Wednesday 2 October 2019
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of community pharmacies.
May I say what a pleasure it is, Sir David, to serve under your chairship this morning, and to have you join us for this important debate?
Between the ages of 14 and 18 I worked in a local chemist shop two evenings a week and some Saturday mornings. There were the usual first job responsibilities: restocking shelves, cleaning, and meeting and greeting customers and patients who were not always well, for a variety of reasons. I loved it, because there is never a dull moment in a pharmacy. I remember a frantic mother handing me dead headlice taped to a piece of cardboard, and someone asking me to run a pregnancy test on a bottle of cough medicine, before discreetly letting me know that it was actually a urine sample rather than cough medicine and that that was the only secure way she could find of transporting it to the chemist shop.
The shop was exactly what it said on the tin. It was a community pharmacy, and the whole community would walk through those doors for advice, medication and reassurance. I remember the older people, whose relationship with the pharmacist was the longest-standing and most trusted relationship they had with a clinical professional. I remember a long-term recovering addict, who would bring his daughter with him every day. We watched her grow up, and supported him as he worked hard to stay the course on his journey to recovery.
That is why community pharmacies matter, and it is why they work. However, it appears from the community pharmacy contractual framework announced in October 2016 that that was not appreciated. There was a reduction from £2.8 billion in 2015-16 to £2.68 billion in 2016-17 and £2.59 billion in 2017-18. That represented a 4% reduction in funding in 2016-17 and a further 3.4% reduction in 2017-18. When inflation is factored in, as well as all the services that pharmacies already offer free and whose costs they absorb, that was a near fatal blow to the service nationwide. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), told the all-party parliamentary group on pharmacy that he expected between 1,000 and 3,000 pharmacies to close, as they would no longer be viable in the face of the cuts, with multiples and chains of pharmacies best placed to survive, and independent and more rural chemists left at a disadvantage.
In March this year the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee found that 233 community pharmacies have closed in England since the Government funding cuts were introduced. Sixty-nine were independent pharmacies and a further 22 were independent multiples. The number of closures anticipated by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire has not yet been reached. However, I have spoken to people in pharmacies, and others contacted me ahead of the debate, and many are operating at a loss, clinging to the hope that the funding arrangements will improve, but with a business model that, as the right hon. Gentleman predicted, is not viable.
The impact that the funding cuts have had on patients is really difficult to justify. The cost of delivering prescriptions to those who find it hard to leave the house was previously absorbed by local chemists, but that is no longer possible. Boots was the last of the big four chain pharmacies to start charging for delivery over the summer, with all patients having to pay £5 for delivery, or £55 for a 12-month delivery subscription, by the end of the year. All have some exemptions for particularly vulnerable customers, but Boots, LloydsPharmacy, Rowlands Pharmacy and Well have all reduced free deliveries, or started charging for delivery.
There is no funding for arranging drugs in trays. When I worked in a pharmacy, it was a big undertaking to arrange medicines in trays by time and day, predominantly for older people who needed that degree of support if they were to live well for longer by taking their medication at the right time and in the right doses. Pharmacies were delivering a degree of invaluable social care, and that is no longer possible in the present financial climate. We can all see what the consequences will be. Ultimately the result will be more costly clinical interventions.
In addition to the financial pressures that pharmacies face, drugs shortages are now becoming debilitatingly resource-intensive across the NHS. Pharmacies have no ability to absorb the costly hours spent sourcing drugs or speaking to GPs about possible alternatives. A Bristol GP, Zara Aziz, recently wrote in The Guardian of her experience of medicines shortages. She explained that EpiPen users in Bristol are now being told to use their old EpiPens up to four months after the expiry date. She also tells the story of a patient in acute distress from arthritis pain when a commonly used anti-inflammatory, Naproxen, suddenly became unavailable. Eventually, a very small quantity was found, but the patient was forced to use it sparingly, not as she had been prescribed, as none of the alternative anti-inflammatories would have been suitable for her.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) shared with me a photo of a poster from Pharmacy Magazine, which has gone up in her local hospital. It says, “Please don’t blame us for the NHS medicine shortages. It is a nationwide problem. Please ask your local MP to help.” The poster included contact details of local MPs handwritten on the bottom. We very much hear those concerns, and we are here to ask the Minister to get a grip on this problem.
Shortages are caused by a combination of different issues. The implications of Brexit are inevitably a factor that will play out over the coming weeks and months. However, we know that the NHS and the UK are potentially losing out to more profitable and attractive markets. In addition, the stockpiling, as a precaution, of certain drugs that are harder to source, coupled with the deliberate and more alarming manipulation of the markets by some wholesalers to deliberately push up prices, is having a detrimental effect. New regulations are also having an impact on manufacturing processes.
On top of that, cash flow is a massive challenge in community pharmacies. Community pharmacies pay out for drugs and are reimbursed by the Government the following month. The situation is made even tougher still, however, because they are not always reimbursed what they have paid out for drugs, particularly for drugs that are in short supply. By law, pharmacies have to do everything in their power to source a drug and dispense it, even where prices have become inflated due to a shortage. Let us take Naproxen as an example. One of my local pharmacies tells me that earlier this year the cost of a box shot up from about 26p to about £15. The tariff price paid by the Government to reimburse pharmacies for Naproxen peaked around February, at £12.50 a box. The medicines shortage is having the perverse effect of forcing pharmacies to dispense at a loss. In previous budgets, there might have been just enough for the pharmacy to absorb this cost. Those days are long gone. The system is clearly no longer fit for purpose.
Earlier this year, the Government introduced the serious shortage protocol in the Human Medicines (Amendment) Regulations 2019. It was intended to be a safety mechanism to help cope with any serious national shortage. It gives pharmacists the ability to dispense a reduced quantity, alternative dosage form or generic equivalent to that stated on the prescription. There would be a small payment to pharmacies for undertaking that process. Despite pharmacists and GPs feeling that they are spending unprecedented amounts of time sourcing medicines or researching alternatives, not a single drug has appeared on the list, which means that pharmacies and GPs do not get paid any extra to compensate them for the time they now have to dedicate to that element of dispensing.
Although there are no drugs on the serious shortage protocol, there is a separate concessions list, which acknowledges that, due to a shortage of a drug, the price has changed. At the end of September, there were 45 drugs on that concessions list. Again, inclusion on that list does not acknowledge the time involved in having to source the drugs, which is becoming the largest part of the pharmacist’s day. Nor is there any attempt to fund that work.
There was some hope for community pharmacies more broadly in the community pharmacy contractual framework published in July, which takes effect from October 2019 through to 2023-24. The five-year deal commits to not cutting the budget any further. However, when inflation is taken into account, it will still see pharmacies unable to meet costs, for all the reasons I have outlined.
Strangely enough, what the framework does do is realise the potential for pharmacies to alleviate pressures on the wider NHS, paving the way for a much more integrated approach. The 111 service is now able to refer a patient directly to a pharmacy for an appointment. The framework seeks to expand the delivery of clinical services in pharmacies. It is all great stuff, which is very welcome, but I return to the clear warning given by the then Minister back in 2016 that between 1,000 and 3,000 pharmacies will not be viable and will be forced to close if overall funding does not increase.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Given the pressures all our A&Es and acute hospitals face, does she agree that the community pharmacies in many areas across the UK do a magnificent job—particularly those specialised pharmacists who relieve the pressure on A&Es? If community pharmacies are put at risk and we lose them, there will be even more pressure on our A&Es and acute hospitals at a most awkward time for our society.
I could not agree more. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. It was very welcome that in the community pharmacy contractual framework—for the first time, I think—the Government really did understand that. However, the funding to allow pharmacies to survive long enough to deliver those services has not been forthcoming. For all its aspirations to deliver more clinical services, a pharmacy that has been forced to close can deliver diddly-squat. Does the Minister accept that community pharmacies’ potential will be realised only when they are funded to survive?
Like many colleagues, I am incredibly concerned about the impact of medicine shortages, both on the NHS and on patients themselves. It is contributing to the mix of factors that are piling unbearable financial pressure on our local chemist shops. I hope the Government have a plan to respond and keep our trusted, effective community pharmacies open.
Order. I will call the three Front Benchers at 10.30 am. Several Back Benchers wish to speak. I will not put a time limit on speeches, but if hon. Members keep them to about seven minutes or less, everybody will get an opportunity to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important and pertinent debate and for giving me an opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to residents of Heywood and Middleton.
We know that community pharmacies have struggled with the funding cuts that the Government have introduced since October 2016. As my hon. Friend pointed out, figures compiled in March by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee show that 233 community pharmacies in England have had to close since those cuts were introduced. Evidence from local pharmaceutical committees across England supports the picture of community pharmacies struggling financially. Independents are being hit the hardest and have been forced to cut hours or staff as a result.
A consequence of that was highlighted to me last week by my constituent Karen, who told me that her local independent community pharmacy was to start charging £5 for the home delivery of medicines. As my hon. Friend said, the same measure has already been adopted by the four multiples: LloydsPharmacy, Rowlands, Well and—the latest to join—Boots, which recently announced that it would charge a one-off fee of £5 or a 12-month subscription fee of £55 for delivery of prescriptions ordered in branch.
The actions of those multiples seem to be having a knock-on effect on our local independent community pharmacies as they struggle to cope with year-on-year funding cuts. With the cost of a prescription now at £9, the additional charge bumps up the total cost to a hefty £14 for those who pay for their prescriptions and makes an absolute mockery of free prescriptions for those who qualify. If someone is on free prescriptions but cannot get to their local pharmacy because of illness or disability, the delivery charge means that their prescription is no longer free.
As a result of these decisions, some of the most vulnerable people in our communities will suffer, including many who rely on the delivery service to access much-needed and essential medication. Sadly, many people in our communities suffer from chronic loneliness and simply do not have the social contacts to ask someone to collect their medicine for them. I would be interested to hear the views of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), the Minister for loneliness, on this draconian measure; I will write to her after this debate, when I hope I will have received some response from the Minister who is present.
I urge the Minister to look carefully and seriously at this really important issue, which appears to be a growing problem. The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies says that continuing challenges to pharmacy funding are not helping the situation, with the five-year funding cap not covering
“inflation, volume increases and national minimum wage increases.”
The five-year period will be increasingly painful for many pharmacy businesses already under heavy financial pressure. It is only to be expected that many pharmacies will reassess all their existing costs, including the costs of services that they currently deliver for free. The financial model is simply unsustainable for the next five years. I ask the Minister to think about the impact that the changes will have on vulnerable, lonely and housebound people, and to consider approaching the Chancellor to request funding for this vital service and bring an end to this tax on the sick.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate. I have a non-financial interest to declare: I chair the all-party group on pharmacy.
Community pharmacies play a major role in supporting the prevention agenda, which is a key development in the NHS long-term plan. As an integral part of the NHS, they are also a valued community facility with a positive track record of improving access to healthcare services. Compared with GP surgeries, there are more than 11,600 community pharmacies across England, and 89% of the population are estimated to have access to one within a 20-minute walk. That percentage rises to 99% in the most deprived areas of our country. We should recognise that community pharmacies are crucial.
There is still much more that could be done to unlock the huge potential of pharmacies and to further integrate them with emerging local healthcare networks. For example, service commissioning is patchy across the country, meaning that not all patients can access the same services from their local community pharmacies. More than 95% of community pharmacies now have a private consultation room from which they can offer advice to patients and a range of nationally commissioned services, such as the flu vaccination service. In 2018-19, 1.4 million flu vaccinations took place in community pharmacies. Two years ago, when the service was first introduced, other parts of the medical profession did not like the idea of pharmacies moving into that area, but the figures show that it was a good idea.
The new medicine service allows pharmacies to provide support for people with long-term conditions who have been newly prescribed a medicine to help improve medicine adherence. My hon. Friend mentioned it in relation to the elderly. I am sure we all know that more than 70% of NHS expenditure in the UK is on people with long-term conditions in the acute or primary sector. It is important to recognise that. Many pharmacies are commissioned to offer public health services by local authorities and the NHS.
On the new national services in 2019-20, my hon. Friend mentioned the community pharmacist consultation service, which is something we should look forward to, with the community pharmacists as the first port of call for minor illness or for the urgent supply of medicines. Pharmacies will offer patients a consultation to help manage their minor illnesses or provide an emergency supply of medicine. The service will take referrals from NHS 111, but in years to come such referrals could come from other settings such as GP practices and the NHS online. That is a progressive move so that we can access services far better than we can at the moment. We will see how it goes.
The other national service is hepatitis C testing. Pharmacies will offer testing for people using pharmacy needle and syringe programmes to support the national hepatitis C elimination programme. There will, however, be an extension of the reach of the six mandated public health campaigns that community pharmacies have to take part in, and many community pharmacies will also choose to take part in the pharmacy quality scheme. This year, that might involve preparing for engagement with primary care networks, which is crucial. When I first talked to my local primary care network about where the pharmacy fits in with this, they were not at all sure. We also have: carrying out audits on prescribing safety for lithium, on pregnancy prevention for women taking valproate, and on the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; checking with patients with diabetes whether they have had annual foot and eye checks; reducing the volume of sugar-sweetened beverages; complete training and assessment on look-alike, sound-alike errors, which is crucial for us all; updating risk reviews; completing sepsis online training and assessment, along with risk mitigation; and completing the dementia-friendly environment standards.
From April 2020, all pharmacies will be required to be able to process electronic prescriptions and to have attained healthy living pharmacy level 1 status. Accreditation will mean the pharmacies are local hubs for promoting health, wellbeing and self-care, and providing services to prevent ill health. That is the real move we should be seeing in community pharmacy now, to promote population health and reduce health inequalities. Pharmacies have a major role to play in that.
With regard to other future pharmacy service developments, as part of the five-year deal community pharmacies may also be able to support the appropriate use of medicines through the expansion of the new medicine service to other conditions. In addition, the NHS will use the national pharmacy integration fund to pilot services for potential roll-out. These include a model for detecting undiagnosed cardiovascular diseases and smoking cessation referrals from secondary care. That is crucial—this is a matter for another day—when we see the reduction in smoking cessation services here in the UK, yet still more than 85,000 of our fellow citizens are dying prematurely each year from smoking-related disease.
Further services include: the use of a point-of-care testing around minor illnesses to support efforts to tackle antimicrobial resistance; routine monitoring of patients, such as those taking oral contraception, under an electronic repeat dispensing arrangement; activity to support primary care network priorities, such as early cancer diagnosis and tackling health inequalities; and a service to improve access to palliative care. These are the ideas that the community pharmacy has got and where it is going to move in the next five years. That is crucial.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax for securing the debate and providing this opportunity. The issue of expenditure has been mentioned, although I will not go into the history of it now. The Minister will be acutely aware that when we had the pharmacy integration fund, it would set aside after the cut. In fact, it was not used very well and lots of money was left in there. We are now moving into areas where that money should have been used. It is crucial that we get the money now on the table into frontline pharmacy services.
Thank you, Sir David; it is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing the debate and thank her for doing so. Community pharmacies are an important issue in my constituency, as they are in hers, and indeed in the constituencies of everyone who is here to contribute. Elected representatives who keep their ear close to the ground will know that community pharmacies have a critical role to play, why is why I wish to touch on them here.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister in her new post. This is only her second debate in Westminster Hall, and the first in which she is going to have to answer some hard questions, but I have no doubt that she is up to it.
I have spoken numerous times about the importance of community pharmacy funding, especially in rural areas, because it is absolutely essential. For people who are rurally isolated or ill, knowing that their local pharmacy will collect their prescription and have it ready to collect—or even deliver it, as they often do in my constituency—is very important. That point cannot be emphasised enough. It makes all the difference to an ill person and it is critical that we have that system in place.
I agree with the NHS protocol that does not allow GPs to prescribe annually, but I also know the strain that it puts people under to undertake to have a new prescription allocated, collected, left at the pharmacy and then further collected. It is time consuming and means a lot of effort for those who are ill and rely on public transport. Community pharmacies take much of the legwork and stress out of this.
We all know the problems of getting community transport in rural areas, whether buses, taxis or even getting friends to help with collecting prescriptions. They are as important to our ill and vulnerable people as any other NHS service, and the funding cuts have put too much pressure on that service already.
I assume that all the elected representatives here today have received letters similar to those that I have received outlining the difficulties facing community pharmacies in Northern Ireland. I will highlight those that frighten me the most—I use the word “frighten” because that is exactly what they did. They hail from a rural constituency with stretched service provision. One such letter states:
“The results illustrate the cumulative impact of the funding and the workforce crisis as stark.”—
these are strong words—
“Aside from pharmacy staff leaving by choice, a significant proportion of pharmacy owners, 39%, have been forced to reduce their workforce as they can no longer afford to cover the salary costs. To try to compensate for staff losses, 95% of pharmacy owners have increased their own working hours”.
In other words, they are now working longer hours just to ensure that their pharmacies cope. Some report regularly working 80 to 100 hours a week, which I suggest is above and beyond the call of duty. In addition, the letter states that
“93% of contractors report being forced to reduce the level of additional services they can offer, with 41% reducing or applying to reduce their pharmacy opening hours.”
Those figures illustrate the issues: 30% of staff are leaving by choice; 41% of pharmacies are reducing their staff; and those in charge of the pharmacies are working almost 100 hours a week. Against this demonstrable crisis in workforce, the core workload continues to increase. Dispensing activity over the past nine years has risen by almost 40%—again, pharmacies are doing more work with fewer staff, which compounds the issue—to a level of around 55 million dispensing episodes in 2018-19 alone. That is a colossal number of prescriptions handled and dispensing episodes.
Over the same period dispensing fees have been reduced by around 30%, which is an example of marked underinvestment in an essential service, where safety and accuracy are critical to the public and the health service. I am not saying for one minute that things are going wrong, but we want to ensure that the general public’s safety is always at the forefront. For that to happen, pharmacies need to be assisted financially, and they must have the opportunity to get the staff they need.
The community pharmacy workforce survey contains a number of recommendations for turning things around in the sector. I have no doubt that the Minister’s response will help make these things happen before it is too late. I ask her to be cognisant of the recommendations, because if they are applicable to Northern Ireland, then they are applicable to the UK mainland. The thrust of the recommendations is that there must be better communication. How often do we say that there should be better communication? There must be better communication between Government Departments, elected representatives and their constituents on new legislation coming through. It is critical that we have better communication between the Department and pharmacies, because they need to know what is happening. The Government and the Department need to be responsible to them too.
We have TV campaigns outlining when it is appropriate to seek a pharmacist’s attention, rather than to see a GP. That is all good stuff. People can now visit their pharmacist to ask about minor ailments, taking some of the pressure off A&E departments. That is part of what they are trying to achieve over the next period of time. Yet the information about what can be treated and how to get that help is not communicated. Better communications are a way of doing things just that wee bit better.
Over the years I have suggested to Government Departments, including the Department of Health in Northern Ireland—health is a devolved matter—and to Health Ministers here that we could perhaps do things a lot better. For example, we could let pharmacies take on responsibility for some minor things, such as checking for glaucoma or diabetes. It would be helpful if those things could be checked for in pharmacies.
In conclusion, with this body of trained professionals we have the potential to ease the burden on GPs and enable better surgery efficiency, yet that has not been tapped into. We have the potential to make people’s lives a lot simpler with an appropriately funded community pharmacy. By not doing that, we are losing highly trained professionals and adding more strain to an already overburdened GP system. If we do not help the pharmacies, we do not help the GPs or the A&E departments. This needs an overhaul, and who better to feed into that than those operating the service at present? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and, hopefully, some positive replies.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing today’s debate.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit a local community pharmacy in my constituency, and the superintendent pharmacist sat me down to tell me his tale of woe, which has been echoed across the Chamber this morning. He runs seven pharmacies across the city, serving 20% of the population, but he has seriously struggled over the past three years and is wondering whether he will be there next year. He has ploughed in tens of thousands of his own money just to keep the business afloat. That certainly highlights how many single-handed pharmacies have closed in the city.
Part of this is about the Government funding cuts, not least to the establishment payment, which covered things such as rent, regulatory registration and insurance. Part of it has also been about the loopholes for the clinical commissioning group and how it is now buying branded generics and not giving the headroom that pharmacies used to have. For instance, if people were purchasing a drug at, say, 60p and it had a value of 90p on tariff, there would be headroom of about 30p. That money was then ploughed back into the business to run other essential health services and to ensure that there could be free deliveries of pharmaceutical products to the community. Pharmacies just do not have that headroom any more.
The situation is made far worse by the multinational companies—we have heard about Boots, Lloyds and the others—which have the buying capacity and the space to be able to drive up the price at the wholesalers, which in turn means that the independents pay more when they go to purchase their pharmaceuticals. I have always called it the Walmart model, because that is how many of these companies operate. They try to push out the competition by making it impossible for the independents to participate in the market. That is certainly what we see here.
There is a toxic combination of cuts, CCGs facing tough financial lines—the CCG in York is always struggling—and, on top of that, the wider market pressures. Of course, the multinationals can spread their risk. They sell other products, and they are owned by multinational corporates, which gives them a further cushion in their operations. The impact is that, where some of those big companies have bought up independents, they are then closing them in crucial communities.
Clifton in my constituency is an area of high deprivation, with one of the lowest ages of mortality in the city and a real need for a community pharmacist, but Lloyds has pulled out of that community. That means that while people are waiting, say, three weeks to go and see their GP, they cannot just pop down the road to their community pharmacy as an alternative, because it is simply not there.
That is building more pressure on the independents, because people go to them to get the free delivery now that, as we have heard, the big companies have seen a gap in the market—surprise, surprise—and are charging their drug delivery tax to get more resource. That means that the independents, which are trying to provide that community service, are delivering further and further afield, which is costing them more, and they have less resource to do that with. We need to address the drug delivery tax to ensure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax set out, we get these products to those people in our communities who are incredibly vulnerable.
I draw the Minister’s attention to one other scandal in the industry, which is that companies such as Boots are paying only 9% corporation tax. As a result, the Government are losing out on £1 billion a year. If we think about the scale of the cuts and the £200 million that has been removed, it does not take long to realise that, if Boots was forced to pay its corporation tax, we would not see pharmacies struggling and going to the wall, or communities suffering and losing those essential community services.
I ask the Minister to go back to the Treasury and make sure that those tax loopholes are closed. Boots moved into a multinational company, which I believe is 49% American-owned, and it is now registered in Switzerland, so it does not have to pay the same overheads. That is another inequality built into the market that must be addressed. The pressure cannot continue, or we will lose our community pharmacies. As I said, one pharmacist, who oversees seven pharmacies, does not think he will be there next year. That is seven communities across my constituency and York Outer that will not have a community pharmacy on the street corner.
It is vital, therefore, that the new Minister gets to grips with this issue. She must make sure that the right investment goes into our communities, that those loopholes are closed for the CCGs and for tax, and that the drug delivery tax is not put on pharmaceutical products.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for bringing forward this issue, which is important for the whole country. Community pharmacies play a vital role wherever they are, but that is especially so in large dispersed rural communities such as mine.
As we have heard, many of those community pharmacies are in increasingly marginal positions and are at risk of closure—indeed, many have closed. That is tragic for them, their patients and the communities that they are at the heart of. It is also a tragic wasted opportunity. The Government should make far better use of our community pharmacies to secure their futures and to benefit patients. The Government could provide sufficient funding for pharmacies so that they can provide an agreed range of patient services to prevent ill health and to keep people who are living with chronic conditions from getting worse, as hon. Members have mentioned.
I sat down with one of my local pharmacists in Kendal a few weeks ago. He told me that the Government have an opportunity to commission a national minor ailments service provided by community pharmacies. The key objective would be to use the talents and expertise of our pharmacists and, in doing so, to remove pressure from GPs and A&E departments in other parts of primary care in the NHS.
Pharmacists in my area serve communities as diverse and widespread as Sedbergh, Hawkshead, Ambleside, Staveley, Windermere, Milnthorpe, Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and many others. All the pharmacists I speak to fear that their numbers may be further whittled away by the Government, either by design or by attrition. The Government and people in the sector have talked about there being 3,000 fewer pharmacies. On behalf of local pharmacists and their patients, I say that that would be unacceptable. We want clarity from the Government on the number of pharmacies that they envisage, and we want a commitment to maintain the number that we have.
In the past, Health Ministers have expressed admiration for the French community pharmacy model, which pays for community pharmacies across the board to provide more patient services, such as conditions tests, smoking cessation and blood tests. Will the Minister commit to commissioning such services from community pharmacies across England comprehensively, not just case by case?
Community pharmacies would also be aided by having greater flexibility to dispense authorised medication when the pharmacist is away for a short time, perhaps visiting a local care home. The Government should also consider allowing big national pharmacy chains to share their automation platforms for prescription assembly with smaller independent community pharmacies to reduce costs across the board.
There is also the issue of fair payments. Many independent pharmacies in the south lakes are in danger of going out of business because of reductions in payments for prescriptions by NHS England. Often, the money that pharmacies receive from the national health service does not even cover the cost of the drugs being dispensed. In one shocking case, a pharmacist in my constituency in a relatively small Lake district village, who I have visited regularly, received in one single month £5,000 less in NHS payments than they had to pay out in wholesale drug payments. And that is on top of that pharmacy losing on average 10% of its NHS income each year over the last three years. That is utterly unsustainable, but it is replicated across our communities. So I ask the Minister to intervene personally to put this matter right.
We see a picture of a community pharmacy network that is full of wonderful, talented, highly skilled and dedicated professionals, who provide vital services to patients and their families, and that is part of the glue that holds communities—particularly rural communities—together, but it is being let down by an unambitious approach to community pharmacy from Government, which undervalues what these pharmacies do and, even more importantly, undervalues what they could do.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider the proposal in my early-day motion—which, thanks to the non-Prorogation, is still alive—for an essential community pharmacy scheme, to support community pharmacies in rural areas such as mine and to keep them open and thriving. Moreover, will she heed the calls from pharmacists across the country, who are merely calling for fairness in payments and for the ability to use their skills to serve their patients and communities, removing debilitating pressure from other parts of the NHS?
It is a pleasure to serve with you chairing today, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to speak in a debate in which the contributions so far have been full of knowledge and experience of the grassroots. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing it and on setting out at the start, from her own personal experience, the strength and importance of community pharmacies in their communities. They really are at the heart of communities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) spelled out clearly the potential of community pharmacies. I think the Government recognise that potential in their NHS long-term plan, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax pointed out, they do not provide the funding to deliver on that potential.
Every day in this country, 1.6 million people visit a community pharmacy, so it is not surprising that the 2016 petition to save community pharmacies was one of the largest ever seen in this House. It demonstrated the commitment of communities across the country to their community pharmacies.
In visiting local community pharmacies across Scunthorpe, Bottesford and Kirton in Lindsey, I have seen the huge range of work that they do: dispensing medicines, dealing with minor injuries, administering flu jabs, and, as has already been said, being at the sharper end of drug shortages. Making sure that the drugs are there is a massive job and needs a lot of resource to ensure that it is done. As other colleagues have said, community pharmacies are a core part of the public health network, doing important work.
Community pharmacies are at the heart of communities and keep an eye on people, arranging their medicines in trays and delivering them free of charge to people’s doors. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) have said, what is now developing is a drug delivery tax, which threatens the survival of this service. That is because the very people who most need it are the very people who will not use it—that is the nature of the loneliness and other challenges in these communities, as my colleagues have said.
As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, pharmacies are very important in rural areas, but they are also crucial in areas such as Westcliff, which is in the heart of the urban part of my constituency. There, the community pharmacy is the only health service that is close to the local community, which has many health needs.
A local community pharmacist contacted me recently, and I will use his words to describe what it is like at the sharp end. He points to
“Huge shortages and price hikes by suppliers of generic drugs from July 2017 onwards”,
and says that the Department of Health is
“not reimbursing us for even the cost of drugs, let alone giving us a purchase margin”—
something my hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about in great detail and with great clarity. He says his pharmacy has been losing £10,000 a month since July 2017. He has not been able to afford to replace the two dispensers who have left in the past three months, so local people are losing their jobs as a result of the cuts, and the pressure on those remaining, although they continue to work really hard—I know because I visited them recently—is beginning to take its toll.
“The government has agreed to a five year funding package with no annual increase to the funding package. I would have at least expected an index linked funding package with index linking to NHS pay rises. The DHSC has given pay rises to all the other sectors of healthcare like GPs and Dentists but has chosen to effectively give a 9% cut over 5 years to community pharmacies.
As you know, community pharmacies are still struggling from the impact of the £250 million cut announced in December 2016. Since then, I have struggled…and…I have had to borrow hugely just to keep afloat. The net result is that my business is in danger of defaulting on the bank loans/overdrafts and might be potentially looking at bankruptcy. I have 20 employees who are mostly Scunthorpe residents and they are unlikely to find any work quickly if we were to go under.”
That pharmacist asks me to ask the new pharmacy Minister, who I congratulate on her appointment—she has shown since she came into this House her commitment to this area of work, and I can see from the way she is listening to the debate that she wants to make a difference—several questions. They are:
“why the Government chose not to give community pharmacy a pay rise given to other primary care health sectors…why the funding was not index linked…how the Government expects us to invest in our staff and premises with what is essentially a cut”
“how community pharmacy is expected to be part of Primary Care Networks when our sustainability is in jeopardy.”
That is from the frontline, from a man who is delivering excellent service to my local community and to patients locally and who wants to carry on doing so. The Government recognise the value of community pharmacies. If they want community pharmacists to continue to deliver, they need to give them the ability to do that, and not to speak nice words, without delivering. As well as talking the talk, the Government need to walk the walk on community pharmacies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this important and timely debate on community pharmacies. Those are critical resources at the heart of all the communities in our constituencies and the first port of call for many of us who experience common or low-level health complaints.
In the North East Lincolnshire clinical commissioning group area, there are no fewer than 30 pharmacies, ranging from branches of Boots—we have already heard some discussion about that this morning—and pharmacies operating out of supermarkets to companies such as Periville, which runs three pharmacies on Cromwell Road, Wingate Parade and Ladysmith Road, two of those out of medical centres. Day Lewis Pharmacy, in Scartho medical centre, gave my flu jab last year—thanks very much—while Cottingham Pharmacy on Wellington Street in the East March area has been run by the family for 60 years.
We talk about the community element of pharmacies, and Tim Cottingham recently joined me and the Labour campaign for drug reform in a community event hosting about 150 people to talk about the development of drug treatment, the lack of community drug and alcohol support, and the essential role played by pharmacists. Tim knows so many of his customers and provides an incredibly intimate service, working with them to improve their health and move them further away from the trappings of addiction. The tales he told the audience, with compassion and empathy for the human being behind the addiction story, were quite remarkable. That was something I had not seen or heard before, and I was not necessarily expecting it. It was very eye-opening, and we should recognise the important role that pharmacists play in people’s day-to-day lives. Pharmacists provide vital services to residents in Grimsby, and not only do they dispense medicines to those who need them, but they provide residents with advice and guidance to ensure they make a rapid recovery.
North East Lincolnshire pharmacies also take pressure off GPs by providing a minor ailment scheme for anyone who does not pay for their prescriptions, and by providing free advice and treatment for illnesses such as colds, coughs, flus, hay fever, dry eyes, athlete’s foot, conjunctivitis and many other complaints that might end up at a GP’s door without the presence of such an amenity. Given how important our pharmacies are to our health system, it seems counterproductive for the Government to say that they want to develop sustainability and transformation plans for the long-term needs of local communities, and then to cut nearly £300 million from the community pharmacy budget, thus harming those amenities that sit at the heart of our communities.
The impact of the cuts has been severe. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee found that in the two years since the cuts were introduced in October 2016, more than 200 pharmacies across the country closed their doors. That includes E A Broadburn of Scartho, which operated and moved into a medical centre, but ended up closing due to loss of footfall.
Lloyds Pharmacy on Dudley Street is part of a much larger corporate structure, but presumably it was not making the returns from that site and decided to close. It sits right on the edge of the West Marsh, which is one of the most deprived communities in Great Grimsby, and that closure meant the loss of another service, including out-of-hours provision.
Independent, stand-alone stores are not necessarily inside medical centres, hospitals or supermarkets, and they can provide 24-hour pharmacy services much more easily than those that are co-located in medical centres. Such closures therefore mean the loss of another service and emergency access pharmacy on which communities rely. Both those shop fronts remain empty, which means another hole in the small parades of shops in which they sat. They were not quite on the high street, but they were certainly on community high streets, and such things make people feel that their communities are not being properly invested in.
In 2017, Ian Strachan, then chair of the National Pharmacy Association, pointed to pared-back services, reduced opening hours and lower morale in the pharmacy workforce as evidence of the pressure that all pharmacies are experiencing. Will the Minister confirm that the extra investment in primary and community care that was announced by the Government last month will not only cover the costs of any extra service that pharmacies might be expected to provide, but will reverse the cuts in real terms?
Great Grimsby contains a number of good medical centres that include multiple GP centres and often contain pharmacies. However, there are also an awful lot of empty spaces, and for a number of years the intention has been for some services to be offered in those community settings. Some things that are done in hospital could be done in the heart of the community, which would be much easier—and there is space available. If that happened, and if some of those services were to operate out of those community-based centres, that would increase footfall and aid some of those pharmacies by giving them the opportunity to reach more people who would otherwise go to hospital.
Pharmacies are often on the frontline when patients encounter wider problems in the NHS. For example, when the contraceptive Microgynon 30 went out of stock earlier this year, it was the pharmacists who spent time informing patients and trying to find solutions to get around the scarcities. All that takes far more time than simply dispensing the drug and can have an impact on pharmacies’ bottom line. The Operation Yellowhammer report told us that we might face many more drug shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so have the Government involved pharmacies in no-deal planning and taken into account the pressures that pharmacies might experience due to drug shortages in the event of no deal?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on bringing forward this important debate. I do not want to spend too much time summing up and repeating what has already been said by other Members—I have a list of them here—because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to make her case and for the Minister to answer the many questions that have been asked—I know she will appreciate that.
As everyone here should know, the NHS operates in differently in Scotland. There are many plus points to being a patient and a user of community pharmacies in Scotland, not least of which are free prescriptions for all and the way the Scottish Government value and support local pharmacies. As we are all aware, pharmacists are in a unique position to improve medication safety. They have the time and clinical expertise to make a difference to how patients manage chronic conditions, for which they might be taking multiple medications.
For many patients, it is probably much easier to consult a pharmacist than a GP. The community pharmacy often becomes the de facto community health centre, and most of us know the value of what those centres do. They can be the first point of care, and how many of us here has just popped into the chemist for a bit of advice when we did not feel well, taking some strain off our GPs?
I pay tribute to my local pharmacy, because I could not have managed the last year and a half of my husband’s life without the help and support of its staff. They provided help, advice and reassurance in equal measure and took a real interest in how I was doing. I saw them do exactly the same for other people who visited what is an invaluable point of help.
In Scotland, pharmacists already play an active role in coaching patients on the potential side effects of medication, going out of their way to say why it is important to take medicines exactly as prescribed. Unfortunately, due to this Tory Government’s disastrous handling of Brexit, there is a real possibility that community pharmacies and their customers will be left without an adequate supply of medicines. The Operation Yellowhammer documents gave us a real insight into how that will affect our communities. The threat remains significant and, with just 30 days to go until the Brexit deadline, information about medicine supplies and stockpiling is lacking. Pharmaceutical companies tried to stockpile for the 29 March deadline, but warehousing space is much reduced at this time of year, especially as warehouses fill up with Christmas goods.
Of the 12,300 medicines licensed for use in the UK, around 7,000 come to Britain either from or through the EU. According to the Government’s reasonable worst- case scenario, the flow of goods could be cut by 40% to 60% on day one following a no-deal break, taking a year to recover. As we have already heard, that would play havoc with our local community pharmacies, because they are very much on the frontline. They are where our communities turn when they need help with medication.
I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic who is on tablet medication. Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by type 1 diabetics who depend on insulin. The hon. Lady refers to the need to ensure that medication such as insulin is available after Brexit. I understand from my discussions with the Government that they have assured us that it will be. Does she agree that it is important for the public record that we say that in this Chamber today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not standing here to cause panic; I have spent a long time not trying to cause panic, but I have been wondering what will happen if the medications that people rely on do not arrive, because that really is a critical concern for lots of people. I know that community pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are doing their very best to make sure that it does not happen.
Because the NHS in Scotland is different, I have had my eyes opened to a number of things that I did not realise were happening. I had assumed that what happens in my own country would happen in England, but it very much does not; I have had that experience in my dealings with Vertex Pharmaceuticals with respect to cystic fibrosis drugs as well.
I have to say that the SNP Scottish Government really do recognise the importance of community pharmacies and are taking action to ensure that they remain properly resourced. In April, the Scottish Government announced that community pharmacies will receive an extra £2.6 million in funding this financial year. We must compare that with the cuts in spending that this UK Tory Government have made to community pharmacies’ funding over a number of years, with absolutely no provision being made for inflation, as we have heard.
The package announced by the Scottish Government includes confirmation that the Pharmacy First scheme has been integrated with the national Minor Ailment Service, so there is a real drive for people to consult their pharmacist first. People who can register with the Minor Ailment Service, such as those who are over 60 or in full-time education up to the age of 19, can see a pharmacist and be given medication there and then without having to see their GP. The scheme has recently been extended; it now covers not just things such as diarrhoea, but treatment for uncomplicated urinary tract infections and impetigo. All those things reduce the strain on GP services—we know that across the country, with its ageing population, they are under strain.
The increases in funding have been welcomed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in Scotland, which states:
“The RPS supports the Scottish government’s vision for more people to use their community pharmacy as a first port of call.”
The Scottish Government have reviewed pharmaceutical care of patients, and they really want to understand how community pharmacies can be better supported. They are putting their money where their mouth is.
I do not always get to stand here and tell an even better story, but in Scotland we care about how our communities can be better treated and have better health outcomes. To my knowledge—I need to verify this—a local pharmacy in Scotland does not charge for delivery to patients because, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) pointed out, people who qualify for a free prescription service are really hammered if they then have to pay for the delivery of their drugs. I ask the Minister to look at that. As hon. Members all know, I frequently stand here and say, “Can you look at how things are done in Scotland and see whether that can be adapted for better use here?” I plead with the Minister to look at that again.
The Scottish Government really do recognise the vital role that community pharmacies play in Scotland, in rural and in urban areas. I will sit down now and leave the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to sum up for the Opposition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate, and for her excellent opening speech. For their contributions early on this cold Wednesday morning, I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who speaks for the Scottish National party.
It is clear that community pharmacies are valued across all our constituencies. On Friday I will be visiting Davy Pharmacy in Castletown in my constituency. I will hear once again at first hand how my constituents benefit from community pharmacies, and the impact that their services are having.
I welcome the new Minister to her role. I look forward to hearing from her today and to shadowing her in the months to come. I know that health is very important to her, and that it is one of the reasons why she stood to be a Member of Parliament. We previously worked together as officers of the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer.
I will begin with one of the first things that springs to all our minds when we think about community pharmacies: prescriptions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, announced in Brighton last week, the next Labour Government will introduce free prescriptions for all. We believe that prescription charges are a tax on sickness. When as few as 5% of patients actually pay for their prescriptions and many of them struggle to pay, surely it is time that the charge was scrapped.
The £9 per item prescription charge results in some patients on low incomes reducing their medication or going without, which is dangerous and can impact on a patient’s long-term health. It can even be fatal, as in the heartbreaking case of 19-year-old Holly Warboys, who died of an asthma attack. Holly did not have a full inhaler because she could not afford one. Nobody should have to pay to breathe.
A large proportion of the 5% of people who pay for their prescriptions budget for them by taking advantage of pre-payment certificates, to reduce what they have to pay to the equivalent of about one and a half prescriptions per month. When all the costs of administering the fines and pre-payment certificates, and the whole kit and caboodle around charging, are taken into account, it seems eminently sensible, fair and cost-effective to extend free prescriptions to all.
Research backs that up. A study from the University of York has shown how beneficial free prescriptions can be as a means of prevention. When patients suffering with Parkinson’s disease, for example, were given free prescriptions, hospital admissions were reduced by 11.4%, patient day care was reduced by 20.4%, and accident and emergency attendances were down by 9%. I am sure that the Minister will see that the policy will improve patient outcomes and save precious NHS resources. I know that she is new to her post, so she might want to make a bold announcement today. Will she match Labour’s commitment to ending this tax on sickness? The subject was definitely on the radar of one of her predecessors on the health team, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), as I had conversations with him about it.
As we have heard, filling prescriptions is only the tip of the iceberg of the services that our community pharmacies provide. There is the potential for the expansion and development of a whole range of services. For example, I would like to see an expansion of pharmacists being able to prescribe, especially basic medications, in order to relieve pressure on our GPs. I understand that that service is very successful where it currently happens. Community pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professionals, and community pharmacies are a genuine hub for the delivery of a diverse range of health and wellbeing services. The Government’s television campaign advises people to ask their pharmacist, because it really is an easy thing to do. That is especially true for traditionally hard-to-reach people who benefit from the barrier-free access to healthcare that community pharmacists provide.
In some circumstances, if there is a high turnover of GPs in an area, the community pharmacist is the only one providing continuity of care, which builds invaluable trust and the capacity for important health interventions. It is therefore a natural and sensible progression to allow basic prescribing, especially if it is coupled with a sort of triage service that is linked to an ability to make appointments for people with more serious concerns directly with their GP.
As we have heard, community pharmacies have long provided a range of services in addition to the provision of medicines, including minor ailment schemes, smoking cessation services, blood pressure testing, support for asthmatics and diabetics, emergency hormonal contraception and monitored dosage systems. Despite that, community pharmacies are in many ways the NHS’s best kept secret. They are invaluable in a health service that is overwhelmed by increased demand.
There is so much untapped potential in community pharmacies, as well as some excellent examples of best practice across the country that could be rolled out nationwide. For example, when patients phone the Central Gateshead Medical Group with a minor illness such as earache or a sore throat, they may be offered a referral to one of 13 community pharmacists in the Gateshead area for a same-day booked consultation, which creates capacity for GP appointments for patients who need to be seen by a GP. The patient’s referral details are sent to the pharmacy using a secure NHS mail account. Patients are then sent a text message to confirm the details of the appointment with the community pharmacist. Community pharmacists are already doing some great work and they have a huge role to play at the heart of every primary care network. The Government are failing to recognise that if they do not try to roll that out.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to prevention, but they must put their words into action, for example by reversing the terrible cuts to local authority public health budgets and by recognising the importance of community pharmacists in particular and the role that they can play in prevention. As we have heard, thousands of people—millions, actually—visit their community pharmacy every day. Every one of those presents an opportunity for a positive health or wellbeing intervention. In the words of Simon Stevens, “Make every contact count”.
The profession and its representatives, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and the National Pharmacy Association, have offered to deliver more services. The recently negotiated new pharmacy contract begins to recognise what the NHS has been missing for so long. There are many welcome features, including the new community pharmacist consultation service, which will take patient referrals from NHS 111 and will be extended for referrals from other parts of the NHS, such as GPs and A&E. Similarly, the new medicines reconciliation service will ensure that medicine prescribed in secondary care is appropriately implemented on discharge to the community, which will reduce the number of unnecessary hospital readmissions. Those changes will be not only convenient for patients, but enormously important in relieving pressure on GP surgeries and A&E departments, which is what we all want to do.
That is why we need a shift to service-based remuneration in the context of a five-year agreement. If community pharmacies, with their huge potential, are to remain viable, the remuneration must be adequate. Can the Minister tell us today what the new funding settlement will look like? I hope that, in her response, she will celebrate the work of community pharmacies—I am sure she will—and set out what the Government will do to utilise their potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank each and every right hon. and hon. Member who has contributed. Most importantly, I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this debate and allowing us to discuss the challenges and celebrate the opportunities that lie ahead in community pharmacies, as well as how we best deliver to patients. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) and the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) all made excellent speeches that gave food for thought, as did the contributions from the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). They celebrated exactly what community pharmacies can do if they are embedded in the heart of their communities and what untapped potential there is for moving forward.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out the vision for community pharmacy at a pivotal time for the pharmacy sector. As we have discussed, the past three years have been challenging, but there is a new pharmacy sector agreement. I am continually inspired, as everybody has been—we heard about the experience of the hon. Member for Halifax of working in a pharmacy—by the compassion, dedication and commitment of those who work in the NHS family. I saw that myself last week when I met pharmacists and the chief exec of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee at the local pharmaceutical committee conference. That underlined to me again what an essential part of the NHS the pharmacy is, working day in and day out on improving outcomes for patients and for the community, which lies at the heart of what they do.
We have heard about the challenges of different communities. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made his point very well, as did other Members who represent rural constituencies. The hon. Members for Strangford and for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned that the challenges are slightly different in rural, dispersed communities. We hope that the new contract will not be one size fits all but will give additional help to rural pharmacies to help them deliver, because we know that they are an important and integral part of their local community. Ensuring that we maintain a good level of access in England and support pharmacy where there are fewer pharmacies is important and built in.
Community pharmacy always has been an integral part of our communities. We have 11,500 community pharmacies delivering. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley for his work in chairing the all-party group on pharmacy. He explained clearly how pharmacies are close to 96% of people, who can get to one by foot or on public transport in 20 minutes. The key thing for me was when he said that the majority were in areas of high deprivation. That is hugely important as the contract moves forward, because we are determined to double down on health inequalities, and we know that the pharmacist is a key frontline expert who can help deliver in those communities. Pharmacy can play a greater part in helping people to stay well in their communities.
Today’s debate is timely because the new landmark arrangements for pharmacy—a five-year deal for pharmacies—came into force yesterday. I have heard the deal criticised as flat, but the PSNC said that it wanted certainty; it wants to be able to use its skills better and further, and we have determined the deal in collaboration with it. The deal is the beginning of a programme to transform the sector and to see community pharmacies play a much expanded role in the delivery of health and care across prevention, urgent care and medicine safety. Those new arrangements will support the pharmacy team to utilise all its extensive clinical expertise, further developing new roles and providing the community with the knowledge, skills and support to prevent ill health, manage minor conditions and stay happy and healthy for longer. We have heard from virtually every Member who has spoken about how much that goes on. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby told a moving story of how intimate the relationship is between the community pharmacist and the community that he serves.
The deal sets a programme of work that the Department, NHS England, NHS Improvement and the PSNC have collaboratively developed and agreed—we have worked together to get there. Our direction of travel is clear, and we will continue to work together on the detail, strengthening the role of community pharmacy and the delivery of health and care year on year for the next five years and beyond.
The Minister is setting out the aspiration well, but does she recognise that having no increase—even by inflation—for five years is a desperately big challenge for community pharmacies?
On the matter of reimbursement, which was also raised by the hon. Members for York Central and for Westmorland and Lonsdale, we seek to ensure a fairer system of reimbursement for pharmacy contractors and value for money for the NHS. I am sure we would all agree that that is the challenge that we face the whole time. That is why, in July, we launched a consultation on community pharmacy drug reimbursement. We have engaged widely with pharmacy stakeholders and have had an excellent response. We will consider all those responses fully and set out plans for the fairer system in due course. I appreciate that the response will be, “But it’s needed now,” but a pharmacy is a private business, and reimbursement is not pharmacies’ only form of income. What I am talking about will take a shift. There is an acknowledgement that that shift—that transition—will need to be assisted. There is also an independent funding stream from the flu vaccine, for example. I would like to see—and have been discussing with officials—whether a broader vaccine programme could be rolled out through pharmacies as well, and reimbursed. We know we need to do better.
The Minister has so far given a comprehensive response to our concerns. I suggested in the debate that, when it comes to medical attention, pharmacies could do more to oversee small things such as the flu vaccination that she referred to and diabetes and glaucoma. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there are small things that pharmacists could do to take the pressure off GPs. Is that something the Government would consider—giving more responsibility to the pharmacist and taking pressure off GPs and accident and emergency?
If the hon. Gentleman will just bear with me for a second, he will hear me largely repeating what the right hon. Member for Rother Valley said when he so beautifully laid out the skills and expertise that lie in the pharmacy sector, and how they can be utilised better.
As I said, the deal sets out a programme of work we shall be working on. Our aim is that collaborative working across the system will deliver an integrated and accessible community health service for all. I want to name-check the hon. Member for Strangford here because, as he articulated, communication lies at the centre of this issue. One instance might be the digital expertise that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said exists in Gateshead, where people’s greater readiness to get services from pharmacists, and the fact that pharmacists can do more, is having a positive effect for patients.
First, pharmacists told us that we must utilise and unlock the potential of the highly skilled pharmacy teams that are embedded in communities throughout the country, including in the constituency of the hon. Member for Halifax, with everyone celebrating what pharmacists can deliver. That is why the settlement aims to deliver more fulfilling, patient-facing careers for community pharmacists and technicians, as highly valued members of the NHS team. Additionally, populations will be helped by much better services.
Secondly, pharmacists told us that they wanted continuity. The settlement funding over five years gives certainty, and gives community pharmacists the confidence to invest in their business. However, there is no one size fits all. Being in the centre of a town is not the same as being in a rural village. Looking at these things in the round is why we want this to be collaborative.
How will the Minister measure the impact of the settlement, particularly on independent pharmacists? If more of them close or are struggling financially, what other interventions does she plan to make?
As I said, there is no one size that fits all. As the hon. Lady articulated in her speech, the difficulty is that we are not looking at a system where businesses are run on the same scale model. At any one point, there are single pharmacists. She stated that the pharmacy she visited was part of a seven-strong business. Then there are the multiples. We need to look at what is the best scheme. However, I would argue that independents have a much higher footfall from their local population, because they are more trusted than many of the multiple pharmacies due to the continuity that comes from their having been in their communities for longer. There are opportunities there for independents.
We know we will need to design new ways of working to make a success of this, and we will need patients to be confident in how they use the services. The enhanced role for community pharmacy will support patients in getting access to help where required and in using the NHS in the best possible way. When people are suffering from minor conditions such as earaches or sore throats and need health advice, we want them to think “Pharmacy First”.
We want to build on that, with other parts of the NHS proactively signposting to local pharmacists. We want everyone to recognise the high-level skills held by pharmacists and to get people to understand that we need them as a first-line service to go to. That will grow trust in the system and spread the load. We will, of course, need to reform the way we work to free up pharmacists’ time so that they are able to deal with these new services.
I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister has not referred to delivery times yet, and we have only two and a half minutes to go. Will she mention what she is going to do about those?
I thank the hon. Lady, but I would like to push through and to come on to the supply of medicines, which the hon. Member for Halifax spent much of her speech discussing.
We must recognise that we need to work in partnership and that this is not only about treating ill health. One of the first services to come online under the new arrangements will be the community pharmacist consultation service, which will start on 29 October. It will establish the first ever national triage system, which will look at community pharmacies referring patients into pharmacy directly from NHS 111 for minor illnesses, wellbeing support and self-care advice, as well as urgent problems. It is important that everybody involved makes this work a success, because we want this to be a two-way process. Over the next five years, we want to include referrals from GPs, urgent treatment centres and NHS Online, but we want to do that based on evidence, sensibly and in collaboration with those in the sector. Registration opened only last month, and more than 2,000 pharmacies have been signed up.
Additionally, by 2020, being a level 1 healthy living pharmacy is expected to be an essential requirement, so that pharmacies can give advice. Integration across primary care is hugely important; the new contractual framework is about not moving minor illness, but about using the whole system better. Community pharmacies are a vital part of the picture if we want to think “Pharmacy First”.
Coming on to the question of medicine supply and shortages, I appreciate the issues that the hon. Member for Halifax mentioned, but, as recognised in last week’s National Audit Office report, we have done an enormous amount in collaboration with pharmaceutical and medical device companies. There are always ongoing shortages, but the Department works all the time to ensure that they are mitigated and that a proper supply of medicine can be got to people. With the issues of Brexit, we know that that is doubly important, and that is what the Department has been doubling down on.
I do not think there is really time for Holly Lynch to wind up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of community pharmacies.
Free Movement of EU Nationals
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposed changes to free movement of EU nationals.
I am delighted to raise the issue of freedom of movement in the EU, and I thank you, Sir David, for your chairmanship. “End freedom of movement” is a Brexiteer slogan that we have all become so accustomed to that it is easy to forget what it is really saying, and what it would really mean to this country, people living here and British citizens living abroad. We all know the basic numbers: freedom of movement allows 1.3 million British citizens to live, work, study, fall in love, marry, or retire across the European Union while more than 50,000 non-UK EU citizens work in our national health service, including support staff, nurses and doctors, all of whom play a vital role in our nation’s health.
More than 80,000 EU citizens work in social care, and even more in the UK construction industry. As the Government love to tell us, unemployment is at its lowest rate for 40 years, but where are the British workers who are queuing up and clamouring to take those jobs? If we end freedom of movement, who will care for our sick and elderly? Who will build the 300,000 homes a year that Britain needs? The Government’s own figures show that non-UK EU citizens bring far more to our economy and public services than they use. If free movement ends, services will suffer because we will not have the people to continue to provide them at the same level.
Those are the numbers, but what about the human cost and the sheer inhumanity of ending freedom of movement? Edinburgh West has constituents from France, Spain, Poland and many other EU countries who have made their lives in the city. Their children were born there, but now they are being told that they are not welcome. They feel they have no option but to leave.
That is not correct.
I must take exception to the language used by the hon. Lady. We have given a very clear message that all EU citizens currently residing in this country are welcome to stay. At the end of August, 1.5 million people had been granted settled status or pre-settled status, and there had been only one rejection.
With respect, that contrasts completely with what non-UK EU citizens tell me every week on the doorstep.
It is a fact.
Although there is a settled status scheme, that does not make anyone feel welcome, and that is the issue. People no longer feel that they are wanted. They have to go through paperwork to stay in a country that has often been their home for decades.
Members across the House should understand that simple messaging is often far more powerful to people than complex explanations and systems. If we vote to leave the European Union and declare the end of freedom of movement as a great triumph—to great cheers, “I will remove your liberty.” Amazing!—we should not be surprised if the response of people already in this country and elsewhere is to think, “The United Kingdom is not for me.” The simplest message received by many EU citizens through us voting to leave the European Union is that they are not wanted. That might be inaccurate, but it is the perception, and it is human and understandable.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have in my constituency a family who came here from France more than 20 years ago. They have worked here, and both their sons were born here and are in schools in Edinburgh. While one son is automatically entitled to a British passport under the new system, the other is not. They have been asked to provide proof of residence and employment. They have only ever worked here, they pay tax here and they have national insurance cards, but they are being asked to prove their entitlement to stay here under the settled status scheme. They have also been asked to prove how long and how often they have visited France. I do not know whether any other Members here keep plane and train tickets for 20 years, but I certainly do not. However, that is probably the only way to prove where and when we were in the European Union at any time in the past 20 or 30 years under freedom of movement.
What about the many thousands of students who have travelled to or from the EU as part of the Erasmus scheme? Last year at my daughter’s graduation ceremony at Edinburgh University, an honorary doctorate was given to the man who established that scheme. As I looked out on that hall, I saw students, graduates and academics from all across Europe who have come here to make a contribution.
I represent a university constituency and have students, academics and researchers coming to see me every week. Does the hon. Lady agree that the international standing of our universities—a global brand that has been so successful—is at risk from this isolationist, inward-looking policy of ending free movement?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. There are many projects in this country that have been initiated by academics from elsewhere in Europe and that we would not have had without freedom of movement. Our reputation stands to be damaged by the ending of freedom of movement.
Amid all that concern, and despite what the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) has said, we still have no clear picture of what the Government intend. For example, the Home Office changed its position in August, saying that free movement would end on 31 October. In September, the Government rowed back, admitting that primary legislation is needed to end free movement and saying that free movement will continue until the end of 2020.
The Government now say they will just make some changes to free movement as of 31 October. Are we surprised that everyone, including hon. Members, is waiting for some clarity from the Government and perhaps thinks that the Government themselves do not know the implications of ending free movement or how to end it?
There is confusion and lack of clarity about what the Government will do on immigration and what will replace the current immigration system. Then there is the impact on different sectors. Only 2% of employers in this country sponsor visas from non-EU nationals, but thousands more have EU nationals working for them and will now need to grapple with an immigration system of which they have no knowledge. What will they do? Will they have to employ lawyers? What about landlords who will have to have visas for immigrants? What about schools, many of which are now informing parents about the settled status system on which, as we have heard, there is no clarity whatever?
There is one other issue that particularly bothers me: the Good Friday agreement, which protects, in its words,
“the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”
The Government simply have not got to grips with what that will mean when we lose free movement. What about the rights of the people in Northern Ireland? How will they be affected by the loss of free movement?
One other thing comes to mind. When I was a young woman starting out on a career, I heard a British Prime Minister talking about how wonderful the single market would be, and how it would allow businesses in this country to prosper by putting no limitation on them and allowing the workforce to move freely across Europe. About a week ago, I was talking to a young girl who is slightly older than I was when my parents took part in the original EU referendum, in which we decided to stay in what was then, I believe, the European Economic Community. I thought about all the opportunities that I have had and that my generation have all enjoyed, including my generation of students, academics, business people and entrepreneurs, or those who simply wanted to travel. I thought about the benefits that we have enjoyed for 40 years, and I thought about what the end of that single market and that collaboration with Europe, which that Prime Minister promised us, will mean to this generation.
I also thought about what that Prime Minister might think, and I wonder what this Conservative Government would tell her, about their bringing an end to what in many ways was her vision of Europe, which they are now betraying, and the generation that they are betraying, who will not have the opportunities that every person in this Chamber has had for 40 years. How will we explain that? How will we look members of this generation in the eye and tell them that, while it was good enough for us and we benefited from it, they cannot? I say that because, while people can dress this up however they want, with red buses with numbers on the side, and while the Prime Minister can say whatever he likes about leaving, deal or no deal, it boils down to the simple fact that without freedom of movement we will all be poorer.
My hon. Friend makes a massively important point about the great mass of us in this country; this issue is about our freedom of movement, and that of generations to come, as much as it is about anybody else’s.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend will say something about those people in the most marginal position. There is a real need to ensure that the provisions of the Dublin system for refugee family reunion are maintained post-Brexit. However, does she share my concern that unaccompanied minors in Europe who have family in the UK might find themselves in a much more marginalised position?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, because unaccompanied minors will find themselves much more marginalised. They will find it much more difficult to come to this country, as everyone will, which is another illustration of why I think this Government have not thought through what leaving the European Union will actually mean, and what the end of freedom of movement will actually mean, to immigration, employment and the economy. We have seen that the Government have papers that tell them what it will mean, but are they paying attention?
On Radio 4 yesterday morning, the Prime Minister said that this Government are working to mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and of Brexit. Even the Prime Minister knows that there is an impact—a detrimental impact—to be mitigated.
I am really appreciative of the hon. Lady’s speech, which is excellent, particularly around the research community. Brexit has a massive impact on my constituency, not least because of the university in it. One of the issues that constituents have raised with me regularly is that they now cannot plan for their future, or that of their family unit. That is because they do not know what will happen if, say, their mum or dad becomes ill and that parent is French or Spanish, or lives elsewhere in the EU. They do not know whether they will still be able, as they are now, to bring family members into their home to care for them, because they do not know whether those family members will still be eligible, if they continue to live in the EU country they are in currently, to come here to be with them. This issue is really penetrating the family unit, too.
The hon. Lady again makes an excellent point about what we in this country will lose: the ability to be sure that family members who live elsewhere in the European Union can come here and be looked after in our homes, and the ability to go and look after them easily. I am sure that, like me, every MP has constituents who come to them regularly because they have issues with family members who have travelled to other parts of the world outwith the European Union, and they know how difficult it is to go at a moment’s notice if, perhaps, a family member is ill. We should cherish the fact that we have that ability in the European Union.
Returning to the Prime Minister, if he is saying publicly that he is trying to mitigate the effects of a no-deal Brexit, surely that is an acknowledgement that that is not going to be good for this country. A Prime Minister and a Government who acknowledge that they are doing something that has to be mitigated have serious questions to ask themselves.
Thank you for presiding over this morning’s debate, Sir David. I apologise for the fact that you have a Minister responding who is not directly responsible for this area of policy but, as you may know, things are going on in Manchester that mean we are ducking and diving slightly.
It would perhaps be easy to dismiss some of the issues that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) raised, not least because much of the emotion and assertion is incorrect, but I recognise that she, like many people, is grieving—mourning the outcome of a referendum three years ago with which she profoundly disagreed. Much of her speech this morning was a rerun of the debates held during that referendum and since, accompanied by great emotion and controversy across the nation. I urge her and other hon. Members to try to be as measured as possible about the coming changes in the immigration system, not least because, as she says, they will affect a great number of people. This morning I aim to provide clarity on some of the points that she has perhaps not yet grasped, unlike the 1.7 million people who have applied for EU settled status.
The Government have been clear that on 31 October the UK will leave the European Union. Our intention is to leave with a deal and, as you will have seen in the newspapers, Sir David, work is ongoing to get that deal. But we must also prepare for a no-deal exit, not least because the EU may choose that outcome itself. At that point, free movement as it stands will end. On 4 September the Home Secretary set out the immigration arrangements for European economic area and Swiss citizens moving to the UK after a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. To be clear, those new immigration arrangements will not affect EEA citizens who are already living in the UK before we exit. The Government value the enormous contribution that they make to our economy, public services and national life. They are our friends, our families and our neighbours. That is why we have given an unequivocal guarantee to the more than 3 million EEA citizens resident in the UK that their rights will be protected, and we urge them to stay.
The Government have delivered that protection through the EU settlement scheme, which will give them a UK immigration status and rights in UK law. They will have at least until 31 December 2020 to make an application to the scheme. The EUSS makes it easy for EU citizens to get the status they need to remain here permanently after we leave the EU, with the same rights to work and to access benefits and services as they have now. Applicants need only complete three key steps: prove their identity, show that they live in the UK, and declare any criminal convictions. It is free to make an application. There is less hassle than when applying for a bank account or renting a flat.
I seek the Minister’s help. A couple of weeks ago I met a constituent whose wife has applied for settled status and has received a letter from the Home Office confirming that her application has been successful, but it also says that the letter is not proof that she has settled status. How does somebody prove that they have settled status?
My team will provide me with the answer shortly, and I will come back to the hon. Lady on that question.
Thus far, 1.7 million people have applied to the scheme and more than 1.5 million have already been granted settled status. In a no-deal scenario, law-abiding individuals will also be able to live, study, work and access benefits and services in the UK until the remainder of the free movement framework is repealed by Parliament at the end of 2020. If they wish to stay beyond that point, EEA and Swiss citizens and their close families will be able to apply for European temporary leave to remain through a new scheme that we will launch after exit to provide them with a bridge into the new immigration system.
The ETLR scheme will be opened by the Home Office after exit. Applications will be free and involve a simple online process and identity, security and criminality checks; successful applicants will receive permission to stay for three years. This will give individuals and their employers confidence and certainty that they can remain in the UK after the end of 2020. Anyone who wishes to stay in the UK after their temporary status expires will need to make a further application under the new points-based immigration system.
On that future immigration system, our vision is for a truly global country where we welcome the brightest and best, where we are more outward-facing, and where we decide who comes here based on what they have to offer and their circumstances, not where they come from. That is why the Home Secretary has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to review the benefits of a points-based system and what best practice can be learned from other international comparators, including the Australian immigration system. The MAC is also undertaking an existing commission on salary thresholds.
We will announce the details of the UK’s future immigration system early next year, after considering the MAC’s advice on these issues. That will provide time for businesses to adapt ahead of the implementation of the new system from January 2021.
Will the circumstances that the Minister describes include the scenario that I raised about family members being able to come to the UK—or vice versa, where EU citizens go to their home state?
If hon. Members do not mind, I will finish trying to give broad clarity and then, at the end, give answers to specific questions, which are being provided by my officials behind me.
Post exit, if we leave the EU without a deal, free movement as it currently stands under EU law will end on 31 October, as I said. The Government will make tangible changes at the border to reflect our status outside the European Union. We will introduce visual changes, such as removing the blue EU customs channels and introducing blue UK passports, later this year. We will also supply a tougher UK criminality threshold to conduct at the border and in the UK, to keep out and deport those who commit crime. The Government have also signalled our intention to phase out the use of EEA national identity cards to travel to the UK during 2020. Where we need to legislate to make those changes, we will do so with secondary legislation.
Immediately after exit, EEA and Swiss citizens can continue to enter the UK with a valid passport or identity card. They will be able to use e-gates if they have a biometric passport, and they will not require visas.
On the point that I was perhaps too emotional, may I make the counterpoint that what we are hearing at the moment is a list of facts—a list of procedures? When will the Government accept that this endless, meaningless list of facts has an impact on people, on the economy, on lives and on this country’s future? When will they acknowledge its impact on people’s lives?
The hon. Lady is quite right that there will be an impact. The intention of leaving the European Union is that it should be impactful. During the referendum campaign, in which I know she participated, no doubt she outlined what she felt that impact would be. The question is how the impact is felt by individuals. What we are trying to do in creating the EUSS, the EUTLR scheme and the future immigration arrangements in this country is ensure that that impact is as beneficial and smooth as possible, both for us as a country and for the people who participate in it.
I happen to be married to an immigrant myself. She is not from the EU; she is from Canada. I had to go through the existing immigration system to be able to marry her and for her to be able to stay in the country, so I have some experience of what it is like for people coming from outside the EU. We also travel regularly to and from Canada, a country that operates a perfectly humane and compassionate immigration system but is not part of a free movement bloc. Its universities flourish, its communities are as varied and lively as we would expect—in fact, it is a nation built on immigration, yet it operates a perfectly sane and reasonable immigration system. That is what we intend to do.
As for Members’ specific questions, these obviously relate to relatively complex situations, so if Members do not mind I will take the inquiries about repatriation, families being brought into the country and proof of settled status letters and provide some clarity in writing. However, my understanding is that EUSS is meant to be and should be a smooth and simple system—the over 1.5 million people who have applied for it thus far have seemingly found it so—that allows people to continue, if you like, unmolested in their status in this country. That is what we are trying to achieve.
Turning to a couple of other specific matters, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to the impact on Northern Ireland. Of course, the island of Ireland has benefited from a common travel area for many decades—since well before our membership of the EU—and the UK Government, the EU and the Irish Government have committed to the preservation of the common travel area in perpetuity, so I would not have any concerns there.
Finally, the hon. Lady also raised an issue about academics and their ability to travel to and from the EU. It is the case—the Government have already announced this—that we will favour academics in the immigration system, making it easier for scientists and others to come and do academic research in this country, not least because we recognise the benefits to this country and, indeed, to international effort towards solving humanity’s problems with science and technology. However, please be aware that there are scientists outside the EU. There are many scientists in China, India, Pakistan and the United States who also want to come to this country to do their research. In fact, there are a lot more of them than there are in the European Union. For example, there are more top 10 science-based universities outside the EU than there are inside it, and I speak as a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences. We want an immigration system that opens our academic endeavour in this country to the world, not just to the European Union.
The Minister says that he wants to open the system, but are we not just making it as difficult for everybody from the EU to come here as it currently is for academics from the rest of the world? Should we not be looking at making it as easy for everyone to come here as it currently is for academics from the EU?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, we will be developing our plans for our future immigration system over the next few months but, as I said in my speech, we want to operate on the basis of a person’s circumstances and what they can offer, not on where they come from. We should not discriminate in our immigration system based on geography, but we should discriminate based on circumstances and what someone can offer this country. That is what I think people felt was encapsulated when they voted to take back control of the immigration system, and that, I think, is what we are going to try and achieve over the next few months and years.
However, I recognise that the changes to immigration are providing some uncertainty for many people, and I hope that I have been able to provide an element of clarity and that the remaining 1.5 million—or whatever it is—EU citizens who are eligible for settled status and who can apply for it up until the end of next year will do so with speed and alacrity.
Question put and agreed to.
Trophy Hunting Imports
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered trophy hunting imports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I am delighted that the relatively new Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has championed many different environmental issues, will respond to this important debate. I am particularly delighted to have secured this debate on banning trophy hunting imports to this country: although the Government have already announced that that is their plan, I wish to check exactly what their policy will cover. It makes a change to take part in a debate in Westminster at the moment that, I suspect, has cross-party support.
Oren Lyons, the chief of the Onondaga, was invited to address the United Nations in 1977. He made a long speech about our responsibilities. When talking about who had been invited to speak at the UN, he said:
“I do not see a delegation for the four footed. I see no seat for the eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation. We must continue to understand where we are. We stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation. It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things. The elements and the animals and the birds, they live in a state of grace. They are absolute, they can do no wrong. It is only we, the two leggeds, that can do this. And when we do this to our brothers, to our own brothers, we do the worst in the eyes of the Creator.”
We, the human race, have done wrong. Over the last few years, often through the greed of humans, we have brought to near-extinction many animals that used to exist in large numbers.
Is my hon. Friend aware that it is a widespread view on both sides of the House that there is something nauseating and revolting about someone who would slaughter an endangered animal to use part of its body as a trinket or trophy?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will touch on such things later, but they are absolutely abhorrent. As I said, this is a debate that we can all agree on.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Further to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), is she aware that a recent opinion poll suggests that 86% of people across the UK support a trophy hunting ban? It is not just this House that is united on the issue, but the vast majority of this country’s population.
That is an interesting statistic, because I think that would not have been the case 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The extinction of many animals and the talk about that—for example, David Attenborough talking about it—have raised awareness among the general population, which can be only a good thing. I am sure the Minister is listening intently.
Local people in different countries do not benefit financially from this appalling trade, just the big greedy bosses of the operations. Elephants, tigers, rhinos, gorillas, lions and many more species are endangered—even giraffes are affected. British big game hunters have travelled to every corner of the globe, from Africa to Asia, North America to South America, and across Europe, in pursuit of often-rare hunting trophies. The most popular destination for UK hunters is South Africa.
Thanks to the determination of the Government and the previous Secretary of State, the ivory trade will be reduced, which will hopefully have an impact on the poaching of elephants for their tusks. Although other countries did that before us, we have at last caught up. With respect to trophy hunting, we might get to the forefront, although other countries have in fact banned trophy hunting imports.
During this debate, I wish to concentrate primarily on lions. Once they roamed free across many countries in Africa, but now there are far fewer truly wild lions. Although killing a lion for sport is bad enough, I can almost understand why that was done when they were plentiful, but I find the new, popular canned hunting of lions especially offensive.
Imagine being born into captivity, stolen from your mother at the age of about two weeks to three weeks and sold by merciless breeders to face death at the hands of bloodthirsty tourists. Laughing, smiling tourists pose for photos with dead lions, and I have even seen a photo of tourists kissing next to that fabulous being. That is the face of the animal that was once hailed as king of the jungle.
For 11,000 lions in South Africa, there will not have been one day of freedom. At a young age, they will be shot by a hunter who cannot miss. Lions are bred in cages for the canned hunting industry at more than 300 farms in South Africa. There will be no chase, no escape, no mercy. It beggars belief that British hunters are among those propping up this desperately cruel industry. The lions are reared in cages and forced to breed too young, and their cubs are taken away from them soon after birth so that the mothers can breed again, but too quickly.
The cubs might then be taken to petting zoos where tourists—possibly unaware of the past or future of those cubs—are able to bottle-feed them. Some tourists are even able to walk with the young lions until they are about nine months old, when they become much harder to control. From then on, these immature lions are kept in small pens until they are about two years old.
These animals have trusted humans because they know no different. They have been bred in captivity. This trust is tragically misplaced. The lions are either let out of the cages and shot at almost point-blank range by the trophy hunter or are taken by truck into the bush to make it more like the kill of a wild animal. In this instance, the lions are allowed out of the truck and shot—again at almost point-blank range—although some are never let out of the cages and are actually shot while in captivity, through the bars, by these so-called trophy hunters.
These magnificent animals have had no freedom to roam and live as nature intended, thanks to an industry that is, believe it or not, legal in South Africa. This kind of hunting is often given a licence thanks to the sometimes-corrupt authorities turning a blind eye, or because the owners of these “farms” persuade them that it is being done in the name of conservation. That is simply a lie. It is a heinous activity that lines the pockets of greedy owners. Every time a trophy hunter shoots a lion, they have paid many thousands of dollars for the privilege. These lions are farmed in great secrecy to produce cheap, quick trophies for hunters. In some cases, the breeders themselves shoot the lions so as to sell lion bones in the far east for ritual medicines. It is easy to see that it is only a matter of but a short time before the only lions we will see will be those in zoos.
Shamefully, Britain still allows so-called hunter trophies to be brought into the country. Yes, lions’ heads may be flown into our airports by hunters who glory in adorning their walls with them. We need to make it clear that the UK condemns the killing of lions, as well as other threatened species. This should start with legislation preventing hunters from bringing back the heads, tails, feet, skins and other body parts of these animals to the UK. We need a clear moral response.
The Government should impose an immediate moratorium on the importation of trophies until legislation is made. There is no reason this cannot be done immediately. People’s lives are in danger when they speak out about this terrible practice, so we need to protect those who whistleblow about it. People might not be aware that there are three times more canned lions than wild lions in South Africa today. There are fewer than 15,000 lions left in the wild across the world. Indeed, our own Prime Minister mentioned this recently at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
Over the past decade, 10,000 lion trophies have been taken. Despite the very small number of lions, trophy hunting of adult males is still allowed in Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania. There is an absolute dearth of information that such activities are in any way sustainable or contribute to the conservation of the species in any way. In fact, it has been shown in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania that trophy-hunting concessions are now so devoid of wildlife, largely due to overhunting, that they cannot garner any further interest in tenders from trophy-hunting operations. There has never been a population count of lions in any trophy-hunting concession in any African nation that permits lion trophy hunting. It is no wonder that trophy-hunting operators are increasingly reliant on illegal hunts inside national parks, luring lions such as Cecil out of national parks, along with many other such transgressions on lion populations that should be strictly protected. The UK has put in place much funding to combat the illegal wildlife trade, but hunting transgressions on protected areas should be considered as one of the important illegal activities.
It is now abundantly clear that the future of wild lion survival in Africa is dependent on not more than four populations, which still have more than 1,000 individuals. Those populations are located in Northern Botswana; perhaps in the Kruger National Park in South Africa; in the Serengeti in Tanzania; and in the Selous in Tanzania. The estimate of 15,000 lions in total depends on an accumulation of small, scattered and isolated groups of lions across this very large continent. For example, there are 16 lions left in Senegal, 34 in Nigeria, 32 in Malawi, 34 in Angola and maybe 60 in Ethiopia.
This practice should stop and should stop now. Britain should not be allowing trophy-hunted imports of any species from any country. How can we allow zebra, rhino, lions or, indeed, any single animal from an endangered species to be brought in to go on someone’s wall at home or in the office when we are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers? Other countries have banned imports, but, so far, we have not banned them all. I am told we still allow some to come into this country. Why? That does not help conservation.
Shockingly, the infamous killing of Cecil the lion has encouraged British hunters to go to South Africa and shoot dead more big cats than ever. Experts had believed that worldwide revulsion at the shooting would mark a turning point for the endangered species and the start of a decline in trophy hunting. Instead, the number of British hunters targeting farmed lions and bringing home their body parts more than doubled in the three years after Cecil’s death, compared with the three years before, according to statistics from the global wildlife trade regulator.
This is not about telling African countries how to manage their wildlife. It is not even about laying down the law on trophy hunting to them. It is simply saying that the UK does not agree with killing lions, elephants and other threatened species for sport, nor with allowing hunters to bring back the heads, tails, feet, skins and other body parts of these animals to the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; she is being very generous. Does she agree that a ban on import should also include the body parts being traded through Britain?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. We must put a ban on everything that makes more species endangered, and we should be regulating and being very careful about what we do or do not allow into this country. As I said earlier, we are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers.
The times we are living in and the threat facing all wildlife demand a clear moral response. Things need to change so that live animals are better for the economy than dead ones. I understand that the US had a total or near-total ban when Obama was President, but the current President has decided to release the pressure and to allow some trophy hunting. I understand that that is because two of his sons like trophy hunting. That is something that should not happen in America. It should not happen here. It should not happen in Europe. It should happen nowhere.
I am fortunate to have seen many lions and other endangered species in various African countries, but I want my grandchildren and their children to have that privilege too when they are old enough to travel. We can visit a zoo, but that is such a poor relation, compared with seeing a lion, or any animal, living in freedom in its own natural environment. David Attenborough has spoken about the animals in Africa and other places, and indeed in the oceans, and his programmes whet the appetite, but unless we stop all trophy hunting, those beautiful animals will disappear from our reach, as many very nearly have.
I have a series of questions for the Minister, following the Government’s welcome announcement at the weekend, and I know he will listen hard to them. Which animals will be covered by the trophy hunting imports ban? When will it come into effect? Every month we take to pass legislation means more endangered species getting closer to eradication and extinction. Which countries will be banned from importing trophies into Britain? If it is not all of them, greedy businesspeople will find a way around the ban by moving the dead animal to a country from which we do allow the import of trophies. Which countries do we still allow trophies to be imported from? Will animal parts, such as bones, hands, tails and so on, be covered?
What about trading through a country, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) mentioned? Obviously, countries such as China value the body parts of these endangered species. I ask the Government to impose an immediate moratorium on the importation of trophies until legislation is made. Is there any reason why that cannot or should not be done immediately?
Can I be assured that the welcome announcement by the Government a few days ago will not result in just more consultation? There have been multiple consultations over a number of years, and the longer that that continues, the fewer lions there will be truly in the wild. I understand that the previous Secretary of State was holding a consultation—another one—and said that we had to listen carefully to both sides, but while we do that, more and more lions die. I thank the Minister for his passion on this and many other environmental issues, and I look forward to his positive response later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. With your permission, I may leave a wee bit early so that I can synchronise with the Virgin Trains timetabling. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this important debate.
Trophy hunting is a particularly emotive topic but, as usual with such an issue, the situation is not entirely clear-cut. While most of us are instinctively opposed to such a practice, as I certainly am, we must surely endeavour to set that emotion aside, albeit briefly, if we are to properly consider how best to respond. While a number of animal welfare and environmental groups are firmly opposed to the practice, other institutions, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the European Parliament and the convention on international trade in endangered species maintain that trophy hunting has beneficial side-effects. Those include generating revenue for landowners to conserve or restore wildlife on their land and for wildlife management, including anti-poaching activities.
However, we must ask ourselves whether there is a better means to support those ends than revenue raised from hunting and associated tourist activities. What, after all, is the value of an anti-poaching effort for an endangered species if it is funded by the hunting of other species under the guise of big game hunting, often carried out in a merciless way, simply to secure a trophy or a photograph?
The natural assumption in this debate is that we are considering those who travel abroad from the UK for a trophy hunt, but of course the problem is broader than that. This is not just about British nationals bringing trophies back from other continents; the practice also operates the other way. Many hon. Members will recall the furore caused this time last year by an American television presenter, Miss Larysa Switlyk. She came to the beautiful island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland—I know it well—to shoot wild goats, which she then, in my opinion, glorified on social media. Those animals have no natural predator, and are classed as an invasive non-native species in the United Kingdom. They have been the subject of several official culls over the years, and they are thought to have roamed parts of Scotland and the north of England for 5,000 years. Although hunting them on private land is not illegal, we as a society were appalled at the sight of Miss Switlyk posing with one of her kills. Perhaps it was the glorification of the process and the trophy hunting element that most offended sensitivities throughout the United Kingdom.
Given our increasing concern as a nation for animal welfare, I was surprised to note that, between 2013 and 2017, trophy imports rose by 23%—a rise of almost a quarter over such a short period. That must surely be of concern worldwide, and is perhaps an indication that current regulation is ineffective. Additional red tape is seldom the solution to any problem, but do the Government—with their recent announcement of a call for evidence, they appear to be moving towards improving regulations—feel the time is now right for action? I know they have been keeping the situation under review, and although I cannot predict the outcome of that review, I hope it will be acted on and not simply placed on a shelf.
I understand the basic human need to hunt an animal to feed a family, and we must all consider rural life, in whatever country, and accept that it is perhaps unfair to apply urban values to an already fragile rural economy. Thankfully, however, hunting for food is hardly commonplace in the UK these days, and to kill purely for the purposes of hanging a memento on the wall seems, in this day and age, rather barbaric and unnecessary. Surely the days of such trophy hunting should now be behind us.
Let me close with a verse from Robert Burns, which was penned as far back as 1789. He was a farmer, and he saw the fate of a hare that was shot and not killed, but simply wounded. Strangely enough, the title of the poem is “On Seeing a Wounded Hare”. I will read the first verse:
“Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!”
“And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate. I believe we have debated this issue previously in Westminster Hall, and she and other hon. Members—including me and the Minister, in his previous role—were much involved. I assure her of my support in its entirety for what she has said today.
I wish to say, humbly and genuinely, that I am a country sports enthusiast. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) referred to those who hunt for the pot, and on the farm that our family holds back home we have a small pheasant shoot and a small duck shoot. It is not particularly big, but it sustains our country sports enthusiasm, and it is important that we manage the habitat for which we have responsibility and the animals on that farm. For the record, hares are not likely to be shot, because legislation in Northern Ireland means they are protected. We are fortunate to have a large quantity of hares on our land, and I love to see them, especially in March when they start to box and spar with each other in the fields.
To clarify, the verse was penned in 1789, when the rules might have been a tad different.
I realised when the hon. Gentleman mentioned Robert Burns that it had to be back in that time, but I thank him for his intervention.
By way of introduction, I absolutely support the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, but I want to explain how I can be a harvester of pheasants, ducks and pigeons so that they are of use, in contrast to what the hon. Lady put forward, which is totally different. I support her 100%. Everything that is shot by me and my sons—and ultimately my granddaughter, when the time comes—we eat, and I make sure that my neighbours who enjoy fowl also have that opportunity. Indeed, in her room in Stormont, where she was First Minister, my party leader, Arlene Foster, would find on her desk pheasants or ducks to take home and prepare for her family to eat.
As for conservation, we believe the land has to be looked after, and the animals on the land have to be conserved and protected. If we are truly embedded in conservation programmes, as we probably all should be, and we have the opportunity to look after the land, farms, habitats, countryside and trees, it is important for us to control the predators. For instance, this last season, we used the Larsen trap. I, along with my son, got 45 magpies and 10 great black crows. The result of controlling those predators is clear: we now have an abundance of small bird life that we have not had on the farm for many years. Yellowhammers—the word “Yellowhammer” is used very often nowadays, although for a different reason—are back in numbers on our farm again. They were a threatened species, but we took action to make sure they came back.
I have a true story from my childhood. Back in the ’60s—I suspect you and I are of the same vintage, Mr Hosie, so you can probably relate to this—we did not have very much. My cousin, who lived in Strabane in the west of the Province, used to shoot pigeons, put them in a shoebox and send them—it was truly carrier pigeon—by post to us in the east of the Province. One of my favourite birds, which I enjoyed from a very early age in Ballywalter, was pigeon. If used correctly, these things can control vermin, and that can be encouraged.
As for the canned hunting the hon. Lady referred to, it is obscene, immoral and incorrect. I say, as the person I am, and with the pursuits that I have, that I find what happened to Cecil the lion very difficult. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but I can almost picture the scene of a lion being enticed from a safe place. It perhaps had daily interaction with people. What happened was totally wrong.
We cannot ignore the fact that Australia introduced a ban in March 2015. In the face of canned hunting, it proposed a total ban on all African lion trophy imports. Nor can we ignore what other countries have done. Four months after Cecil the lion was killed, France’s Environment Minister Ségolène Royal—it is a fantastic name—said that she had instructed officials to stop issuing permits for lion trophies. The Netherlands took an even bigger step and introduced the strictest ban on the importing of hunting trophies into the EU. Those are the three countries that have taken action As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, it is time this country took the same strong attitude.
I am grateful for the background information on the debate, which contains things I was not aware of, including about rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and zebras. My goodness, who on earth would want to shoot a zebra? Is there not something wrong there? I think there is. It is a species of horse, probably—to us in the United Kingdom horses are horses and the zebra is a smaller version.
The other instance that really got to me was the polar bear. Many of us cannot relate to the polar bear sitting on the ice floe, surrounded by the coldness of the water. We wonder how it survives in the inhospitable habitat where it lives. Yet someone wants to shoot a polar bear. I just cannot understand it, and that is coming from where I am, although it is pheasants and ducks that we use, and it is about protection of wildlife.
The hon. Lady referred to the wildlife of today, and a magazine I get every week said something important about that—that the wildlife of today is
“not for us to dispose of”
as we please. It said:
“We hold it in trust for those who come after.”
That is our responsibility, as she mentioned, and it is why this debate is so important. We have a responsibility to ensure that lions, polar bears, zebras, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and all the others on the list are protected from extinction. Large numbers of my constituents have contacted me to oppose trophy hunting imports. I oppose them too, and feel that they are totally wrong. Those constituents want me to oppose trophy hunting, put their views on record and look to the Minister for a response.
As the hon. Lady said, things may have been different 40 years ago—and even more so in 1780. However, society has moved on, and things that were acceptable in the past are certainly not today. We must make a positive response as a society.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about how we need to move with the times. Does he agree that we should allocate our international aid budget in a way that reflects modern sensibilities? My constituents would like our aid budget to be used to preserve biodiversity, whether that means the sorts of animals he has referred to or other types of diversity. That is what we should use our financial firepower for. Does he agree?
I wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman has introduced a point I was going to make, so well done. I think we should do that, because there are ways to do things in conservation. I think that the Department for International Development or some other Departments are helping rangers in some countries, at least partially. I am not sure where all the money is coming from, but they can train people in Africa to be the protectors of animals. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I know that we are doing something, but perhaps the Minister can tell us a wee bit to clarify things and add some meat to the bones.
Where there is any chance of making money, we can be pretty sure that a criminal gang is involved somewhere, and there are criminal gangs that clearly do not give—I should keep my language under control—any concern whatever in terms of what happens, as long as they can make money. So the criminal gangs, who kill indiscriminately and murder animals for their own personal gain, have to be addressed as well.
Let me make a comment about conservation. I said what I said earlier about conservation to set the scene, in a very small way, for how conservation works. In his intervention, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) referred to conservation that we can help with, in Africa and in other parts of the world. The Minister, and indeed everyone else, will understand the importance of habitat. When it comes to addressing trophy hunting and imports, which is what this debate is about, we also have to—perhaps directly, as the hon. Gentleman suggested in his intervention—do other things, which are about habitat retention. They are about addressing the conflict in parts of Africa, where the population is exploding and where there is confrontation between the farmers, landowners and animals. Those wonderful TV programmes that Sir David Attenborough presents tell us about Africa and elsewhere, but they also tell us about the savagery of wildlife and life on the plains, where animal eats animal; that is how things are.
However, we also need to ensure that, in addressing habitat loss and conservation in Africa, we help countries to do what they do. Landowners and farmers are growing crops to feed their families, so we need to have some methodology to address that. There is enormous demand on resources—water, trees, woodland, scrubland and the land itself. Where can the land sustain farming? We need the large savannahs as a large place for the animals to roam as well. There is no doubt that lots of the problems on savannahs are very complicated. Let me ask the Minister a question, which follows on from an earlier intervention: what are we doing to help countries to retain habitat and reduce the confrontation between people and animals?
I will finish with this point. Trophy hunting imports need to be not just controlled, but stopped. The Government have said they will keep the issue constantly under review. I respectfully suggest to them, and in total support of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, that it is time not just to keep trophy hunting under review but to stop it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate. I agreed with everything she said, which is hardly a surprise, because I agree with most of her views on life generally.
I hope this is the last time we need to have a debate on this issue, because, by a happy coincidence, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) led a debate on it earlier this year—I think it was on 15 May—and he is now the Minister. I am absolutely delighted about that, and I suspect that we are pushing at an open door.
Of course, this subject is not party political, and all Members hopefully agree on it. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) is no longer in his place, but when he and I entered Parliament the issue of animal welfare was treated very differently from the way it is today. When a show of support was organised in July for a ban on trophy hunting, I was delighted that many colleagues lined up—quite rightly—to have their photograph taken with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. That was very good to witness.
Trophy hunting is a wicked, evil practice, and anyone who indulges in it or encourages it should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. We should not mince words or be intimidated on this issue: trophy hunting is an absolutely disgusting practice. I recognise, especially from the point of view of my hon. Friend the Minister, that these words come easily. The question is: how do we stop trophy hunting? Our excellent Library briefing tells us that Australia has acted, France has acted and the Netherlands has acted. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us how successful they have been so far, but I believe that the Government want to do everything they can to stop this practice.
I was delighted to host a meeting of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation in Manchester on Monday. The Foreign Secretary, who stood in for the Prime Minister today, made an excellent speech on this very issue, as did Dr Nick Palmer, a former Labour Member of Parliament, who is now head of Compassion in World Farming UK. We had speeches from Peter Hall, who is a director of the CAWF and from Kike Yuen of the World Dog Alliance, and an excellent contribution from Duncan McNair of Save the Asian Elephants. It was particularly good that we had speeches from the Prime Minister’s father, Mr Stanley Johnson, and from Ms Carrie Symonds. There was wide unanimity on the subject.
Conservatives’ perception of the issue has been changed by one person in particular: Mrs Lorraine Platt. She set up the CAWF and, through charm, has persuaded any number of my colleagues that we need to be on the right side of the argument. She has been supported in her endeavours by Mrs Elise Dunwebber, and I congratulate them both. There is still much work to be done on the issue, but I know they are keen to work with the Government on banning trophy hunting.
In the 10 years to 2017, 290,000 trophy items were exported across the world. That is absolutely disgusting. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire spoke about lions, but as the Library briefing tells us, this is also about polar bears, giraffes, antelopes, alligators and all sorts of beautiful animals. We realise that they could kill us—they are wild animals—but, for goodness’ sake, think of David Attenborough’s wonderful work, not only in our country but throughout the world, to highlight the fact that these animals are facing extinction. We do not want elephants and lions to be just a story for future generations, like the dinosaurs.
In these difficult times, this is a subject that Parliament can unite on. We should help and encourage the Government to do something about it—I know that the Minister is thinking about how to reply to my hon. Friend’s questions. I recognise that there is no easy solution; 200,000 endangered animals are put at risk each year, which is an awful lot to deal with. It is so depressing that, as soon as someone comes up with an idea to stop trophy hunters, these evil, wicked people get ahead of the game and find some way round the legislation.
I do not minimise the difficulty the Government face, but I simply cannot comprehend why anyone would pay up to $72,000 to travel across the world and shoot a beautiful animal. As I have said at business questions, I have seen numerous adverts for trophy hunting, with some companies even advertising price lists by trip length—as my hon. Friend said—by animal on offer and by trophy fee. Such adverts should be completely banned from all platforms in the United Kingdom.
The Government have a responsibility to use their global influence, along with the views of our royal family, to stop this trade. We have an important role to play in bringing the world together on the issue, but it will be a real challenge because 0.76% of tourism jobs in some countries are directly linked to the trade. I was pleased by what my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) had to say on that point, and I hope the Government will take it on board.
In conclusion, before we are able to stop trophy hunting completely, we must recognise the need to act swiftly to ban all imports of trophies, which we must be able to do. Some 86% of British people apparently support this action, and the Government need to be alive to the fact that some of these beautiful animals will find their way into the UK because some of the customers are British citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said, we are a nation of animal lovers, so let us prove it. Let us do something about banning trophy imports. It looks as though we are going to have the Gracious Speech on 14 October, which may or may not be controversial, but would it not be good if a big chunk of legislation to deal with animal welfare were at the heart of that speech? What could be better than to pay a tribute to the debate my hon. Friend has led this afternoon and to have a proposal to ban trophy hunting imports?
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hosie. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). We often do not agree on many policies in relation to Brexit and so on, but when we worked together on the Select Committee on International Development we agreed on fundamental issues, including helping the poorest countries in the world and animal welfare. I pay tribute to all her work in Parliament on those issues, and she will no doubt continue that work in the future.
This crucial debate is important to many of my constituents and to the public across the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady provided a detailed, passionate overview of the issue, and I agree with her words and with her asks of the Minister. We do not necessarily have to unite on a cross-party basis around some of the issues that the public and MPs currently find so difficult, but animal welfare is a unifying issue for MPs and for people in each of the nations of the United Kingdom. I am therefore pleased that we are having this important debate today, and I hope that the Government will address the issue in the Queen’s Speech.
I thank the other Members who have contributed today. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) described trophy hunting as barbaric and unnecessary and went on to advance the alternatives that exist in this day and age. Indeed, he referenced the wild goat that was shot in Scotland, about which I received a full mailbag from my constituents, with many asking, “How brave is it to shoot a goat? How can that give pleasure? What exactly is the point?” It is not so much about conservation but, I dare to say, more about the ego of the person involved. My constituents were appalled by that individual and want to see movement on the issue.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) is a real champion of animal welfare. We are usually lining up to have our photograph taken with pledges to support animal welfare, and I am pleased that he hosted a meeting of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation at the Conservative conference this week. The foundation is kind enough to send me a Christmas card every year, so Lorraine Platt is doing well by boosting not only animal welfare issues in the Conservative party but cross-party efforts to bring everybody on board, so I pay tribute to her.
Westminster Hall would not be the same if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) were not sitting in his place right behind me. He outlined eloquently the difference between hunting for food and trophy hunting, and stated plainly that trophy hunting is not acceptable today; we need to move with the times. In my constituency and others across the UK, young people are so enthused by doing all they can for the planet, through addressing environmental issues and conservation. They are saying to MPs in this House, “Get on with it; do this work.” In this day and age, it is those issues that are top of their priority list.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that young people are interested in the planet. When DFID was set up in 1997, it was principally focused on people, rather than the planet. Does she agree that the time has come to recalibrate our approach on deploying our international aid so that it truly focuses on and prioritises preserving the planet?
As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, DFID has a presence in my constituency, and I am so very proud of the work that it does to eradicate poverty the world over. I believe that conservation is commensurate with the sustainable development goals, because it is not only about animal welfare; it is about helping the communities located where those endangered species are. It is about making sure that those communities have another source of income; that people and animals can cohabit. We must do everything possible on both issues, and I will be interested to hear from the Minister how the two can be married together. We must ensure that aid goes to the poorest and that no one is left behind. I have a particular passion for helping disabled children into school in developing countries, but I do not see a contradiction in helping the poorest communities and working on conservation and, in the main, I do not believe that colleagues across the House would either.
In November 2018 the Minister lodged early-day motion 1829, which was signed by 166 MPs cross-party, including myself. It asked the Government to commit to halting imports of hunting trophies as a matter of urgency. I am very pleased that the Minister is in his place today, and not just because of that issue. He also did a lot of cross-party work with the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group on Lucy’s law, which will now become law not just in England, but in Wales and Scotland. We are extremely pleased about that.
As has been said, 86% of the public support a ban on trophy hunting. I pay tribute to the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, Born Free and Stop Ivory for placing these issues at the forefront of our minds, so that we can see what is happening. I had a look at the statistics. Although progress is being made on elephant populations and larger cat populations—not enough, but some progress—people are now reverting to hunting bears, cranes, antelopes, rhinoceroses and, would you believe it, crocodiles. Perhaps they have watched too many “Crocodile Dundee” films. Other species are up 29.2% as well; I am not sure what species those are, and it would be interesting to find out more, particularly whether any of those species are at risk.
Many trophy hunters use the rationale that they kill the old, the weak or the sick, and that they are therefore helping conservation. That is rarely proven by the egotistical photographs that are put up online, with the hunter standing next to the biggest, the rarest and the largest animals with the biggest horns. It is much more about ego than any effort towards conservation.
A current loophole allows hunters from the UK to import trophies of animals, many so rare that they have been declared extinct in the wild. For example, puffins are often hunted and the trophies brought to the UK, despite the UK Government’s efforts to save the species. Online websites are easily found offering these grisly puffin hunters trips costing around £3,000 to Iceland, where they have the chance to kill a bag of puffins and can boast of shooting up to 100 at a time. The species is classified as endangered in the 2018 “State of the World’s Birds” report, but is not listed for protection by CITES, the body that regulates the international animal trade. British people are bringing home puffin carcases in their hundreds and the puffin is at risk of becoming extinct, with uncontrolled hunting a leading cause.
I was proud to lead for the Scottish National party on the Bill that became the Ivory Act 2018. As a party, we welcome that historic legislation and the UK Government’s progress on tackling the illegal ivory trade and trophy hunting. Organised crime is often behind the individuals involved in that trade, as it offers big money, so we need to tackle it at the root. I was pleased—actually, emotionally quite overcome—to visit Sheldrick Wildlife Trust the day before the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire, I believe, with the International Development Committee. We were able to spend time with orphaned elephants there. Now, I have quite short legs, but the little elephants only came up to my waist, which shows how small they were. Some, only a few days or a few weeks old, were being bottle fed, because the hunters were after their parents and left the little baby elephants behind, unable to survive on their own. This fantastic project goes out and saves them from otherwise certain death in the wild, but still, they will not have had the life they should have had. They should live with their herd, not be raised in those circumstances.
I missed the beginning of the hon. Lady’s account. Could she clarify whether the victims—the parents of those elephants—were poached or hunted for trophies? There is a huge difference.
I did not get the details of what had happened to all the parents. I imagine it was a mixture of the two, but mainly poaching, because organised crime is behind a lot of that activity. However, trophy hunting does not help when saving the species.
I believe that the Department for International Development could support this work, and there is no contradiction in that. It would help some of the most rural and impoverished communities. I would like some money to go toward training local people as wardens, giving them the opportunity of jobs and livelihoods. Finally, will the Minister reinforce and re-endorse his own early-day motion calling for a ban on trophy hunting imports as a matter of urgency?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on initiating this very good debate, in which good points have been made by a number of speakers. It is a shame that it clashes with Second Reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill, because I know many of my hon. Friends wanted to speak in this debate. I imagine that, had they been here, they would have said much the same as has been said by others in the debate, but the Minister would have heard it from a few more voices.
I welcome the Minister to his place. It may not be fashionable—or productive for my future career—to say this, but I am excited about the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) becoming a Minister. His championing from the Back Benches of causes and views that I believe many Members share has been really powerful. At the risk of injecting a partisan flavour into the debate, I have to say that sometimes we have heard the soundbite from Ministers but not seen the action that goes with it. I am certain that the hon. Gentleman will not fall for any press release camouflage on inaction. This is an area where there is a real opportunity to stop the long-grassing of policies where there is clear cross-party support, and to get on with it. I hope that when he gets to his feet in a moment, he will say exactly the same things.
We have heard some good contributions. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) mentioned a few but I will add a few more. The phrase of right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), that trophy hunting is “nauseating and revolting”, cut through and adequately described what is going on. The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) rightly said that a ban on trophy hunting is backed by 86% of the British public. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) spoke passionately about the fact that it is not something that only happens abroad. We should recognise that and ensure that any ban takes adequate notice of that, so that it covers not just imports but exports of trophies from UK wildlife.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) used “yellowhammer” correctly—it is good to hear the yellowhammer bird getting due attention after its name has been borrowed for so many things. We all share the complete puzzlement implied by his question, “Who on earth would want to shoot a zebra?” I agree with the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who was clear when he said it was a wicked, evil practice. We should not mince our words about people who go and shoot.
I am glad that it is not just parliamentarians who have encouraged this debate; people have used their fame and celebrity to endorse it too. Ricky Gervais does not mince his words on social media when it comes to this subject. I especially like his tweet from a few years ago, which says:
“The trophies I’m proudest of are the memories of all those times I didn’t kill a beautiful, majestic, endangered species for no reason.”
Although he may choose more powerful language to describe some of the people who are engaged in trophy hunting, his leadership on social media has highlighted a cruel and inhumane practice to many people who might not otherwise have appreciated its barbarity.
Ricky Gervais and the Minister are not alone, however, and have been in good company in championing the cause. Joanna Lumley correctly said that trophy hunting is “cruel, immoral…and unjustifiable”. Bill Bailey said:
“I can’t get my head round why anyone would want to kill a beautiful creature for fun. With the dwindling numbers of species, it’s time to halt this cruel and unnecessary practice.”
He is right, as are the speeches that we have heard today.
I will ask the Minister a few questions to try to understand the detail of the proposed ban. He has been clear that we should ban trophy hunting, but Ministers in the past have not been clear about what that ban comprises in detail, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire hinted in her opening speech. The thread of Ministers to date was that the Government’s proposed ban would affect just threatened species, by taking that international classification and banning the imports of trophies in relation to them. I would like us to go much further. Labour’s position is that the ban should be for every species above least concern. That would effectively capture many more species, not just the most endangered.
Looking around the room, I see that many hon. Members served on the Committee for the Ivory Act 2018 to support the introduction of a ban on elephant ivory. Since that ban has come into place, as expected, and as mentioned in Committee, we have seen the trade move from elephant ivory to other ivory-bearing species, such as the rhino, which has experienced additional hunting since the ban on elephant ivory came in. We knew that at the time and we must not make the same mistake with the trophy hunting ban by banning it for the most endangered and allowing it to slip down to those that are just below the most endangered. The Minister will be well aware of that and, hopefully, with his power, he can make sure that it does not happen.
We need to recognise that trophy hunting, as well as being cruel and unjustifiable, can act as a cover for illegal poaching, which was the sentiment of the intervention of the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). The proposed ban that we would like the Government to adopt would cover all species above least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources red list, which would include species classed as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and extinct in the wild.
Sustainable alternatives to trophy hunting, such as eco-tourism and photographic safaris, are generating revenues that cover the real costs of conservation and effective anti-poaching work, as well as providing well-paying permanent jobs for local people. Shooting a lion such as Cecil can generate a one-off trophy fee of around $15,000. There is no evidence that that goes toward conservation, no evidence that it goes toward the local community, and no evidence that it goes toward the protection of other animals. Nature tourism, on the other hand, can generate money from the protection and valuing of those wild animals.
There is an opportunity, which has been mentioned a few times, through Brexit to come together. What Brexit has done for DEFRA debates is to open space in the Government’s legislative agenda for issues that might not otherwise have got the airtime they deserved. If we think about what has been passed by this House in recent months, on a cross-party basis, with the Brexit malaise and chaos going on around us, we will realise that many of the same faces in this Chamber have been working together on banning wild animals in circuses, banning the trade in elephant ivory and tightening up regulations across the board.
That work might not have attracted the attention of many people outside Parliament, and certainly it has not troubled some of our friends in the media, but it has been worthwhile. We should continue that spirit, whatever is happening with Brexit or outside, because there is something here that could make a real difference to the species involved.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking very eloquently about the issue and the potential opportunities of ecotourism. He will know that last year in Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has mentioned, the shooting of a wild goat on Islay caused a huge upset among people in Scotland and much further afield. What is most upsetting is that tourism companies are promoting Scotland as a place to come and trophy shoot. Surely we should be clamping down on that. Companies are not just offering places in Africa as destinations; that is also happening here in the UK.
The hon. Lady makes a very sound point, on a common theme with the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who voiced a concern about what powers the Government have over the advertising of those tourism products. I spent five years working for the Association of British Travel Agents, and in that role I supported the animal welfare guidelines that encouraged ABTA members to ensure that animals are used sustainably and without endangering them, their habitats or their handlers. There are opportunities to ensure that those principles, which are good and strong, are spread across not only ABTA members, but the entire tourism industry. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with those guidelines; if he is not, I encourage him to look at them next time he needs some bedtime reading, because there is some real strength there and some real opportunities to do the right thing. The market does not correct all ills, and in this case there is a role for real moral leadership from the Government.
I hope that the Minister will be as strong and forthright in his new role as he has been in campaigning to date. I was pleased to see a letter that he co-signed in The Guardian in April with a series of high-profile supporters, which said:
“Banning the import of hunting trophies will send a clear message to the international community that there is no place for trophy hunting in this day and age.”
We must be clear that the continuation of that colonial and neo-colonial practice of rich people descending on communities, for whom that extra money can have a positive impact on their lives, to do something that is abhorrent, is something that we should not accept any more.
The Minister was in good company in signing that letter. It was signed not only by the Prime Minister’s father and his partner, but by Michael Palin, Captain Kirk—William Shatner, that is—Matt Lucas, Will Travers of Born Free, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), for Stroud (Dr Drew) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), and many others besides.
As my final remark, I encourage the Minister not to allow his passion for these topics to be diluted by the sense, which there sometimes is within Government, that animal welfare legislation can be cut up and parcelled in different parts, as happened with the Ivory Act. The Ivory Act should have been a comprehensive ban on ivory—I believe that is something the Minister himself supported from the Back Benches—but it was allowed to be parcelled up into smaller bits. I hope that the new Administration will move away from that parcelling up of animal welfare opportunities.
There is a real opportunity here for people who may be bitterly divided on Brexit and other matters to come together, on a cross-party basis, around animal welfare. I encourage the Minister to be as bold as he can be, because in these times animals do not have a voice, and every animal matters. We must ensure that we are their voice. The Minister has the opportunity to be a bull in a china shop on the previous behaviour of the right soundbite but the wrong action, and to ensure that we have the comprehensive trophy hunting ban that we deserve, which animals both in the wild and in the canned lion industry that the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire spoke about can really benefit from.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate. Over the past years we have stood side by side in so many debates on issues relevant to this one that I have lost track of how many we have shared. She has been a nature champion for all the time I have known her—indeed, this room is full of nature champions, and I wish there were a few more. It has been a joy to hear the contributions, including interventions, from all Members present.
My hon. Friend will know that this subject is close to my heart. Indeed, the last time I took part in a debate on this issue in Parliament—I believe she also took part—was on a motion tabled in my name, some time earlier this year. Last Saturday I was pleased to announce that the Government are launching a consultation on restricting, or banning, the import and export of hunting trophies.
Many questions have been raised, some of which I will struggle to answer because they relate to the details of the consultation. Hon. Members will understand that I must be slightly guarded and cannot go into too many details about a Government consultation, because I could end up jeopardising or compromising the process. Broadly speaking, however, we are not looking for any long grass. This is a serious consultation, and we intend to resolve the issue once and for all and not to waste any time. I will drive it through as fast as I possibly can, but in a proper manner.
I cannot answer the question about the threshold, were we to end up with the ban that we are talking about. My early-day motion broadly reflects the position laid out by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), which relates to not just CITES I and II, but the list from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, those details will have to come out in the consultation, and it would be wrong for me to pre-empt it.
I am grateful for and flattered by the remarks made about my appointment. I am an animal welfare and conservation advocate, and I was worried, before being asked to be a Minister, that I might have to go through a lobotomy and cast aside all my passions for such issues. That does not seem to have been the case—yet—so I am able to pursue issues that matter to me and to Members across the House. Over the next few weeks, I look forward to reading the feedback on this debate from people across the spectrum, but I know from correspondence I have already seen that some people will push back heavily against the proposal for a possible ban.
On a personal level, hon. Members know I believe that shooting a beautiful and endangered animal for fun is, to quote the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), obscene, and it is something I could never understand. Most people with whom I have discussed the issue are similarly sickened when they see images of so-called celebrity hunters smirking over the corpse of a lion, giraffe, rhino, or elephant. It is something that most people regard as grotesque, and poll after poll shows that to be the view of the British people. There have been a range of polls, but they have consistently shown that between 75% and 90% of people are in favour of a ban on imports of hunting trophies.
To demonstrate quite how non-partisan this issue is, I was shocked and amazed last Saturday to read an editorial in the Daily Mirror—I have appeared in it a few times as a politician, and I have always put on my tin hat and hidden away for a few hours afterwards. This recent editorial, however, praised both me and the Conservative Government for initiating this process, because the issue goes way beyond the left or right of politics today. I thank the Daily Mirror for having pushed the issue up the agenda. It has run an incredibly impressive campaign, as have The Daily Telegraph and a number of key campaigners, such as Eduardo Gonçalves, who runs the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting.
Trophy hunting is not just a niche issue or a symbolic part of the conservation story. A 2016 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that around 1.7 million hunting trophies crossed borders globally between 2004 and 2014, and at least 200,000 of those came from species that are threatened. Some of those species face a horribly uncertain future, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire in relation to lion numbers. There could be only 15,000 lions, 415,000 African elephants—there were 3 million elephants a century ago—and 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild.
As I said from the Back Benches a few months ago, we must nevertheless separate the moral arguments from the scientific ones. The moral arguments do matter, and for many people the idea of shooting a giraffe for fun or with the idea that it might help protect the giraffe seems utterly perverse, but the issue is subject to a live debate between experts and even some conservation organisations.
Many people who live in the Forest of Dean wake up in the morning to find that wild boar have completely destroyed their garden, and they then ring the Forestry Commission—in the Minister’s Department—which culls those animals. Is that right?
It is certainly right that wild boar are culled. There is a live discussion about whether there should be a protected season for wild boar, given that they are now prevalent throughout the country. I am not sure that my hon. Friend’s point is directly relevant to the issue of the positive contribution of trophy hunting to either the conservation or the denudation of wild species.
It is very easy to attach a huge amount of emotion to animals that are attractive and beautiful, as the Minister described, but they are still managed, and the ability to manage populations is the difficult part. The Government have to take responsibility. I felt he was perhaps straying into pretending that it does not happen.
My hon. Friend pre-empts the point I was about to make. We have to separate the ethical arguments from the scientific ones. If the scientific evidence can show that trophy hunting contributes to conservation, we will be having a different debate. Although I cannot pre-empt the consultation, we will be flooded with evidence that will tell us one way or the other. I acknowledge that some conservation groups make the case for trophy hunting. I have seen the documents and been bombarded with letters, as we will no doubt be throughout the consultation. Some of the arguments that I have heard are—I think this term entered the English dictionary only recently—whataboutery. A number of different organisations tell us that trophy hunting is an issue but that it is not as bad as habitat loss or illegal poaching. Obviously, habitat loss is the big problem facing species across the world, and we have heard about the illegal wildlife trade decimating communities and bringing species to the brink of extinction, but whether or not that is true, it is not an argument for or against trophy hunting. It is an entirely separate issue.
The central argument that has been put forward in favour of trophy hunting is that these magnificent animals, through being hunted, generate money that is then ploughed into conservation. I have not seen much evidence of the funds being used to support local communities or to invest in conservation. It is much use if the main argument of the conservation groups is based on generalising the best of the best practice—no doubt there are some best practice examples—throughout the world; if so, their argument is flimsy at best. We will see during the consultation whether there are more examples of best practice than perhaps I have implied.
There are other issues to examine. Unlike wildlife tourism, trophy hunting contributes a tiny proportion of revenue for African countries. There is a question whether we should instead focus our efforts on promoting the former. I will come to that point in answer to another question, which was raised by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). There is also the issue of cruelty, with reports that half the animals killed in the course of trophy hunting are not killed instantaneously but are wounded. Cecil the lion lived for another 19 hours, I believe—no doubt in hideous pain—after first being shot.
We must find out the impact of trophy hunting on the gene pool. If hunters prize the biggest and the best of the rarest, the most endangered and the most valuable species, does that not logically mean that the gene pool is inevitably going to be weakened over time? These are issues that, again, we are going to have to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned the issue of canned hunting. I forget which hon. Member described it as an obscenity, but it is. As far as I can see, these lions are bred for one purpose only and they are shot in such a manner that anyone would be able to finish them off, no matter how talented they are with a gun. It is no different from putting goldfish in a bowl and just shooting them. It is an extraordinarily grim practice. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question about whether the consultation will include measures to tackle canned hunting, I would say that it is one and the same. That will be explored in the consultation, and I hope the outcome will fully take into account the points she made.
The UK cannot ban trophy hunting overseas. We are not at liberty to do so, but we can ban the import of hunting trophies. Over the five years from 2013 to 2017, we estimate that up to 1,500 trophies were imported into the UK, with up to one third of those from the most endangered species. Perversely, elephant parts are the favourite import for British trophy hunters. I say that is perverse because we are the world leader now in stepping up our efforts to protect elephants around the world, not least through the ivory legislation that has already been commended today and much more besides. This consultation is critical, and it is going to have to provide answers to those very difficult questions.
I want to talk briefly about animal welfare and conservation more broadly. People in this country do care—very much—about the issue. As the animal welfare Minister, I clearly do too. I am proud of the progress this Government have already made. We introduced the ivory legislation I just mentioned. We introduced legislation to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. We have legislated to ensure that CCTV is required in every slaughterhouse. Along with this consultation on the importance of hunting trophies, we are also consulting on mandatory cat microchipping, we are issuing a call for evidence on banning the keeping of pet primates and we are bringing forward proposals for consideration on ending the live export of animals.
I was proud that the UK played a defining role at the recent CITES COP, working under the radar, barely noticed by the rest of the country, to bring an end to the appalling practice of capturing wild elephants to be sold for captivity around the world. Without our negotiating team from DEFRA taking part in that debate, the motion would not have passed and it would still be possible for countries to capture wild elephants and pack them off to grim zoos in China and elsewhere. If they were here, I would pay tribute to them. In their absence, I will do so, all the same.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister announced at the United Nations that we are going to radically step up our contribution to tackling the wider environmental and climate crisis—and it is a crisis, no matter how you choose to interpret it. We know from scientists that a 1.5˚ C rise in temperatures is going to be utterly devastating to humanity and nature. We heard just a few months ago, in what is the most comprehensive ever assessment of the state of the natural world, the report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, that 1 million species face extinction, many of them within decades. We have heard that, since 1970, the populations of the world’s wild animals have declined by 60%—a staggering figure. We learned from the World Resources Institute that, last year, we lost the equivalent of 27 football pitches’ worth of forest every single minute. Incidentally, we also learned from the World Economic Forum that, by 2050, our oceans will have more plastic in them than fish, if measured by weight.
We recognise the scale of the challenge. We are determined as a Government to provide the leadership that is needed globally and to do our bit at home. I was at the General Assembly of the United Nations when the Prime Minister made his announcement that we are going to double our climate funding. I was there when he made the important point about the crucial role of biodiversity in nature in tackling climate change. That directly addresses the point raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and no doubt others as well. The Prime Minister emphasised that much of that uplift in climate funding will be spent on nature-based solutions to climate change. We know that if we invest in protecting, saving and restoring forests, we protect the livelihoods of those hundreds of millions of people who depend on them for their livelihoods. We protect the harbour for 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and we also tackle climate change, given that deforestation is the second biggest cause of emissions.
The same is true of our oceans. About 1 billion people depend on oceans for their main source of protein. Some 200 million depend on oceans for their livelihoods and on there being fish for them to catch. However, oceans are also a gigantic carbon sink, so the case for investing in nature-based solutions as a means of tackling climate change and helping to stop the extinction crisis, and also as a means of alleviating and preventing base poverty, is absolute and unarguable. I am thrilled that we are moving in that direction, and I do not sense any opposition from any party in this place to that shift. So that is where we need to go, and that is where I am thrilled to say we are going.
As a start to that package—these are just the things that have been announced in the past few weeks in relation to biodiversity—the Prime Minister announced a new £220 million fund. That includes a dramatic uplift to the Darwin initiative, which I am sure Members are aware of. That world-renowned programme has brought individual species back from the brink of extinction. We will see a major uplift in the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund, which is relatively new, but it is already yielding incredible results, particularly on the continent of Africa, but elsewhere as well. It helps train local people to tackle poaching and create alternative livelihoods in areas most at risk, and it is having a significant and measurable impact.
We are creating a new fund. It does not have a proper name yet, but we are calling it the biodiverse landscape fund. It is a £100 million fund—a world first. It will tackle the drivers of biodiversity loss in large biodiversity hotspots around the world, focusing particularly on trans-frontier initiatives such as KAZA in southern Africa, which is a programme that five countries have signed up to create wildlife corridors connecting their countries, their national parks and more. It is all based on helping local communities to create alternative livelihoods so that the viability of local economies is based and dependent on the health of the local environment and on flourishing biodiversity.
That is just a start. We are doing a lot, and I am thrilled that the UK has been given an opportunity to host the COP in 2020. We keep hearing about 2020 as a superyear for nature. It is absolutely the Government’s ambition to play a part so that 2020 will be the superyear for nature. We will host COP, and by the end of the year, in December, we aim to have aligned as many big countries in the world as possible with our ambition to step up our contribution to tackling climate change, to focus much more on nature-based solutions and to help turn the tide on this catastrophic extinction crisis, which is now beyond any doubt at all—it is happening right now on our watch.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire for bringing attention to this hugely important issue and for all the work she does as a parliamentary nature champion. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions too. We will crack on. We will get this done. We are not looking for the long grass. We will nail this issue as quickly as we possibly can.
I thank the Minister and all hon. and right hon. Members for contributing to this debate. It must be terribly hard for the Minister to be the poacher turned gamekeeper. He has a difficult decision, having now to stick with what he is told and what he has to do, but I hope that his passion will cut through some of the civil service speak and that he will get on and do it, because we are only temporary custodians of the wildlife and the environment of this planet. We really need to act if we want our grandchildren, their children and their children after that to be able to see these magnificent animals. We can play only a small part, but we can do a lot to persuade other countries to cease their activities. A ban on wildlife trophy imports into this country sends a hugely significant message that we care and want to change things. I commend this motion to the Minister and everyone else.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered trophy hunting imports.
Leasehold and Commonhold Reform
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress on leasehold and commonhold reform.
This debate is an opportunity for the Government to explain what progress has been made on this issue, describe what is in their mind at the moment, and give us some hope that there will be even more improvements in future.
Before I start in detail, I want to thank colleagues who have worked really hard on the issue. I welcome the fact that the Labour party has developed proposals of its own, and I know that the Liberal Democrats have done the same. In particular, I thank and praise the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who I think has done more on this issue than any other Member of Parliament. I also thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who has joined in and helped to make the scandal of leasehold homes in the north-west so relevant.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), who was deeply involved in the early stages of the campaign by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. That charity’s campaign, both for the ordinary leaseholders of flats and houses and in the retirement field, has done so much to make it possible for the work of MPs to be well directed and well supported. With Louise O’Riordan, it acts as the secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and I think we can all say that we have made progress together.
I say to those in the Government field and in the Government’s Leasehold Advisory Service, or LEASE, that we often agree that problems exist. We agree more often now than we did five years ago, when a succession of temporary Housing Ministers could not see that there is a problem, which partly was because the Department did not have many officials working on the issue of leaseholds and commonholds. The attempt by Parliament and the Government to bring in commonhold failed because the responsibility for it was split with the Ministry of Justice, which had no resources whatsoever. As a result, nothing happened. When we put forward the case for uniting commonhold with leasehold, I understand that the predecessor Department to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that it would take responsibility if it received the resources, but there were no resources.
I and other Labour Members are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He does not have any support from other Government Members at the moment, whereas Labour Members are mob-handed in Westminster Hall today. However, I can assure him that we are here as his fan club and support structure, because it is the prominent role that he has played—leading the all-party parliamentary group, as co-chair—that has ensured that we have been able to press the Government on the issue. To the Government’s credit, they have made a number of commitments on leasehold during the past five years, and we are very keen to hear the Minister’s response to this debate.
That is the sort of remark I can survive, and I am grateful for it.
I will say, as I try to in each of the debates on the issue, that I am a leaseholder of a small flat in my constituency, and with the other five leaseholders we bought the freehold. We had a good freeholder, good managing agents and we have had no problem whatsoever, and we know how the system can work. In effect, we are commonhold now, but we were originally freehold. Ground rents were low and we did not have the problem of ground rents doubling every 10 years.
We also did not have the kind of crooks, such as Martin Paine, who came in and gave informal leases, which really made a mess of people’s lives. We did not suffer from the Tchenguiz interests, which were responsible—both in the retirement field and in other fields—for some of the worst excesses. Frankly, the public authorities, such as the fraud people, the economic crimes people, the police and the Competition and Markets Authority people failed, and the Tchenguiz-controlled business got away scot free, when the people in that business should have been sent to jail and fined millions of pounds. The millions of pounds would have made up for the losses of the ordinary leaseholders who were failed by them.
I also pay tribute to Martin Boyd and Sebastian O’Kelly, chief executive and trustee of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, who have done so much, and they have now joined members of the National Leasehold Campaign and Bob Bessell, the former director of social services in Warwickshire, who in his retirement built 1,600 retirement homes without a single ground rent.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming down on a fast train from Manchester, where she has given distinguished service over the past two days. I ask her to review whether it is sensible, necessary or right to allow ground rents in retirement properties. I look on the Churchill Group as the son of McCarthy and Stone, which was, with Peveril, at the foundation of some of the problems that hit previous generations. To any Treasury civil servant who reads the report of this debate, I would say that if we get leasehold and commonhold right, the value of homes will go up, not down, and the income to the Treasury will go up.
My area has quite a few new leasehold housing estates, some of which have now been there for a number of years. The residents are being hit with a double whammy. They have all the costs associated with leasehold and they also have service management fees, which are absolutely enormous and growing. More and more people are reporting to me that they cannot sell their properties because they get partway through the process and the buyer looks at the cost and says, “No way.”
We are not able to cover everything in a half-hour debate, but that is one of the issues to which I think the House of Commons needs to return. We ought to have a full-day debate, preferably in Government time and on the Floor of the House, so that many other Members can speak and be a voice for their constituents.
As an example for those who do not read Private Eye on the day it comes out, there is a story about Rothesay Life, which apparently has £1.5 billion of loans. It can revalue the interest over 30 years and take it almost as instant profit. That is the kind of thing that leads people to say, “I am going to be greedy and get away with things as long as I can.”
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). We are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he has put into the campaign, which is growing stronger by the day. Some of the voluntary schemes that developers have entered into with leaseholders have a sting in the tail, with additional clauses carrying on afterwards. Does he agree that that example shows that it is important to get something on a statutory footing as soon as possible?
The whole House will agree with the hon. Gentleman. Incidentally, we got the Competition and Markets Authority to hold an investigation into leasehold and—this is one of my tributes to the Government—I want to say how grateful we all are for the matters that have been sent across to the Law Commission, with the aim of getting practical and fair proposals that can be enacted.
One such important issue is lease extensions. There are more than 1 million leases, mainly of flats, that are coming to the 80-year limit where they cannot be mortgaged and where the marriage value starts coming in. At the moment, it is very difficult to find a cheap, easy and fair way of getting an extension on a lease. As and when we come to the elimination of new ground rents, we should find a way of putting a sunset clause on old ground rents, and give an incentive to freeholders to come forward with ways of getting some capital value now, rather than none later on. They have had the dawn of their money, and there needs to be some kind of sharing of the dusk that stops the money rolling in. We need to find a way of saying to them, “Let’s agree a simple chart; if you take 10 years of existing ground rent, don’t start saying you will take a doubling, and a doubling again after that.”
I interrupt myself to say that there is one announcement from the last couple of days that is potentially very dangerous to leaseholders, which is the proposal that people can put two more storeys on top of a block without planning permission. If the block is owned by an outside freeholder, that will ruin the chance of enfranchisement. If it is going to happen, all the value should go to the leaseholders, not the freeholder. In fact, it might provide an incentive for the leaseholders to buy the freehold and then agree among themselves how to deal with building on, and having a bigger community. As I said, I own a lease and part of a freehold of a block in Worthing. I am also contracted to buy a leasehold flat that is being built at the moment, which might be built in three years’ time. If anyone thinks that I have an interest in this issue, I do—if I get any benefit from it, I will give it to a good cause.
To go back to LEASE, MPs have had difficulty with its two previous chairs. The first, Deep Sagar, showed no understanding at all that LEASE should not be helping rapacious freeholders or clever managing agents to screw money out of leaseholders. He moved on, but I must say incidentally to the civil service appointments people that they should count how many public appointments he has had—I think he has had more than the number of years I have had in the House of Commons, which is 45. The second chair was Roger Southam, whom I took on trust when he was appointed. Others said that he was not trustworthy. It turned out that I was wrong and they were right.
I hope that when a permanent chair is chosen for LEASE—it now has an interim chair—the stakeholders will be consulted on the process and, if possible, given a chance to comment on who might be on the shortlist. If they do not want to trust me, perhaps they could ask the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse or someone else to bring an impartial view. LEASE has been led for many years by Anthony Essien. I have no complaint about him; I have treated him with respect on every occasion, and vice versa.
LEASE has been changing: it is now unequivocally on the side of leaseholders, thanks to the intervention of Gavin Barwell, who was the first Housing Minister to get a grip on what was needed—he provided leadership in the Department, and I am glad that the Department has responded. LEASE’s website now has more than 100 categories under which people can interact and get some advice. The problem is that LEASE could not give all the advice on practical things.
For example, on the Grenfell Tower cladding issue, when the Government rightly said that no social tenant should have to carry the cost of re-cladding, the private tenants were left stuck, either in public or private blocks. The advice that the campaigning charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership gave was right, while the advice that LEASE gave—to go to court—was wrong, because the tribunals had to reach the unfair conclusion that the leaseholder was stuck with the cost.
I pay great tribute to the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who got the Government to agree—perhaps against the advice of some civil servants—to carry the cost. He solved a problem that would otherwise have hit many small people.
There are other issues that I could cover at some length. I pay tribute to the National Leasehold Campaign, and to Katie Kendrick and Jo Darbyshire; to Victoria Derbyshire’s programme on BBC 2, which gave the issue prominence at a time when it mattered; to Patrick Collinson of The Guardian; to whoever advises Strobes at Private Eye on leasehold issues; and to others.
I declare this in public: if any of these big property interests threaten defamation proceedings against any of the leasehold campaigners, I will say on the Floor of the House of Commons exactly what can be said about them, in spades—I won’t hold back. Up to now I have been pretty restrained, but I want people to know this: do not bully those who campaign for justice. We are all on the side of the small voice. By all means have discussion, and by all means have disagreement, but do not think that you can get away with lawyers’ letters of the kind that get prominence every now and again in Strobes’s legal pages.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he has put in over many years; many of us have come in on the back of it. Does he welcome the decision in the Persimmon case in north Wales last month and recognise that other leaseholders are in a similar position of not having had enough information when they bought out their lease? I have a situation with Barratt Homes in my constituency, where leaseholders are now looking to get the county council to take on a similar case under trading standards. Would it not be far more efficient for the Government to send out a clear message to property companies in this case that they really need to do the right thing by leaseholders who have been dishonestly sold to? That would save them from all those actions and relieve the pressure on county councils and leaseholders.
The whole House will agree. Perhaps it would help if the Ministry considered having a roundtable to go through some of these issues—it would not have to be secret, but it could be informally private. We were fortunate, in part, with Pete Redfern of Taylor Wimpey, when we discovered that the then chair of LEASE had written totally defective documents that put it as though Roger Southam could control blocks that should never have been anywhere near his control. That got resolved. Taylor Wimpey said it would set aside £130 million to put right some of the things it now recognises it should not have done—it has not done enough, but at least it recognises the issue and has made a start.
I think the trading standards case in Wales is a way forward. Responsible shareholders in each of the building firms should be saying, “With social responsibility in corporate governance, what are you going to do about it?” That applies to Barratt as to the other firms. As for Persimmon, I hope that it will say that this is not just a judgment relevant to Wales, where in fact it kept away from judgment by making a voluntary payment, but applies to England as well.
Put simply, we need to abolish new leaseholds in any but the most extreme circumstances; we need to find a way to convert to commonhold; and we need to make commonhold so well known that when people try to register, it is recognised by Help to Buy and by the Land Registry—it is now recognised by both, but it was not previously. Advice should be taken from the all-party group and our secretariat, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. When there is friction, let us try to resolve it in normal way. I end with this offer: I hope that the chief executive of LEASE will accept an invitation to bring all his staff to a drinks party here in the House of Commons, where the all-party group and those who give day-to-day advice to leaseholders can come together and get past any problems that may be apparent at the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on securing today’s debate on the progress of leasehold and commonhold reform. He is a determined and formidable campaigner. I am also grateful to the Opposition Members who, with my hon. Friend, have been making solid progress on this important matter. With more than 4 million leasehold properties in the UK, we need to ensure that the system is working correctly, and that where it is not—where we see unfairness and exploitation—the market is held to account and changed.
During a recent Backbench Business Committee debate on the Floor of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and others raised the problem of people who had bought new properties in the north-west with leasehold arrangements that, to be frank, are a rip-off. At that point, the body language of the Minister—great champion of free enterprise that she is—conveyed her recognition that we had a case. Will she agree to meet a small delegation to discuss what can be done? The developers involved, in particular Redrow in my constituency, are completely unwilling to discuss the rights and decencies due to our residents.
I will indeed meet the right hon. Gentleman and a delegation of fellow MPs. I did not realise he was such a good reader of body language, but he is quite right. The cases raised are not right, the system is not working right and those who agree with the market can see that it is not working right for the market either. Such cases should not be happening.
Let me be clear: the Government are committed to improving consumer fairness for leaseholders, and we have a programme of work under way to make sure that changes are made. Some of that work has already happened, including setting out how the ban on leasehold for new homes will work and stating our intention to reduce to zero ground rents on new leases, if we have them at all.
The Minister talks about going forward, which is great, but we must go back too. We cannot leave behind the people who have been sold a pup. People tell us how they were advised to use Taylor Wimpey’s own lawyers and how it was never pointed out to them that the properties were leasehold. Even now, some people do not realise that they have a leasehold property.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; I will come to it later in my speech. No doubt, he realises that with leaseholds dating back a long time, there are legalities to unpick, but we are working on understanding how to do that.
I am pleased to see that the leasehold house ban has had an immediate effect on the market. In 2017, when we first made the announcement, 10% of new-build houses in England were sold as leasehold; today, that figure is down to 2%, which is significant progress, but we obviously want to make more. We will still legislate to ensure that, in future, apart from in exceptional circumstances, all new houses will be sold on a freehold basis.
Developers will no longer be able to use leases on houses for financial gain—a practice that has become the norm in some parts of the country, as we have heard again today. That will make certain that the right tenure is used on the right properties, which will make it fairer for all. The reforms will remove the incentives for developers and freeholders to use leaseholds to make unjustified profits at the expense of leaseholders.
To echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) about going back, do the Government see that as a responsibility and could they find a way to intervene? We have identical houses on the same estate: they were sold in the first phase as leasehold but are being sold in the second phase as freehold at the same price, yet the owners of the first-phase houses have been told that they must pay £3,750 to Persimmon, Redrow or whoever to convert to freehold. There is no market and there is no choice in that—is it not wrong?
Everybody here can agree that is wrong, but it is about the steps that we will have to take to get the situation under control. We are looking at help for existing leaseholders, many of whom face, as the hon. Gentleman says, onerous fees and charges, including the doubling of ground rent in some cases. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and many existing leaseholders want the Government to legislate to amend those. We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that people are having with those charges, but we clearly have to look at how to unpick those contracts, which are set in law.
I am grateful to the Minister for her generosity in giving way and to the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for securing the debate.
One thing I would beg the Minister for is a simple right-to-buy formula, perhaps based on the number of years remaining—a multiple of the ground rent, in some way—that could be applied nationwide. I know there will be a lot of complexities in that, but is it something she is looking at in those plans? It would be great to hear if she were.
We are indeed looking at a much simpler model that people can understand and make sense of, and at how to make it easier, smoother and quicker to do.
We have also made sure that there is a voluntary way for the sector to come together to solve the problems of its own creation. The industry pledge is an important first step. It has been signed by more than 60 leading developers, freeholders and managing agents. We will work with them and keep a vigilant eye on how it is working. Through that pledge, freeholders have committed to identifying any lease that doubles more frequently than every 20 years and contacting the relevant leaseholders to offer to amend their lease where necessary. I acknowledge those developers that have signed the pledge not to insert such clauses into future leases and welcome that. The pledge is an important first step, but we need to keep our eye on it. We will continue to monitor how effective it is in supporting leaseholders and we will take further action where necessary.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. It is interesting to hear that there is a voluntary assembly of the various housebuilders and developers. Surely, however, there is an opportunity for a paid-for body, funded by all those builders, to come together and arbitrate on behalf of the leaseholders and come to a sensible cost for them to pay for the conversion to freehold. Would not an independent body funded by the builders be a better solution?
All the ideas that have come forward are being looked at to figure out what the way forward will be. That may well be something that ends up happening. At the moment, I cannot say, but we will look at every idea that comes forward.
The Government are looking to standardise the enfranchisement process and have asked the Law Commission to review the current arrangements. That is to support existing leaseholders and, as mentioned, it includes making buying a freehold or extending a lease easier, quicker and as cost-effective as possible. The Law Commission is analysing responses to its consultation paper on leasehold enfranchisement reform, “Leasehold home ownership: buying your freehold or extending your lease”. This autumn, it will report back to Government on the options for reducing the price of that, and on all other aspects of the enfranchisement regime early next year. I look forward to receiving its recommendations.
If there is evidence of mis-selling and collusion between solicitors and developers, what action can the Government take?
I shall come to that later, but the hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do, I hope, that that is looked at and where it can be proved that something wrong and unlawful has been done, it will be taken up and checked.
Obviously still more needs to be done. Our recent publications show the other plans we have for leasehold reform. They include our responses to the technical consultation on implementing reforms to the leasehold market, and to the Select Committee, most of whose recommendations we were able to accept in full or in part. We have also committed to regulating managing agents, and to improving the transparency and fairness of service charges. Too often, people feel ripped off by fees and charges, sometimes not even being told what they are paying for. We have committed to introducing a single mandatory and legally enforceable code of practice to set standards across the sector. We will also require agents to be qualified to practice.
Last October, we established an independent working group, chaired by Lord Best, to look at how standards can be raised across the property sector, and to consider how fees such as service charges should be presented to consumers. The working group published its final reports to the Government in July. We are considering its recommendations and will announce the next steps in due course.
The whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend. There may not be time to get through all the things that the Government are doing and looking forward to doing, so would she consider making a written statement to lay things out and make them available to all, not just those who are here for the debate?
One thing that may not be dealt with straight away is looking at the regulations on recognised tenants’ associations—in effect, recognising leaseholders, which I know is a tricky issue. The Government wrote to me saying that they would consult the property tribunal about how this was working. I do not ask for an instant response, but that is one of the issues that should go forward.
The Minister’s response to the Select Committee report is very good. The report was one of the best I have seen in all my time in the House, and the Government are responding to it well.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should and will lay the matter down as a written statement. Everyone, across the House, appreciates that there is bad practice. Where bad practice happens, in whatever form, it should be taken to task.
It is unacceptable that some freehold homeowners are unable to challenge excessive fees for the maintenance of their estates. We are going to legislate so that residential freeholders will be given the right to challenge the reasonableness of such fees. They will also be able to apply to the tribunal to appoint a new manager. That will help to increase the transparency, accountability and reasonableness of the fees.
Many leaseholders have raised concerns because they believe they were mis-sold their properties—the leasehold tenure was not properly explained to them, and the onerous terms were not made clear. Some were told that they could buy the freehold for a certain price after a couple of years, only to find out that it had been sold on to an investor in that time and that either the price had gone up considerably or they could not buy it. I welcome the Competition and Markets Authority’s current investigation of the issue.
I appreciate that I am running out of time, but I will indeed meet with my colleagues. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall. It is something that all colleagues want to get right. Abuses will not be accepted by any of us.
Question put and agreed to.
Child Maintenance Service: Payment Recovery from Absent Parents
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of the Child Maintenance Service in recovering payments from absent parents.
I would hope that everyone agrees that parents should continue to take financial responsibility for their children after the break-up of a relationship. We must understand that relationship break-up can often be a disturbing and distressing time for everybody, often leaving behind a great deal of bad feeling. It is not easy in such circumstances to come to an arrangement that is fair on both partners and, most of all, fair on the children. The criticisms that I will be directing today at the Child Maintenance Service, and its predecessor the Child Support Agency, should not be taken as an indication that I do not appreciate the difficult circumstances in which it has to operate.
Many absent parents do their best to care for their children, and I do not want to give the impression that everybody whose relationship has broken up is trying to avoid their responsibilities. Sadly, however, some people see the break-up of a relationship as an opportunity to abandon all responsibilities for their children. The Child Maintenance Service owes it to those children and to the resident parent to ensure that the absent parent complies with their legal and moral responsibilities. We are not talking about forcing somebody to pay to give their children a life of luxury. Indeed, we are often talking about forcing somebody to pay money that they can well afford in order to keep their own children out of poverty. The Child Maintenance Service is sometimes not good enough at getting money from people who can afford it, and we sometimes see it pursuing people for payments that they quite clearly cannot afford.
I am grateful to several organisations that have provided me with background information not only for this debate, but to support my caseworkers in dealing with a significant number of requests for help from constituents. Fife Gingerbread does an enormous amount of good work in my constituency and elsewhere in Fife. My caseworkers also find the Child Poverty Action Group’s child support handbook indispensable, and that will be the same in every constituency across these islands.
Several individuals have also shared their experiences with me. I do not have time to go into any of them in great detail, and some of cannot be aired in public for reasons of confidentiality. In addition, some of the issues that have been raised—serious though they are—do not really fall within the remit of this debate because they relate, for example, to the regulations around exactly how somebody’s income is determined, which causes a great deal of anger, sometimes among the paying parents and sometimes for the receiving parents. I make that point because it will not be possible to go into most of these cases in any kind of detail in the time available. I have also been approached by several colleagues who want to speak in the debate or to intervene, so I want to give time for that as well.
I see too many cases in which it is obvious that a parent is determined to avoid their responsibilities and that they can get away with it—sometimes for years at a time—which is just not good enough. It is far too easy, for example, to hide income from the Child Maintenance Service, which too often leaves it to the resident parent to produce the evidence that their ex-partner is effectively committing fraud. That is bad enough at the best of times, but if the resident parent has been the victim of domestic abuse or financially coercive and controlling behaviour, it is wholly unacceptable to make them responsible for ensuring that the other parent of their children complies with their legal responsibilities.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on an issue that I have raised in the past. Several constituents who are the resident parent have not received any money for years, and a common theme or trend seems to be that the paying parent claims to have given up paid work or become self-employed in order to hide their income. That totally thwarts the whole purpose of the Child Maintenance Service. Does my hon. Friend agree that the CMS must pull out all the stops to find a way to prevent that from happening, maintain its charter commitment and ensure that the child is at heart of everything?
Absolutely. I do not think we will ever have a set of regulations that everyone agrees with. If a relationship between two people has completely broken down, the one who is paying will think they are paying too much, and the one who is receiving payment will think they are not getting enough. Surely, if the rules are based on someone’s income, however, it should be no easier for them to hide their income from their children than it is to hide it from the Inland Revenue.
I have assisted constituents affected by HMRC loan charge, as well as a constituent who was pursued to a ridiculous degree for a relatively small debt that they turned out not to owe to HMRC. Many resident parents in my constituency would like a fraction of that diligence to be used by the CMS when it chases down money that is owed not to the Government but to children who often desperately need it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that more must be done to reconcile reported earnings with the lifestyle of the absent father or mother? I have seen parents in my constituency who give their child £10.50 a week, yet they drive a brand-new BMW, have the newest of gear and have that kind of lifestyle. An absent father must be allowed to live, but it should be difficult for them to disregard their financial obligations. We must make that more difficult.
I agree with that entirely.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have a constituent who is owed a substantial sum by an absent father, who lives very comfortably and flies in and out of the UK with no apparent difficulty. The only answer my constituent gets is that the service cannot touch him because it cannot establish a UK address for him. Does my hon. Friend agree that such cases need more than just ministerial hand-wringing, and that concrete action to seize passports or assets could be in order?
Absolutely, and I will come on to some of the new powers that have recently been given to the Child Maintenance Service. Although those powers are draconian, there will be instances when they have to be used. Deliberately concealing income from people who you know want only to provide for your children should be a criminal offence. It is not a matter for the civil courts or for civil adjudication. If someone falsifies their tax returns, they go to jail, so if they falsify returns provided to assess their financial liability for their own kids, they should also go to jail.
I have a constituent who has not received payment for years. Their former partner has moved home and jobs, and keeps changing bank account. They also disposed of two properties, yet that money is untraceable. Surely people should not be able to open new bank accounts if they owe all that money.
Again, I entirely agree. I have had female constituents who use one name in their family and one in their professional work. They have difficulty opening two bank accounts, so it seems strange that others are able to get away with opening bank accounts all over the place.
Last year the powers available to the Child Maintenance Service were extended. I found it concerning to read the evidence submitted to the Work and Pensions Committee in 2016, because it seemed that the Department for Work and Pensions did not understood the difference between collection powers and enforcement powers. The DWP can implement collection powers immediately through the Child Maintenance Service—it does not need anybody’s permission—but enforcement powers are more severe and need the consent of the courts. If those who write the evidence for a parliamentary Select Committee are vague about the distinction between those two powers, it is no wonder than parents and children who are waiting for their money sometimes get confused about what the powers are.
Some powers that the Child Maintenance Service has should not be allowed as a form of debt enforcement, and even in certain cases I do not think that imprisoning someone for not paying their dues is acceptable. It should be an imprisonable offence if somebody falsifies information, but not if they refuse to pay money that has been established as owed. I certainly would not want any seizing of property, warrant sale or auction to happen in Scotland. One of the first private Member’s Bills put through the Scottish Parliament was to outlaw what I believe to be a barbaric practice. In a civilised country, there are other ways to carry out debt collection, without such draconian and barbaric actions. For example, we could restrict someone’s ability to open new bank accounts.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I need to make a bit of progress. If I have time later, I will give way to the hon. Lady. I am grateful for her interest in the debate.
Something that has been a major concern for many of my constituents recently is the Child Maintenance Service’s decision to write off debts that somebody has been owed for a significant time. Sometimes that is a relatively small amount of money, but it can open up all the old wounds again if the parent who is owed that money suddenly gets a letter from the CMS after 10 years, having heard nothing from it, as happened to one of my constituents recently.
Another constituent has been asked to agree to writing off a debt of £18,000 that she is owed for the children she has raised on her own. Her children are now grown up, and people could argue that they do not need the money, but the person who owes the money certainly does not need it. I do not think that is acceptable, any more than it would be acceptable for the HMRC to decide not to bother chasing somebody who owed £18,000 of tax. In the case I have referred to, the Child Maintenance Service knows where the absent parent is. It knows where he lives, it knows where he works and it knows his bank account details, so there is no excuse whatsoever not to require him to enter into some kind of arrangement to pay his children the money he owes.
On that specific point, they will have been contacted. If that information is available and they would like that £18,000 debt to be pursued, it would be, and it would be a priority.
Interestingly enough, when I contacted the Child Maintenance Service about that specific case, it promised to give us a fuller response by 3 October, so it has about 20 minutes left. If we finish a wee bit early, the Minister might be able to get on to his colleagues and ensure that they honour that. Of course, it may be that they have responded during the time that I have been on my feet.
Far too often, the parent who has the main responsibility for looking after the children physically is left to fight battle after battle with the CMS to get the money that is theirs and their children’s by right. Often, they feel as if the CMS is not working with them, but is almost acting as an obstacle to them. Far too often, when I look through the cases that have come in to my office since I was elected, the final point is that the parent has just given up and feels it is not worth chasing things up. Very often, they can no longer stand the stress of being forced to continue to contact somebody who, quite frankly, they never want to hear from again because of the way that person treated them while they were together. It is not only a tragedy, but a scandal, if somebody is forced to give up the fight for what they are legally entitled to simply because a Government agency has not supported them enough in the process.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Like him, my caseworkers and I have found it incredibly frustrating to try to get through to the CMS, both in cases where there is a claimant making a claim and where the CMS holds wrong information on a defendant. Just trying to get the CMS to look at that is very difficult. Does he agree that the fact that universal credit now takes account of maintenance income, whether or not it is received, will make recipients who are due that money even poorer if they do not receive it, and that that is a double whammy for them and often for their children as well? It just adds to the injustice of the situation.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Those of us who are old enough to remember it would do well to recall that the original version of the Child Support Agency was set up not to help the children, but as a way of getting somebody else to pay the children’s maintenance costs to save the DWP or its predecessor a wee bit of money. That legacy can be seen sometimes in the fact that the CMS, through the DWP, is simply not as enthusiastic about pursuing money that is owed to other people as it would be if it were pursuing money owed to itself.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I think I can give way once more, and then I will have to move on.
I was looking through my records this afternoon, and I saw that I wrote to the Child Support Agency on behalf of one of my constituents on 30 September 1999. She finally received a first, partial payment on 1 August 2018. It took 19 years. Is the hon. Gentleman as unsurprised as I am that people, as he says, just give up?
I just wish that I could wait 19 years before paying the bills that come into my constituency office with more regularity. I would love to think that the example the right hon. Gentleman raises was unique, but I do not think it is. What is the point of a child maintenance system that does not pay anything to the child until they are 18 or 19 and have left school, and possibly left home and gone to university? The children need the money when they are two, three and four years old, not when they are in their 20s. In a case I mentioned earlier, the children were literally grown up and had left home. Some were married, some were at university. As a point of principle, the parent was determined to carry on fighting, but he knows perfectly well that the money will not make any difference to his children. They have had the experience of being brought up when money was desperately tight.
A completely incomprehensible aspect to the write-off scheme is that the process the Child Maintenance Service has to go through before it can write off historical arrears depends, reasonably enough, on the level and value of the arrears, but that, by its own admission,
“significant policy, operational and IT issues beset the 1993 and 2003 schemes which contributed to the build-up of considerable arrears of unpaid maintenance”.
In another document, it admitted that it cannot always be sure how much the arrears are. How can it be fair for the CMS to say that it can write off an amount of arrears because it is small enough within the scheme that it does not need the receiving parent’s permission, and at the same time to say, “We don’t really know how much the arrears are, because our record-keeping system was so appalling in the past”?
A great deal more could be said, but I know that colleagues want to speak as well, so I will bring my comments to a close. First, however, I want to add something that was not in my original speech. I decided to do that when I realised that, while we are having this debate, our colleagues in the main Chamber will, hopefully, be agreeing to the Second Reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
I cannot go into much detail about some of the cases I have had, because people are still under threat from ex-partners, but I hope the Minister can explain how someone whose partner has been convicted repeatedly of assault can hide their income from the Child Maintenance Service for more than three years after the CMS has been alerted to where the money was, where it was going and how it was being hidden. It was hidden in a way that, if I had the same authorisation to visit premises and to make inquiries as the CMS and HMRC, I could have found it, as any of us could, within 20 minutes. It was not an elaborate offshore scheme; it was a very simple accounting practice that HMRC and the Child Maintenance Service know about.
How can it be that someone who has been and still is a victim of coercive financial control is told that it is entirely up to her to find evidence that her ex-partner is committing fraud against her and probably against HMRC as well? How can that be acceptable? Why is the Child Maintenance Service not working more closely with HMRC, so that when they get information that points clearly to a large-scale criminal evasion of tax by somebody whose address and place of work is a matter of public record, they can take action? How can it take three years for them even to begin an investigation? When the Minister sums up, I hope he can answer that question, as well as responding to the other comments I have made.
Before I call Mr Kerr, I remind Members that I will call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 10 past five. Three Members have indicated in writing that they wish to speak, and I will call Mr Madders and Mr Pollard after Mr Kerr. If you divvy the time up among yourselves, we might be able to get more Members in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on bringing this subject back to Westminster Hall. I shall be brief.
It is important to remind ourselves that even though we live in a world of three-letter acronyms—we talk about the CMS and the CSA—at the centre of all our thoughts and considerations in this debate is the welfare of the child and of children. Nothing ought to be more precious to us than the welfare of our children. I have no doubt that the staff at the CMS are sensitive, conscientious and aware of the impact of what they do. I pay tribute to them, because they deal day in and day out with adults, many of whom are in distress or are emotional and sometimes very angry. Behind each case is a child or children, often bewildered and dealing with complexities they are often too young to process.
I have some questions for the Minister, for whom I have immense regard—I think he knows that. I have asked these questions before because they are the issues that surface in my constituency casework and they have to do with the powers of the CMS. By the way, contrary to what the hon. Member for Glenrothes says, I wholly support the powers granted to the CMS last December to track down these reluctant, absent parents, but I ask the Minister, why is it so reluctant to use them? That is how it appears to my caseworkers and me. Why does the CMS seem not to be prepared to exercise to their full extent its powers to investigate cases, especially when it is clear cut that something is seriously amiss?
I am thinking of a case, which I will anonymise, where a non-resident parent is a clever accountant and is clearly hiding his income: you can tell that by the lifestyle he is able to maintain. It is clear what is happening. Earnings are being hidden away, squirreled away, disguised, but nothing happens. In another case, the MP contact agreed that an investigation was urgently needed, but, subsequently, someone somewhere else in the CMS flatly turned that down. Those are just two examples, but there are so many others.
Why the reluctance to press ahead? Is that reluctance to use powers based on how resource-intensive this is? The CMS has the powers, but does it have the resources it needs to enforce them? Based on my constituents’ experience, I raise a question about how the CMS works internally. Does it have the right internal systems to support the work it does and to manage its casework? I have no doubt it is a heavy case load for every single one of the people managing their clients. However, looking from the outside in, it is hard not to conclude that the systems are not functional, or that the system users are not working to a standard.
Why does there appear to be so little in the way of cohesive or comprehensive notes or records in my constituents’ cases? They will phone up and they might speak to the same person—that is an improvement. Sometimes they speak to different people, and when that happens, they have to rehearse their situation over and over again. That is deeply upsetting and distressing. It seems a very basic question to ask a Minister, but is there a standard for making notes? Is there a standard for creating follow-up items and action points? Is the system quality checked? Are the users of the system being assisted to maintain a high standard?
Then there are the letters my constituents receive when they are in the complaints process. They will often receive generic letters with phrases in them where sometimes the meaning is just not clear. That can create confusion and upset. My senior caseworker Rachel Nunn, to whom I pay tribute, and I have tried to help our constituents decipher these letters. However, they are so general—not specific enough, not personalised enough—and are confusing because they are not sufficiently personalised. Consequently, they create anxiety and stress for parents, and the last thing those parents need is more stress.
Thank you for affording me the time to make these brief comments, Mr Owen. I end with a simple home truth: there is a human cost to the breakdown of relationships. Yes, adults pay a price: an emotional price, a mental price, a wellbeing price. However, those who often—sadly and invariably—suffer the most are children. Frankly, I am aghast at how mean-spirited some adults can be when it comes to the welfare of their own children. That is why I support the new powers granted by the Government to the CMS and why I implore the Minister and the CMS to use those powers. When the Minister rises to his feet, I hope he will address at least some of the issues raised in my remarks.
Order. If Members take about three minutes each, we will get everybody in.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
All Members here will recognise that this issue is an important matter that comes up in surgeries week after week. We know that the maintenance service is vital to ensure children do not enter poverty. One lone parent in four is vulnerable to poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, so it is critical that those payments are delivered on time. Simply, when the system fails, it fails the children we are trying to protect.
It saddens me that progress in improving the payments seems to be slow. I met the Minister earlier this year and I was impressed by his commitment and dedication to improving things, but we still come across issues all too frequently. Cases of non-payment are commonplace. Non-payment problems seem to arise particularly when parents switch from the collect-and-pay service to direct pay. There needs to be greater recognition of the long history of the parent’s paying record, rather than the small period when they are on direct pay. Too often, matters deteriorate again when they switch back to direct payments, which can make things worse for everyone, because arrears—sometimes of several thousand pounds—begin to accrue, which makes it even harder for commitments to be honoured.
I understand that a third of paying parents were non-compliant in the first quarter of this year, which demonstrates that my constituents’ experiences are not isolated. The level of arrears appears to be creeping up; more than £275 million of arrears was recorded in the first quarter. That suggests that some of the measures that the Government have introduced need further refinement.
In particular, there seems to be a lack of effective enforcement. My constituents tell me that the CMS appears more concerned with meeting the priorities of the paying parent than those of the receiving parent. That is probably an incorrect perception, but it is how they feel. There is also sometimes a feeling that some payment is better than no payment at all and that a hands-off approach with the parent seems to arise, which leads to greater arrears accruing.
All too often, my constituents experience unreasonably long delays in dealing with complaints, which not only cause emotional and financial stress, but leave parents without the support they are entitled to. Those payments matter. It is vital that, whatever challenges the CMS faces, it is effective in supporting children. Every organisation makes mistakes and I am not here to harangue it for those mistakes, but too often it seems that, even when an error has been identified, the culture of the organisation is too defensive, there is little candour and it takes too long to put things right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing the debate, because it is time that we set out the concerns of our constituents—far too many of them. I have a real concern that the CMS is not fit for purpose. I say that because there are too few staff chasing too much demand, too many mistakes being made, and too many parents and too many children—as the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) said—not getting the support they deserve because of failings in the way the organisation works.
I wish to raise an issue that has not been discussed in detail, which is the Government’s changes to the way that historical debts are chased. I recognise that last year, the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018 were passed to enable the CMS to write off debts accrued when it was the CSA. There is a logic behind that in the adequate use of resources, but it means that there are far too many families in Plymouth and across the country who are legitimately owed money but who are having those debts written off. That is being done in a way that creates genuine heartbreak for the parents because of the lack of support for the children involved.
The Government have stated:
“If there is a reasonable chance of collection we will make reasonable attempts to collect the outstanding debt”,
but they are yet to articulate what “reasonable” means. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what the Department means by “reasonable attempts”, because far too many parents feel that there is no attempt to reclaim and go after those historical debts.
Consequently, it seems that if people avoid paying historical debts for long enough, they can simply get away with not paying at all. That is a deeply concerning sentiment that I have heard time and again in my surgeries. One constituent who visited me was owed £9,378.08 by her ex-husband. She was told that approximately £4,500 of that would be written off because it was accrued under the old CSA rules. After she got in touch with my office, we intervened so that did not happen. When the CMS actually investigated, it discovered that her ex-husband had more than enough money in his account to pay for the arrears, so the decision to write them off should not have been made in the first place, yet it was.
Another person who lives in my patch came to me with a similar issue: £13,359 was written off. In this case, it seemed that the absent parent was deliberately changing bank accounts and hiding income. The CMS said that the debt was a direct result of his determination to avoid meeting his responsibilities, yet my constituent was told that there was no right of appeal against the debt being written off. She is never going to see the £13,000 she is owed.
I have spoken to children involved. The money is not just cash; it represents a connection with a parent and a value for an individual. Children who are affected in these cases have a value and a worth; the historical debts hanging over them from parents who do not pay have no consequence on their value. Those children deserve to be loved, cared for and supported responsibly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing this important debate. It is important that the adults on both sides recognise that the money that is reclaimed through the CMS is not for the parents; it is for the child or the children. The breakdown of a relationship can be incredibly difficult; it can be rather tempestuous and emotions can run high. However, it should always be remembered that the money is not going to the other parent who is taking principal responsibility for the care of the child; it is for the child’s benefit.
There have been long-standing problems with the transfer from the CSA to the CMS. People have been chased for debt that does not exist. My office has had to contact the CMS about money that has already been paid. The CMS is wasting its time and energies chasing debts that it should not be, and it should undertake its responsibilities to investigate seriously what individuals say to them.
On non-payments, constituents raise the issue of having no communication at all from the CMS and, again, it takes the involvement of my office to get any kind of resolution. It is striking that we do get a resolution, which makes me very aware that there is something going wrong in the system.
I also want to touch on reductions in salary. It seems from the examples we have heard that if someone has the financial flexibility, clout and wherewithal, they are able to hide their money. They are able to hide their funds, and it becomes incredibly difficult. If they are self-employed, they can put all the money into a company—the company can be in the name of a new spouse, for example—in order to pay for household bills and to live a more comfortable lifestyle and not necessarily pay what is owed.
The situation is different for those who are on lower salaries, who are taking their responsibilities seriously and who want to pay for their children, in the event that they are ill and they lose money. Because they are paid on a weekly basis, their salary has to go down by 25% for them to get any kind of reduction in the amount of child maintenance they are paying.
I have had people come to see me in tears because their illness has meant that they have been unable to work or they have had a serious reduction in their salary, and they have a new life and a new family who they have to pay rent for, and then they are unable to pay the money to the CMS. They are put into debt and financial hardship and then, when they are earning again, 40% of their salary is taken off them. It leaves them in a dire situation, wondering why they are bothering to work when they could be in the benefits system. I do not think that we should have a Government-sponsored system that encourages people to look to the benefits system as a way out.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing the debate. I would like to say a little more about the case I referred to in an earlier intervention.
By the time of the letter I wrote on behalf of my constituent, Mrs A, on 30 September 1999, the father, Mr A, had been assessed as being due to pay just over £100 per week towards child maintenance. He never paid. He claimed to be on a very low income. He claimed that he had absurdly high housing costs. At one stage, confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he was working, he claimed to be doing so free of charge. He is actually a prosperous and busy builder, who owns his own large home.
I was more or less continuously in touch with the Child Support Agency, its successors and Ministers for 19 years on my constituent’s behalf. There was a short period when she was distracted because of the ill health and later the death of her mother. However, she showed extraordinary ingenuity and determination in compiling evidence of Mr A’s true circumstances. Without that evidence, I do not think that he would ever have been forced to pay at all. He was absolutely determined not to pay. He spent a fortune in legal costs. If only that money had gone to his child, things would have been very different. He made three small contributions in 2003, amounting to just over £1,000, and that was after he had lost three tribunals in succession and appealed against the decision each time. But other than those three small payments, he refused to pay any money.
By December 2013 it had been established that Mr A owed £54,000: £15,000 was due to Mrs A; and £39,000 was due to the Government, to reimburse benefits that should not have been paid. It then took another five years for that demand to be enforced. My constituent finally received the £15,000 on 1 August 2018, 19 years after she had first approached me. The system completely failed to deliver the support that she and her son were entitled to throughout his entire childhood. As a result, he grew up in much more straitened circumstances than he should have.
The point that I put to the Minister is that surely the Government must act to ensure that an absent parent can no longer use legal chicanery to avoid their responsibilities for 20 years.
Thank you, Mr Owen, for allowing me to take part in this debate. I will discuss both sides of the arguments that go on in this area. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), on occasion I am on the side of people who have to defend a claim to pay child maintenance. The Child Maintenance Service is the worst organisation that my office and I have to deal with, in that we see bills for payment that come from it that pay no regard to reality or income. It can put people who were previously healthy into situations where they are so stressed and so upset with the whole situation that it literally makes them ill.
Getting any sort of response from the Child Maintenance Service is almost impossible. It seems that people actually need their Member of Parliament to intervene on their behalf in order to get a response from the CMS. That is not good for MPs and our staff, and it is not good for people out there who need the child maintenance.
Having spoken to a friend in the Chamber who represents a very poor area of east London, I know that she has no child maintenance cases. We believe that is because the system is so complicated and so unresponsive that people simply do not come forward to claim the child maintenance that they are due. That is not good for them and it is certainly not good for their children.
I know that the Minister will be well aware of the situation concerning universal credit and the fact that parents with care are now deemed to be in receipt of child maintenance even if they are not actually receiving it.
To be absolutely clear, child maintenance does not impact on the amount of benefits the receiving parent will get, whether it is paid or not paid. It did under the old system of the Child Support Agency, but it does not under the new system.
That is very good to hear, although it is certainly very different from how the regulations for universal credit were set out at the time. If those regulations are changing, that is good.
However, it remains the case that women who are due to receive child maintenance are not getting the support from the CMS that they need, and it is all too easy for men in general to evade their responsibilities by hiding their money and income, and it then takes years for people to be able to claim that, and for children to receive the support they need, as has been highlighted here today.
The Minister’s team have listened to many cases from my constituency surgeries. We have yet to see decisive action taken against those defendants; I hope that it will be, but we really should not have to meet senior civil servants in the Department in order to get any action taken.
As always, Mr Owen, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I just wish that we had more time to debate this hugely important topic. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on securing the debate and on his powerful and thoughtful opening speech; he spoke for many of us, and for many of those who have been badly let down by the Child Maintenance Service. All MPs deal day in, day out with a steady stream of child maintenance cases in which a parent can and does avoid paying, simply because the current system is not robust enough.
Earlier this year a constituent from Argyll and Bute contacted me about a case that had begun in the days of the Child Support Agency, which highlights the failure of the system. Back in 2015 the father of Fiona’s children declared through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that his gross annual income was just over £7,500, on which basis he was ordered to pay £20 a week to support his children. Knowing full well that that was not the case, Fiona appealed. Sure enough, the investigation that followed discovered that his true earnings were £200,000. The amount that he had to pay was increased accordingly, yet four years down the line, in a letter to my office dated May 2019, the CMS admitted that Fiona’s former partner was still in arrears to the tune of £68,000. That is unacceptable.
Fiona’s case is just one example—albeit perhaps an extreme one—of the cases that we deal with daily in which a former partner simply refuses to pay out. We have been contacted by a constituent who believes that the CMS is working on former calculated earnings; by a dad whose former partner refuses to pay out despite a CMS ruling; and by a young mother who feels that she has been sent from pillar to post, between the CMS and the Ministry of Defence, while trying to get regular payments for her eight-year-old daughter from her ex-partner in the Royal Navy. I could go on—there are numerous examples—but the fact of the matter is that the system simply is not robust enough; it is too open to abuse if one partner or the other is determined enough to avoid their parental responsibilities.
Children living in single-parent families are twice as likely to fall into poverty as children living with two parents, which makes regular maintenance payments even more important for securing their future and protecting them from falling into poverty. Charging single parents to access their right to support for their children is therefore completely wrong and unacceptable. It is grossly unfair that a receiving parent is charged £20 per application fee and a 4% deduction of maintenance when the CMS collects the payment, given that the CMS’s involvement is almost exclusively down to the fact that the payee is non-compliant with the rules. Why should children suffer at the end of that system?
There is ample evidence from stakeholder groups to show that the CMS’s charges have deterred many people from using the system. Indeed, a recent survey by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 40% of receiving parents on direct pay said that they found the application fee difficult to afford. That figure rises above 50% among those on very low incomes.
Will the Minister explain why we have a system wherein the people who need the money most—those parents whose children are recognised as most at risk of falling into poverty—are being made to pay to get something to which they are fully entitled? Is it not high time the Government heeded the call of so many people in and outside this House to remove all the hurdles that stand between single parents and the money to which they are entitled, to protect their children from poverty regardless of their situation? The primary role of the Child Maintenance Service should be to ensure that those children whose parents, for whatever reason, are no longer together, are not in any way disadvantaged because of it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on bringing the debate to Westminster Hall today, as well as the 13 Members who have contributed. When I spoke in this place a few months ago, I made the point that child maintenance does not exist in isolation. It provides essential help with the costs of raising a child—food, clothing and travel expenses. It can make a huge difference, as hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have pointed out, to the welfare of the child and their start in life, which is crucial. Whatever the administrative challenges, and whatever the technicalities of the child maintenance system, it is important to remember that children are centre stage, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) eloquently argued.
It is crucial that children—it is often the most vulnerable—should have access to the financial support that every one of them deserves. It is equally crucial that the system should function in their favour when that support is withheld without good reason. Research shows that child maintenance alone lifts a fifth of low-income one-parent families out of poverty. We must remember that lone-parent families are particularly vulnerable to poverty. One in four lone parents is in persistent poverty—twice as many as in any other group, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The inadequacy of social security arguably makes child maintenance even more vital as a source of income for struggling single parents. However, as we have heard from across the Chamber, it is fair to say that there is a considerable distance to go to ensure that the current system of child maintenance achieves its aim.
A recent report from the charity Gingerbread has shown major problems with the payment of child maintenance through the direct pay system, for example. The Government could and should take action to assess the accuracy of the concerns. The current situation, whereby the DWP does not even track whether payments have been made, means that it cannot report on compliance in two thirds of cases. On collect and pay, Gingerbread has consistently argued that there is no evidence that charges encourage collaboration between parents. In the second quarter of 2019, 33% of paying parents in the collect-and-pay service built up arrears owing to non-compliance. The DWP’s own figures reveal that that is nearly £19 million. Furthermore, there remain continuing problems such as those highlighted today with inconsistent casework handing and follow-up—no follow-up at all in many cases—as well as poor and non-existent communication.
In my own constituency case load, as with other hon. Members, concerns have been raised time and again, and constituents believe that they will never get any money because it is tucked away through creative accounting. Like many in the Chamber, I firmly believe that collecting unpaid child maintenance should be a priority for any Government, and that the considerable toolbox of enforcement measures—many, in all fairness, the result of the 2018 review—should be applied more consistently. There has been a significant fall in enforcement activity by the DWP to recover payments that are, by definition, owed to children. According to Gingerbread:
“The hands-off approach, compounded by poor administration, places the burden of responsibility for pushing for Direct Pay enforcement onto receiving parents”.
Where direct pay arrangements break down and arrears accumulate, the CMS can assist by moving the arrangement on to collect and pay, but to use the service paying parents are charged 20% of the child maintenance plus a £20 registration fee, and receiving parents pay 4%. That introduces additional costs for already financially stretched households. Even on collect and pay, only 67% are paying something—I stress that word “something”—towards what they owe. Indeed, some of the testimonials that have been heard in the Chamber today make it abundantly clear that the current system needs to be more robust, and that the leadership of the DWP should listen and take more robust action. This is not simply a question of processes and systems; relationships and emotions are at the heart of how this approach affects those who use it.
Having listened to the debate, I have a number of questions to ask the Minister. Will he introduce monitoring of direct pay compliance, so we can have a clear picture of its effectiveness? Will he commit to introducing improved and more transparent service standards around enforcement and late payments? Will he review the effectiveness of collect-and-pay charges for receiving parents and look at the provisions that relate to the Domestic Abuse Bill around coercive relationships?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for calling this debate. On the basis of all the contributions, it is clear that this is one issue that unites those in all parts of the House, and that we want to do the very best for those receiving parents who have taken on the primary responsibility of the childcare and are having to battle to get the support that they rightly should be getting.
Let us remember that the CMS is a service of last resort. We would all hope that, wherever possible, parents can make amicable arrangements that do not necessarily need our involvement and have no impact on the children. Where that cannot be the case, however, because either one parent is or both parents are in dispute about what their responsibilities should be, it is absolutely the case that the CMS is there to provide support.
I want to make it very clear that all the cases raised show why this is such an important area, where we have brought forward significant new regulations and powers. I will go through some of those processes, but I repeat: a lot of the cases raised are legacy cases that would initially have been dealt with under the old rules and show why we have brought forward the rules I am going to talk about. There is still much more to do, and we are working very closely with stakeholders, including organisations such as Gingerbread, and on the other side those such as Families Need Fathers, which can provide constructive and helpful feedback. It is about getting balance between both sides.
There are around 700,000 cases a year. We record 2,500 complaints a year, which is less than 0.5%, but we still want to go further. We are absolutely focused on improving the customer experience. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), who I know has been proactive in this area. I must stress that I am not actually the Minister responsible for child maintenance, although I used to be; I have a great deal of interest in this area both as a constituency MP who raises cases and having served in a different role in DWP. Everything will be passed on to the relevant Minister. I would like my hon. Friend to meet the operations team, because some concerning operational issues were raised.
Customer experiences are shared with the senior management team. We work with stakeholders, and we also work with key organisations such as Womens Aid, which have done a huge amount to improve our ability to identify either victims or potential victims of domestic abuse, so we can tailor the service accordingly.
The initial contact with the service is with child maintenance options. That is not automatic; people must have a conversation, which will explain all the options available to them. Many people do not wish to use the process; they just want to have an amicable arrangement but would like some guidance on a starting point for those discussions. We can provide that information and signpost to other organisations, and that can open the gateway to looking at options such as direct payment or click and collect.
I note the Minister’s offer to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) to meet the operations team. Is that offer open to all of us who have participated in this debate?
That is a fair point. I am sure the team would be very happy to meet those who are particularly interested in the operations side.
On direct payment, there are cases where we have advised what the financial contribution should be, and the parents set out to try and do that without using us. A number of people have highlighted how that can break down. The problem is then that the debts mount up, and the bigger the debts, the bigger the problem it is to get that fixed. So, we have rightly tried to be more proactive. Not only is there the annual review, but we now text the receiving parents proactively to ask whether there are any issues, and if there are issues, we ask that they should contact us immediately so we can either escalate ultimately to enforcement or move them on to the click-and-pay service. In the last quarter of last year, 9,000 people moved from direct pay to collect and pay. We are nudging that proactive level of support as quickly as possible.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), talked of 33% not being collected on collect and pay. The 67% was the last published figure, in June 2019, which is up from 62% in the previous year, and the improvement has been long standing. The amount unpaid in June 2019 was £18.5 million, down from £22 million. That is £18.5 million too much, but we are heading in the right direction, through a combination of better training of our frontline staff, so that they can explain the options and potential punishments to both the receiving parent and the paying parent; better enforcement, which I am coming to; and the regulations that we passed to strengthen our ability to investigate and enforce.
Hon. Members have rightly raised areas where enforcement has not been quick enough. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) set out the exact reasons that we needed the two separate sets of regulations that were brought in over the last 12 months, which we did after listening to the cases, learning the lessons and seeing what was missing and what stopped us taking the action we all support. That is underlined by the fact that action must be taken much more quickly. The sooner we act, the easier it is to remedy.
We are also now benefiting from the ability to access more real-time information from HMRC and the strengthening of our ability with deduction orders, where we take money directly from people’s salaries. We are also reminding employers. Quite often, employees will say to an employer who is their friend, “My other half is being unreasonable. It would be really helpful if you helped me fudge this.” We are now using legal powers to remind employers that they will liable and, unsurprisingly, those collections have gone up to 48,000 in the last quarter, collecting about £26 million, compared with the same quarter last year when there were 31,300 collections, collecting £19 million. We are also proactively highlighting success stories in the media, which doesn’t half focus people’s minds.
The most significant change is the introduction of the financial investigations unit. In the past, when lifestyle queries were raised, we relied on HMRC to investigate. HMRC had finite resources; if a premier league footballer was clearly defrauding it of a huge amount of tax, it was very quick to go and look at that, but, for many of the cases highlighted, while it was a significant amount of money to those children, it might not have been enough for HMRC to prioritise it.
The financial investigations unit, which is solely ours, does not look at the value of the money, because the money is as important to every single parent regardless, and it will chase each case. These are highly-trained ex-police officers and tax inspectors with fiscal investigation experience and they focus on doing a deep dive, using evidence, in these sorts of case. We initially recruited 30 in 2017 and it went up to 50 in 2018 and 80 in 2019. They are making a significant difference; about 4,000 cases are being investigated at the moment, and those numbers will increase as we gain evidence. That is a double win, because we will share that evidence with HMRC, which can chase any tax avoidance that has gone through.
The new regulations that we passed to help here include the ability to seize people’s passports. In the past, we went after driver’s licences, but when people went to court, they would say, not unreasonably, “Well, you can take my driving licence, but I then won’t be able to earn, and I won’t be able to pay any more money.” But the possibility of losing their summer holiday doesn’t half focus the mind. Having sent out more than 1,000 warning letters, there is high engagement at that point.
We now have powers to access joint and business accounts, because that is a clever trick of solely employed people for hiding money. We can also look at assets, so when self-employed people are transferring what would be wages into assets, we can now take a nominal 8% of those assets. It is now easier to access information from pension providers, and we will be doing more joint work with HMRC. I gently remind some colleagues who have been calling for those extra powers to vote for them next time, because some hon. Members voted against. We must put the receiving parents first.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been a great deputy here today on behalf of his Department. Before I call Mr Peter Grant to wind up, I thank all hon. Members for their self-discipline and restraint about time, which has allowed us to get in all speakers, as well as a number of interventions.
I realise that I must be very brief, so I thank everybody who has contributed to today’s debate. A couple of points: first, people do not need a clever accountant to hide their money; they only need an accountant who knows how to set up a private limited company, and it then takes years to find it. Secondly, we do not need to be Sherlock Holmes to find these scams; we only need a Facebook account, and then we can see the luxury yachts, the holidays, the umpteen fancy houses and so on. If somebody on benefits was boasting about their wealth to that extent, the DWP would have them very quickly. That is the speed at which we should be chasing down money from other people as well—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).