriously by the medical profession. Doctors seem to think it will not affect me as I am young and they are accustomed to solving health issues rather than helping to maintain good health and prevent problems.
I have had many cases where specialists think that, as I am a young woman and my symptoms are not as severe as those suffered by older people, I am healthy and have nothing to worry about. But I am only 27...If they stop and think for a moment to consider it, I should not have joint pains, and my knees should not hurt when I walk. I want to prevent further damage and not wait until my symptoms are very bad…It is my health and only I can fight for it.”
Both these stories highlight the importance of early diagnosis and increased awareness of the condition among GPs and other medical professionals.
The frustrating thing is that in a large number of cases treatment will alleviate many of the symptoms. The earliest intervention prevents many of the problems that I have described, including the build-up of iron in the liver and heart. In the vast majority of cases, treatment is venesection, which is essentially giving blood. Done intensively, this removes excess iron from the body effectively. Done regularly, it will maintain iron levels. In simple terms, the body uses some of the stored excess iron to make red blood cells to replace those that have been removed.
Venesection is a safe and proven procedure. It is similar to donating blood, as those of us who donate blood will realise. The blood taken from a haemochromatosis patient is perfectly useable and would go some way to addressing NHS blood demand. However, blood taken in a venesection clinic is discarded, which does not seem to make sense. I will come back to that in my final remarks and asks of the Minister.
Why is this condition not higher on the UK health agenda? There are many and varied reasons, but one key reason is the lack of consistent clinical guidelines. What protocols exist are often non-mandatory, related to an individual trust, inconsistent and often poorly adopted. The University of Exeter has conducted some research into the impact of iron overload, which shows wide inconsistencies in the experience of patients, and the prevalence of chronic symptoms arising from non-diagnosis is much higher in the UK than was previously thought. I am looking for the Minister to respond to the point about introducing guidelines. If there are guidelines, that could increase diagnosis perhaps as much as tenfold. That would prevent many people from developing the follow-on conditions, such as cancer, heart failure and diabetes, that I have referred to.
A consultant rheumatologist at St George’s Hospital in London, Dr Kiely, says that the cost of a typically large joint replacement is in the order of £10,000—which may be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Dr Kiely has also said that the big impact on healthcare costs would be in primary care, from delays in diagnosis. Those who suffer from genetic haemochromatosis suffer from less productivity when they are at work. They often have to take time off work, but also often want to continue at work. That leads to presenteeism, where people turn up for work but are ineffective because of the debilitating conditions that they suffer from. All those are costs to society, and are burdens that patients have to deal with.
A January 2019 editorial in The Lancet on gastroenterology and hepatology said:
“We wholeheartedly support the need to increase education and awareness of genetic haemochromatosis among clinicians to improve early diagnosis. The necessary tools are in hand, the guidelines are clear, and”—
“their implementation would be…cost-free. It is difficult to imagine a clinical problem that represents lower-hanging fruit for the…NHS. As such, there is no time like the present to elevate the priority of genetic haemochromatosis on the UK healthcare agenda.”
Professor Ted Fitzsimmons of the University of Glasgow, who attended the most recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for genetic haemochromatosis, has produced a set of guidelines for this condition. Those guidelines have been endorsed by a number of professional medical bodies, and the APPG would like them to be adopted and expanded on by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in order to improve and increase diagnosis, and to improve and, importantly, standardise care after diagnosis. We believe that doing so would put genetic haemochromatosis higher on the NHS agenda.
This condition fits into two of the priorities of the NHS long-term plan. First, the plan talks about prevention. Prevention of genetic haemochromatosis affecting patients means effective diagnosis before the damage is done. If we can identify it, we can save the NHS money and ensure that patients’ health is protected early. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care drew attention to that in November last year, when he said that
“if we get prevention right, it holds the key to longer, healthier, happier lives and a sustainable, high quality health and care system… It’s why…I made it one of my big three priorities”.
There is no easier win than adopting prevention for this condition.
Another NHS priority is supporting people to age well. The University of Exeter report highlighted the impact of genetic haemochromatosis on our ageing population, and we know that the condition affects arthritis and frailty in older age groups and increases the risks of diabetes and chronic pain. It is an issue that we need to address.
My three asks of the Minister, which I hope she will respond to in her remarks, are as follows. First, what steps can she take to ensure that those who are affected are promptly and correctly identified, regardless of where they live? We have already heard that early diagnosis saves lives, yet so frequently people with genetic haemochromatosis suffer needlessly as a consequence of late diagnosis. Secondly, what steps can she take to encourage the NHS to adopt, share and embed the best practice we have referred to, both through screening and associated therapies, to ensure that venesection is available? We know from Haemochromatosis UK’s 1,800 members that NHS standards vary widely across the country. With a single system, we could offer a consistent, world-class approach.
That brings me on my third point. How can the Minister encourage different areas of the NHS system to collaborate more effectively to realise the economic benefits of joined-up care, and also the benefits to the patient? One example would be making use of the blood taken during venesection, incentivising NHS Blood and Transplant to make greater use of genetic haemochromatosis patient blood to meet ongoing needs. It is astounding that the blood collected is wasted. That distresses many of the people affected by genetic haemochromatosis, who take the view that if they are going to have their blood taken, they would love for it to be used productively to support other patients.
Mr Sharma, I know that other Members wish to contribute. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our asks at the conclusion of the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for genetic haemochromatosis, for having brought this debate before the House. It is an important subject; I asked for a debate on it earlier this year following the release of the University of Exeter’s research, which showed that this condition was 20 times more common than was previously thought, so I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate. I am also grateful to the charity Haemochromatosis UK, which is based in his constituency and whose website contains a wealth of useful information.
The hon. Gentleman has given a comprehensive opening speech, showing his understanding and knowledge of this condition, so I do not need to repeat it. Instead, I will talk about the research that was published this year and its implications. As we have heard, haemochromatosis is thought to be the UK’s most common genetic disorder and is inherited in a recessive manner, linked to a faulty gene passed from both parents to their child. It was previously believed to seriously affect about one in 100 carriers, but the new research has suggested that the true level could be closer to one in 10 among women, and one in five for men.
Researchers at the University of Exeter analysed data from 2,890 people from the UK Biobank who had the specific mutation to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The research was conducted on subjects aged between 40 and 70, so the point he made about that research being limited in its age range was a good one. In the light of those findings, the UK National Screening Committee has said that it will look at the evidence on screening for haemochromatosis in 2019-20, as part of its routine three-yearly review. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about that.
The lead researcher, Professor David Melzer of the University of Exeter, has said that haemochromatosis is easy to treat if diagnosed early enough, which I think is the key point of this debate. However, the hon. Member for Rugby has observed that haemochromatosis can be difficult to spot, which is also a pertinent point. A lot of the symptoms can be very non-specific, and it is not a condition that is uppermost in the minds of general practitioners, which is why we are now considering routine screening. As we have heard, the treatment is relatively simple and involves regular venesection, or bloodletting. As the body makes more blood to replace that which is taken, it uses up the excess stored iron. That treatment, if started early enough, can avoid the complications of haemochromatosis that we have already referred to—liver failure, diabetes, chronic pain and severe arthritis—developing later in life.
I will illustrate the effect of having a diagnosis of haemochromatosis later in life by telling the story of my constituent, Paul Dicken. Paul has given me permission to use him as a case history, and I think his story will strike a chord with many haemochromatosis sufferers. He was diagnosed only this year after years of suffering from symptoms including liver, joint and stomach problems, for which he has been taking multiple painkillers over the years. Since his diagnosis, he has been having venesection, but he tells me that he now suffers from lethargy due to the frequency of venesection, no energy, muscle loss and joint pain. He has said that his depression is hitting a new low and, regarding his eventual diagnosis, has said that
“I was being asked for a long time if I had a drink problem because of my liver problems…but I don’t drink and the haemochromatosis was only discovered because the doctor was worried about my white blood cells being high.”
Paul’s case is a clear example of how raising awareness of the disease among GPs and medical professionals might have helped him get an earlier diagnosis and spared him some of the painful symptoms and possibly inappropriate treatment he had. I am grateful to him for allowing me to tell his story. Testing for iron overload is simple and GPs should be aware of the transferrin saturation test, where a result of greater than 50% indicates a risk of iron accumulation. If such a result is found, the patient should be referred to secondary care for further tests.
From what I have heard today, which is the entire encyclopaedia of my knowledge, it seems to me that we could cover the issue pretty well if every blood test included a check, because most people have blood tests at some stage—that happens fairly often these days.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I issue a caveat about blanket screening: it has to be proven to be clinically effective and it must not throw up false positives and false negatives. The tests are fairly specific for haemochromatosis, but they will have to go through an evaluation process, as I am sure the Minister will inform us when she makes her closing remarks.
At this stage, I want to mention the biomedical scientists and clinical scientists working in our NHS pathology labs. Those often unsung heroes of the NHS are the people who will be performing the tests. Indeed, that was my profession before I was elected as the MP for Heywood and Middleton.
In closing, I want to say that it is important to discuss with any patient diagnosed with genetic haemochromatosis the desirability of genetic testing for other members of the family, as there is at least a one in four chance that a sibling will also have haemochromatosis. Family checks frequently lead to the detection of haemochromatosis before organ damage has occurred. That is important.
It is important we are having this debate. Early diagnosis will help save lives, help cut costs for the NHS and reduce unnecessary suffering for so many individuals, such as my constituent Paul, and families around the UK.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on all the work he does through the all-party parliamentary group and on securing this debate. It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and hear about the experiences of their constituent. It is said that the Celtic peoples have a tendency for fair skin, freckles and being ginger. I do have fair skin on the odd occasion, I do have freckles and I am ginger, although Members might not believe it without a head of hair on me.
Having a name that in the ancient is Máirtín Ó Dochartaigh-Ó hAodha—I will send Hansard the spelling—it should come as no surprise that the Celtic curse, as the hon. Member for Rugby pointed out it is commonly known, looms large in my constituency. It has one of the highest proportions of the Irish diaspora anywhere in these islands. There is also the Celtic connection, in that Dunbreton was the capital of the Britons. I believe they moved to Wales around the year 600. We have a huge idea of what this means in terms of haemochromatosis. Let me clear though, that just because someone is a Scot does not mean they are a Celt. We need to be clear on that, but the ethnic link with western Ireland—I am sometimes known as not only the Member for West Dunbartonshire, but the Member for Donegal—gives an idea of the genetic links of the condition.
I want to highlight my constituent, David McAleer, who is a well-known member of my constituency through Clydebank FC. David has given me permission to talk about him today. He wants to pay his respects to Dr Fitzsimons and his team for everything they do at the University of Glasgow. David got the condition diagnosed because his mum got diagnosed—this is not only about men—and after that, his younger brother got the diagnosis. His father on the other side of the family is a carrier, as are his two other brothers. Indeed, my own late father-in-law heard he had the condition later in his life, before he passed away. My brother-in-law went on to get tested, and he also has haemochromatosis. He lives a very lively life indeed.
It is important to state that we need some clear facts about the condition. In my constituency, on the basis of statistics and population—I am grateful to Haemochromatosis UK for the numbers—350 people would have haemochromatosis, but given the genetic make-up of my community, which is not that diverse in its Celtic make-up, I would assume that to be far higher. Early diagnosis is key in treating the condition and its long-term impact in other areas of healthcare provision, whether that is liver transplant—the costs of that vary across the UK—hip problems, bone issues and a whole range of other issues. There is a call to arms—it might not go down too well with some people—of offering automatic testing from birth to identify haemochromatosis in young people as quickly as possible, to deal with the reality of haemochromatosis and its broader impact on society across the whole UK.
It is notable that other major issues include alcohol consumption. In Scotland, we have for many years been confounded by high levels of alcohol consumption. Those are now reducing, and I congratulate the Scottish Government on pushing forward minimum pricing, but that is only part of a healthier lifestyle. We have to think about the type of food we consume, and how much of it, and, more importantly, about taking iron supplements. People should not take an iron supplement because they read in a magazine that it will help them feel better; they should go along to their doctor.
My clarion call to those watching today, especially in my constituency, is to go and talk to the medical profession about how they are feeling. They should try to get the test. It might not only save them a lot of time, but they will most probably save the NHS a lot of money and ensure that those in the medical profession in my constituency know more about the condition. I finish by congratulating the hon. Member for Rugby, the members of the Haemochromatosis UK who are here and the members of the APPG for the hard work they are doing on this issue.
Diolch, Mr Sharma. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing this important debate and I pay tribute to Haemochromatosis UK for its work supporting both the sufferers of the genetic condition and the all-party parliamentary group. If I may, I particularly thank Lisa Flude, who first brought the condition to my attention and has been an invaluable source of information and advice to me in recent months.
As we have already heard this afternoon, genetic haemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in the UK and yet it remains largely unknown or unfamiliar. Too often it is poorly diagnosed and managed. Approximately 10% of individuals of white European descent in the UK—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) pointed out, this particularly affects those of Celtic descent—or some 5 million people are believed to be genetic carriers of the mutated copy of the haemochromatosis or HFE gene, as the hon. Member for Rugby mentioned. Perhaps 100,000 or 200,000 people might have two mutated copies of the HFE gene and are then at the risk of iron toxicity or overload and the subsequent diseases and conditions that can emerge from that. Yet—this is the nub of the debate in my opinion—for every patient diagnosed with the condition, between eight to 10 are left undiagnosed and unaware of the risk to their health. It is some risk, too: although genetic haemochromatosis is easy to diagnose and to treat, if left untreated it has serious consequences.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) referred to the two recent studies led by groups from the Universities of Exeter and Connecticut. They have shown that the condition quadruples the risk of liver disease and doubles the risk of arthritis and that individuals with the condition are at higher risk of diabetes and chronic pain. In addition to those serious health complications of iron overload, individuals with genetic haemochromatosis can suffer from fatigue, muscle weakness and joint pains. Unfortunately, those symptoms are often mistaken for the signs of ageing or tiredness, but together they can still prove debilitating. Yet genetic haemochromatosis can be diagnosed and treated effectively when detected. The treatment, as we have already heard, entails venesection. I will not go into that any further, but it is a safe process that should be widely available across the UK.
Given the pervasiveness of genetic haemochromatosis and the serious impact that iron toxicity has on an individual’s health and wellbeing, the case for ensuring consistent and effective diagnosis of the condition across the UK is clear. It is not a condition for which there is no treatment or diagnosis. The problem that we face is the lack of consistency, or standardisation, as the hon. Member for Rugby put it, in the application of clinical guidelines.
A survey of health boards across the country showed that even where protocols are in place they are often non-mandatory and differ between boards. Sometimes they are discipline-specific, which can be problematic in itself when we consider that haemochromatosis is often treated by a range of specialists, including hepatologists, haematologists and gastroenterologists.
Introducing standardised guidelines, and ensuring their consistent application, has the potential to increase diagnosis rates tenfold. Early diagnosis prevents so much unnecessary pain and suffering. I hope that the Minister can explore the introduction of more standardised guidelines or patient pathways for the diagnosis of this condition, as it would vastly improve treatment and management of the condition.
If further persuasion were needed, improved diagnosis and earlier treatment of genetic haemochromatosis has the potential to save the NHS considerable resources in the long term, as other Members have mentioned. Iron overload can cause a range of cancers, heart failure, diabetes, and joint disease. Researchers have found that, for men, 1.6% of all hip replacements and 5.8% of all liver cancers occurred in those with two HFE genes. The treatment of those conditions exerts incredible pressure on both primary and hospital care, without considering the impact that multiple appointments over years by patients with non-specific chronic conditions have on primary care.
I am conscious that you want me to finish, Mr Sharma, so to conclude, addressing the current lack of national or standardised guidelines and thus improving the rate of diagnosis of genetic haemochromatosis could reduce the unnecessary suffering of thousands of individuals, while saving the NHS much-needed resources. As somebody more eloquent than I put it, it is a no-brainer.
I am sorry, I was conscious of the time—I want the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson to respond as well. I call Gavin Newlands.
Thank you, Mr Sharma; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I will start, as is customary, by congratulating the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on genetic haemochromatosis, not only on securing today’s important and historic debate, but on setting out in such detail the nature of the condition, its prevalence, the symptoms and the available treatments, such as they are.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the great work of Professor Ted Fitzsimons at the University of Glasgow, and of the fact that not only do the majority of people with the condition not know they have it, but thousands of hip replacements may not have been required, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) also mentioned. I wholeheartedly endorse the three asks that the hon. Member for Rugby made of the Minister, and I look to forward to hearing her response.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) spoke of research involving nearly 3,000 individuals and the possibility of screening for GH, as I will call it from here on in to avoid tripping over it. She concurred with the hon. Member for Rugby that, given the symptoms, without screening the condition will remain difficult to diagnose.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) spoke of his fair skin and freckles, and of being a ginger. He also spoke of the Celtic curse. I am not sure about the Celtic curse, but he is certainly known for his Celtic verse, as we heard during his contribution. He also spoke of his constituent, David McAleer, and his GH story, and of Scotland’s relationship with alcohol, and what we are doing to tackle that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion—I never pronounce his constituency correctly—spoke of how, for every person diagnosed, around eight to 10 go undiagnosed. He also mentioned the serious impact that iron toxicity has on health and wellbeing.
I, too, am a member of the all-party parliamentary group. The reason I am a member is because my dad has genetic haemochromatosis. I have not been tested myself yet, but I should, and will, endeavour to do so at some point in the near future. My dad was unaware of his condition; it turned up in a routine blood screening. He felt fine and had no symptoms that he was aware of at that point. My dad had further checks, including several ultrasounds, an endoscopy and a liver biopsy. When he was diagnosed, he did some digging around on the internet and found that he absolutely should not touch oysters. Google says lots of things, but apparently oysters could prove fatal. He told me and I had a look, and it also said that he should regulate his alcohol intake. When I pointed that out to him, he did not want to know that fact, but he was quite happy to accept the point about oysters—that is my dad for you.
My dad was not put on medication. We have already heard that the treatment is venesection. I am told that the normal ferritin level is around 50 to 60, or thereabouts, but when my dad was diagnosed his level was around 2,400, so it was quite high. He still did not have any symptoms at the time. He went on a weekly course of bloodletting for some time, and his levels are now normal. All he does now is go for a venesection every few months and watch his diet, particularly breakfast cereals, most of which are fortified with iron. Most concerning for him is the fact that he cannot eat Stornoway black pudding any more.
As we know from everyone who has spoken so far, early diagnosis is key. The Scottish National party welcomes the debate, as it offers an opportunity to raise awareness about GH and its symptoms for the first time in the history of the House of Commons. We also welcomed the “Living with the Impact of Iron Overload” report released last year.
Early diagnosis would reduce the demand on primary care services from tens of thousands of chronically affected patients, for whom the underlying cause of GH remains unidentified. Some Members have already outlined the substantial economic benefit of early diagnosis on top of the health benefits to the individual. The cost of a blood test to detect iron overload at an early stage is a few pounds at most. The cost to the NHS of a liver transplant, arising as a result of the lack of early diagnosis, could be close to £50,000.
The Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network—SIGN—collaborates with clinicians and health and social care professionals to develop evidence-based guidelines. Were SIGN to publish guidelines regarding GH, we would welcome that. Introducing guidelines would have the potential to increase diagnosis as much as tenfold.
I thank the hon. Member for Rugby again for introducing this important debate and for bringing this condition to the attention of the House. I look forward to working with him and the rest of the APPG in keeping the pressure on the Minister, the Government and the NHS.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for securing this important debate, and for his excellent and detailed speech, which set the scene. I congratulate him on establishing the all-party parliamentary group on genetic haemochromatosis earlier this year. I have set up a number of all-party parliamentary groups and am a big believer in them. I know how important they are in getting things gone, cross-party, in this House. I am pleased that he was able to bring the condition to the House’s attention.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate—in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—as well as my hon. Friends who made helpful interventions.
As we have heard, GH is a genetic disorder that causes the body to absorb excessive amounts of iron from the diet. Iron overload occurs in one in every 200 people and is now recognised as the most common genetic disorder. Although GH cannot be prevented, its symptoms and health implications can. When untreated, GH can cause serious health problems, including fatigue, weight loss, irregular periods, type 2 diabetes, early menopause and depression.
GH was previously thought to be a low-level health risk, but a study by the University of Exeter found that the genetic condition usually quadruples the risk of liver disease and doubles the risk of arthritis and frailty in older age groups. As hon. Members have already said, treatment of those conditions comes at a huge cost to the NHS, so it is important to ensure that symptoms are prevented by diagnosing GH early and advising on how to avoid iron overload.
My hon. Friend must have extra-sensory perception because I was going to ask if she agreed with everybody else who stressed the importance of early diagnosis, and she just did.
Excellent. If something is worth saying, it is worth saying more than once.
With early diagnosis in mind, I have a number of questions for the Minister; I will rattle through them quickly. What assessment has she made of the diagnosis pathway for patients suspected of having GH? How early are patients diagnosed after presenting with symptoms, and which diagnosis route is the most successful and least painful and invasive for patients? Is that diagnosis route available across NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups? When someone is diagnosed, is it routine for their family to be tested and treated?
GH can be aggravated by environmental and lifestyle factors, so can the Minister assure the House that patients with GH are clearly advised on how to care for themselves if they have the disorder? Are patients given direct advice on their diet and on alcohol and tobacco consumption? As we have heard, that can make the condition easier to manage, if the advice is taken on board, of course—often people do not want to hear what is good for them, myself included. Where necessary, is support available to help patients reduce their alcohol consumption and to quit smoking?
As we know, diet, alcohol and tobacco consumption have huge health implications for all society and cost the NHS millions in treatment. It is therefore crucial that public health services are available to everyone to allow them to live heathier lives, especially patients with GH, who are more susceptible to health problems relating to the heart and liver.
I never miss an opportunity to call on the Minister once again—if she can; it might be above her pay grade—to reverse the public health budget cuts that have decimated our vital public health services. I also urge her to ensure that when the prevention Green Paper is published—I have heard rumours that it could be as early as Monday—patients with any existing conditions are also taken into consideration for prevention, so that their symptoms can be controlled, too. I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I know that I am pressed for time, so if I do not respond to all comments I will happily write to hon. Members. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for securing this important debate on genetic haemochromatosis. I also thank his fellow members of the APPG and all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate for highlighting the disease, which affects so many of us. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) in particular, with her scientific knowledge, made a very good speech.
The Government are dedicated to improving the lives of all patients who live with rare diseases, as set out in the NHS long-term plan and the rare diseases strategy. Clearly, early diagnosis and treatment is key to prevent the development of the conditions that can arise from GH. I hope to be able to answer all the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and others.
One part of diagnosis is genetic testing. That is a more recent development in haemochromatosis and is used to determine whether a mutation in the HFE gene is present, which can lead to iron overload. In January 2019 the NHS long-term plan set out the ambition to focus targeted investment in areas of innovation, including genomics. Last year NHS England launched its genomics medicines service, making the UK the first country in the world to integrate whole genome sequencing into routine clinical care. The GMS aims to provide consistent and equitable access to cutting-edge genomic testing to England’s population.
The first national genomic test directory, which underpins this service, was published in March 2019. It specifies which genomic tests are commissioned by the NHS in England, the technology by which they are available and the patients who will be eligible to access them. GH is included in the directory. To ensure that the directory remains at the cutting edge, it will be updated on an annual basis to keep pace with scientific and technological advances. We are developing a national genomic healthcare strategy, which is overseen by Baroness Blackwood, and that is happening alongside work with the Office for Life Sciences.
Hon. Members have referred to the UK National Screening Committee’s 2016 evidence about whether testing should be offered—as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said, that raises massive ethical questions. That was because not all people with the faulty HFE gene—as somebody who is half-Irish, I am now concerned—will go on to develop the condition. At the time, no evidence was found that provided that committee with evidence that a screening programme would be effective. However, it is important to take account of new evidence and developments as they emerge. The screening committee is always keen to consider new research and will be looking at new evidence to screen for hereditary haemochromatosis in 2019-20. I assure the House that I will follow that with great interest.
GH is not currently part of the NHS health check, but Public Health England routinely publishes open calls for proposals for new content to include in the check, which they consider in view of evidence, cost, clinical effectiveness, feasibility of implementation and health equity. On NICE guidelines, the British Society for Haematology has already published guidelines on the management of GH. They were last updated in 2018. NHS England is the body with responsibility for commissioning new clinical guidelines from NICE. If anyone considers that guidance from NICE would add value, proposals for such guidelines can be made to NHSE.
The shadow Minister made some points about the public health budget and the Green Paper, which we have often discussed. They will of course be subject to best evidence in the spending review. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby talked about patient blood meeting ongoing national needs for donated blood, red blood types and associated blood products. NHS Blood and Transplant has been working in close partnership with Haemochromatosis UK to engage with patients with GH and to inform them that they are able to have their blood removed through blood donation. During National Blood Week in June this year, articles and social media posts were used to inform patients about the procedure for donating blood at a blood donation centre. NHSBT is continuing its work to ensure that patients are informed about the life-saving gift that they can give.
Patients who want to donate blood instead of having venesections have to meet the criteria set out by NHS Blood and Transplant for all donors, and they are advised to have iron check-ups with their consultant. Patients who want to donate blood need to call the NHS Blood and Transplant national call centre to inform it of their condition. That will allow the haemochromatosis patient to donate blood at a donation centre more frequently than the rest of the population.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members and the members of Haemochromatosis UK who have helped us to raise awareness of this condition, because there is a significant gap in our understanding. Hon. Members have rightly pointed out that this is the first time we have discussed GH in this House. I fully recognise the need to raise awareness about GH among healthcare professionals and to provide training. I reassure the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that those affected by rare diseases receive high-quality care.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered genetic haemochromatosis.