Tuesday 17 March 2020
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling alcohol harm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. The request for it was made some six months ago, in the hope of it being granted in the run-up to Christmas or when many join in Dry January, but pressure on parliamentary time meant that it has only just been granted. I appreciate that now we are in a very different time as regards health concerns. None the less, alcohol harm is an ongoing and long-term concern not just for those who drink to excess but for their families and wider society, and it will still be with us even after—as we hope—the coronavirus crisis is past.
I thank the Minister for Care for stepping in to respond to the debate at a time of great pressure for her and the Department of Health and Social Care. I pay tribute to the great leadership being provided by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the other Health Ministers and all those involved in leading on the exceptional and unprecedented crisis in our nation—thank you.
I appreciate that the current unprecedented situation means that fewer colleagues are present for the debate. Many put down their names and intended to speak. I thank those who are in attendance. One colleague asked me to mention that she regrets being unable to be here: the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who is chair of the recently instituted all-party parliamentary group for the excellent 12 steps programme, which has made a difference in so many people’s lives.
There are, and have been for a long time—as long as I have been in Parliament, which is now some 10 years—several all-party groups concerned with alcohol harm: one under that name, one on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, another on the children of alcoholics, and the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party group, and I am delighted to see its secretariat in attendance today. Alcohol harm, therefore, is not a minority concern here in Parliament, as some may think.
Before I go on to talk about the concerns that many of us have about the impact of alcohol harm, this debate is in no way intended to denigrate the fact that drinking responsibly and enjoying a drink is something that I and many others do. That is not what we are here to do today; we are here about drinking to excess, harming oneself and others.
I will come on to the speech that I had prepared, although that was before we found ourselves in these exceptional circumstances this morning, when the country faces the prospect of many self-isolating for long periods. Even so, while Ministers in the Department of Health focus on the crisis, over the coming weeks when giving health advice, they might still send out a few helpful messages to those stuck at home who may be tempted to drink more than is good for them.
Many tips, many of them straightforward, have been given over the years by organisations such as Drinkaware, whose work I commend, but perhaps not sufficiently widely promoted. This might be an opportunity to do that—for example, taking a non-alcoholic drink before an alcoholic one, having a glass of water by the side of the alcoholic drink, or trying alcohol-free drinks. Last year, here in Parliament, our all-party group hosted an alcohol-free drinks event attended by 60 colleagues. We had an enjoyable time—alcohol-free gin, champagne, lager—[Interruption.] I am very aware that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) attended that event and it was indeed enjoyable. We should try alcohol-free drinks and, as Drinkaware suggests, aim for two or three alcohol-free days a week to rest the liver.
To turn to the substance of the debate, 10 million people are drinking at levels that increase the risk of health harm.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on this timely debate. Does she agree that, in these exceptional circumstances, one of our concerns over the coming weeks and months should be the massive reduction in social interaction? There will inevitably be a spike in the number of people drinking alcohol at home. Both Government and communities have to be aware of that to try and ensure people do so responsibly and not to significant excess, which may well happen in the coming weeks.
The hon. Gentleman has expressed far more eloquently than I have exactly the issue that many will face. It is particularly interesting that the 55 to 64 age group is one of the most at risk, with its excess drinking described by charities working in the field as a “national health disaster”. There is an opportunity here to gently—I am aware there is a lot of other stress—help people understand the implications of drinking to those levels.
In the Green Paper published in July 2019, the Government said
“the harm caused by problem drinking is rising.
Over 10 million people are drinking at levels above the official guidelines and putting themselves at extra risk.”
Tragically, exactly the same thing was stated by Public Health England in the third line of its 2016 evidence-based review, “The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies”:
“there are currently over 10 million people drinking at levels which increase their risk of health harm”.
It goes on to talk about
“1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year”.
Interestingly enough, half of those occur in the lowest three socioeconomic areas.
“More working years of life are lost in England as a result of alcohol-related deaths than from cancer of the lung, bronchus, trachea, colon, rectum, brain, pancreas, skin, ovary, kidney, stomach, bladder and prostate, combined.”
Sadly, several years on, we still do not have what is very much needed: a distinct and discrete alcohol strategy—it could be better called an alcohol harm strategy—to address the issue. I recommend the Health Minister to look at the alcohol charter, if she has not seen it, which was produced by some of our all-party parliamentary groups following the 2016 report and makes some suggestions as to what that strategy could contain. They include tackling the increased availability of excessively cheap alcohol, empowering the public to make fully informed decisions about their drinking and providing adequate support for dependent and non-dependent drinkers.
If I had a main call today, it would be to ask that the Government produce an up-to-date alcohol strategy. The last one was produced in 2012 and it is out of date, not only because of statistics—I am afraid I will bore colleagues with some more shortly—but also with reference to our approach to minimum unit pricing, which I will refer to later.
Our relationship with alcohol is complex, and so are its harms. Alcohol is embedded in our culture. Whether we are celebrating, had a tough day or need to reward ourselves, alcohol very often seems to play a role. It has become normalised. It is increasingly difficult to find a birthday card that does not wish an un-beer-lievable or gin-tastic birthday to someone, or makes another reference to alcohol. Although our culture celebrates alcohol—enjoyment in the right proportions is not a bad thing—we are too silent about its harms. All too often, we stigmatise people who are dealing with the consequences of harmful alcohol consumption, or leave them to cope with those consequences alone.
Most of us know a person or family affected by harmful drinking. The statistics are, if I may say, sobering: across the UK, more than 80 people a day die from alcohol-related causes. That figure is far higher in areas of poverty where people struggle to cope. Alcohol is now the leading risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15 to 49-year-olds in England, and is associated with around 40% of violent crime. In my local authority of Cheshire East, there were 185 alcohol-related deaths and 8,460 alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2017. The number that sticks out the most, however, is the number of people who do not get help: 88% of dependent drinkers in Cheshire East are not in treatment and do not get the support that they need.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Having engaged on this subject for many years in this place, I thought that there was nothing that I did not know, but I did not know that, so I thank him for drawing people’s attention to it. Similarly, it is of great concern that many people are unaware of the impact of foetal alcohol syndrome, which arises from drinking during pregnancy—we cannot emphasise enough the importance of not doing so.
Public Health England estimates that only one in five dependent drinkers in England gets the right support. That is sad because treatment, when obtained, can be very effective and good value for money. For every £1 spent, there is a societal benefit of £3. It does not stop there, though. Alcohol not only impacts individuals, but wider society and public services, costing NHS England £3.5 billion every year. There is no better time than now to remind ourselves that we should encourage help and the prevention of harm where we can, so that our NHS staff, whom I thank in this time of crisis, can treat those in health difficulties.
Anyone who has been in an A&E on a Friday or Saturday night will not be surprised to hear that alcohol-related incidents account for 25% of A&E work in England. Sir Ian Gilmore, who chairs the Alcohol Health Alliance—I thank them and commend their work informing the public and supporting parliamentarians—said
“While A&E departments used to feel the impact on Saturday nights, it’s now every night of the week”,
“The lack of a strategy is really harming the nation”.
English police spend more than half of their time dealing with alcohol-related casework.
Alcohol’s impact on families is stark: in England, about 200,000 children live with an alcohol-dependent parent. I will speak a little about that, but I will first commend the Government because when my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was Health Minister, he was very conscious of the issue and granted more than £6 million to help the children of alcoholics, following a campaign run by colleagues in the House. He rightly said:
“Alcohol abuse can tear lives apart, not only for the people trapped in the grip of an addiction but for their children, who are often robbed of the support, comfort and structure they need from their parents.
I am committed to finding new ways to help families in the midst of these heart-breaking situations.”
I would be interested to hear from the Minister about progress on the pilot schemes in several local authorities, which I expect are now quite well developed, to help children of alcoholic parents or carers, following his initiative.
I have always found Health Ministers to be very concerned about the issue, but one of the systemic problems appears to be that the Home Office leads on alcohol strategy. That has to change. There is a lot of concern among Health Ministers and the Department of Health and Social Care about the issue, but we need them to lead on it.
Children of alcoholic parents or carers experience real difficulties. They are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide, four times more likely to develop alcohol problems of their own, and five times more likely to develop eating disorders. I am pleased by the progress that I have mentioned, but we still have a long way to go on tackling harms.
The Government are rightly excited about the positive impacts of alcohol care teams in hospitals, and I encourage them to go further and ensure that a team is embedded in every hospital when time can be given to that. However, we know from listening to dependent drinkers that help in hospital needs to be complemented by help in communities, if they are truly to be helped.
The loneliness agenda and social prescribing are important initiatives that need to include suitable provision for dependent drinkers. Having attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a guest, I was really impressed with the care and support that members of that AA group gave one another. It was clearly proving very effective, but we need to do more.
I thank Adrian Crossley, the head of addiction and crime at the Centre for Social Justice, who is doing a lot of work on alcohol treatment. He basically says that we have to assign funding to each local authority in accordance with locally recognised need. I know that this is an unpopular term, but we must ring-fence it so that it really can make a difference.
We must also develop the Government’s promised addiction strategy to ensure that there are wrap-around services to help to stabilise and then promote lasting recovery—particularly the family support that is needed for the 200,000 children in England who are living with an alcohol dependent parents. Those are important initiatives. There is no wrong door to accessing the most appropriate services, but we need to join them up—whether they are local family services, voluntary groups or mental health support.
If I may, Mr Paisley, I will take a little longer than normal to make my speech, because there are not too many colleagues present. I was disappointed in the Chancellor’s view on alcohol duty in the recent Budget. I thank him for providing £2.5 million towards the development of family hubs in local areas. Such hubs are one-stop-shops where people will be able to go—several are up and running in the country now—for joined-up services from local health providers, local authorities and voluntary groups.
People can go to such hubs with any issue that relates to their family life. One of those issues should, and hopefully will, be addiction. Sadly, many families do not come forward for help. They are ashamed of the stigma, are soaked in a culture that celebrates the products that often blight their lives, and carry a burden that is often unrecognised and unsupported. We need more accessible, practical support for families.
We need to remember, too, that the harms from alcohol do not fall evenly across the UK. The burden falls most heavily on poorer communities. The north of England, for example, has significantly higher rates of alcohol-related deaths than London or the south-east. I am delighted that this one nation Conservative Government are committed to reducing inequalities and levelling up across the country, but, as I have mentioned in this House before, we will not be able to do that simply by repairing physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges. We need to create stronger, healthier communities and families, and one of the ways we can do that is by tackling alcohol harm.
The figures I have mentioned demonstrate that alcohol presents a grave public health challenge. Without question, we need a paradigm shift. Tackling alcohol-related harm needs to become a fundamental policy priority. Regulation certainly plays a part in shifting behaviour on a personal level, as we have seen over the past few years with tobacco; I commend parliamentarians who took a lead on that. As we have seen there, the Government can create an environment that enables us to make informed choices and lead healthier, happier lives.
I will now focus on price. Why? Because the 2016 report from Public Health England concluded:
“Policies that reduce the affordability of alcohol are the most effective”
policies in health treatment. Yet, over the past few years since then, and even before then, quite the opposite has occurred. Alcohol duty rates have been cut or frozen in Budget after Budget and as a result, in real terms, beer duty is some 18% lower than in 2012, duty on spirits and cider is 10% lower and duty on wines 2% lower. We all know that the price of something has an impact on whether we will buy it, and alcohol is no exception; as I say, Public Health England said price was the No. 1 factor in determining how much alcohol is bought.
Alcohol has become dramatically more affordable in the past 30 years. The affordability of beer in the off-trade has more than tripled in real terms since 1987 and off-trade wine and spirits are 163% more affordable. One of the most targeted approaches to addressing the price of the cheapest alcohol is minimum unit pricing. I urge the Minister to look at it again.
Minimum unit pricing, as the name suggests, sets a price below which alcohol cannot be sold. In Scotland, which introduced minimum unit pricing two years ago, it is currently 50p. That means that a pint of beer containing two units of alcohol—for the record, as many here will know, the chief medical officer’s suggestion for sensible and moderate drinking is 14 units a week—cannot be sold for less than a pound.
Minimum unit pricing would have hardly any effect on pubs and restaurants, where the vast majority of alcohol is sold at more than 50p per unit. Instead, it is highly targeted at the cheapest products that cause the most harm, such as white cider and super-strength cheap lager. If the Minister cares to look, I introduced the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (England) Bill in 2018, so there is one oven ready if the Government would like to take it up.
One reason the Government did not take it up was that they said they wanted more evidence that MUP would work. I remember the Chancellor saying that we would await the outcome in Scotland. As I say, two years since Scotland implemented MUP, the evidence is very encouraging. Consumption fell by 3.6% in Scotland in the year after MUP was implemented. During the same period, it rose by 3.2% in England and Wales. The important thing is that the fall in consumption appears to have occurred particularly among those consuming the most alcohol, who are most at risk, and it seems to have been in the high-strength, dangerous drinks of the sort that I mentioned that consumption has fallen.
Wales has decided to follow Scotland’s lead and is implementing MUP this month. Following the evidence, these are the statistics. Again, I apologise to colleagues for more statistics. In England, a 50p MUP is predicted to save 525 lives and prevent over 22,000 hospital admissions and 36,000 crimes annually when at full effect. The evidence is clear, we need to act without delay and implement MUP in England. It was interesting that the 2012 alcohol strategy referred to this very positively. I refer the Minister to the foreword by the then Prime Minister:
“We are not rejecting MUP, merely delaying it until we have conclusive evidence it will be effective”.
Will the Ministers look again at MUP and the evidence following Scotland?
The duty escalator which was in place between 2008 and 2012 increased alcohol duty by 2% every year. The result was that alcohol-related deaths fell while it was in place. They have started to rise again since it has been abolished. Last week, the Chancellor announced in this year’s Budget alcohol duty will be frozen across the board. In real terms, this means a cut. It will lower the price of alcohol. All decisions present trade-offs.
While I appreciate the desire to support our local industry of pubs and brewers, I want to reflect on the impact of this decision on health. Research from the University of Sheffield—I am sure the Minister’s staff will look at the report, because it is commendable—has shown that changes in alcohol duty since 2012 have led to nearly 2,000 additional deaths and 61,000 hospital admissions in England. There was an enormous human cost, but also a strain on public services by adding an estimated £317 million to NHS England’s bill. It is estimated the duty changes could have cost England’s businesses as much as £58 million in lost working days since 2012.
Increasing alcohol duty also raises urgently needed revenue. Considering the impact of the current cuts alongside all changes to duty policies since 2012, in this year, 2019-20, the Government are losing out on nearly £1.3 billion in forgone revenue. That is enough money to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 nurses. By 2024-25, the cumulative costs of these cuts will be £13 billion.
While the Budget focused on supporting pubs, I do not believe that cutting duty will be that helpful for them. Ending the alcohol duty escalator after 2012 and the subsequent duty cuts and freezes have not made a measurable difference to the rate of pub closures. This reflects the experiences of those working in the pub trade. Nearly 90% of publicans in the north-east said that duty cuts have not had a positive effect on their business. Less than 5% felt that alcohol taxes were the main cause of pub closures, while a majority thought that cheap alcohol from supermarkets and off-licences was to blame.
Before I end, I want to address alcohol labelling. If we want to create an environment in which people are supported to make informed choices to live healthier, happier lives, we need to make sure they have all the information they need. At the moment, people do not get it. We have more information on a pint of milk than when buying alcohol. It is no surprise that only one in five people know that the chief medical officers commend us not to drink more than 14 units a week, but the public wants to know this information. Research from the Alcohol Health Alliance found that more than 70% of people support warnings that exceeding the drinking guidelines can harm one’s health. I put down an EDM on this last June. It is interesting that it garnered support from 20 colleagues. It stated that two and a half years after the chief medical officer’s guidelines of 14 units per week for low-risk drinking were published:
“a survey of 320 products found that two-thirds of alcohol labels still displayed the old guidelines; … that the pregnancy logo and number of units are not legally required to be shown on labels”.
We believe they should be and there is a lack of information generally on alcohol labels compared with other food and drink labels. Will the Government look again at labelling and make the information on alcohol products mandatory? The public want to know more. It is not just that alcohol increases health risks and that therefore information on alcohol content is wanted, but that they are actually interested in the calorific content. I was involved in a joint event with the all-party parliamentary group on obesity some years ago. It was remarkable. Evidence was given that when people drink with a meal and are perhaps not as thoughtful about what they are eating, the overall increase in calorific consumption can be 400 in that meal alone. It is time to look again at alcohol harm. Alcohol containers should, like any other food and drink container, have to display ingredients, nutrients and calories. They should display the CMO’s guidelines and warnings that exceeding this amount could damage one’s health. We can no longer ignore the harm caused to our society, communities, constituents, families and friends by alcohol.
I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for introducing this debate, and you for allowing it, Mr Paisley. There is a perennial and universal issue across the UK and Ireland. No nation or region is exempt. Policies may differ, but the challenges remain the same. I declare that I sit on the commission on alcohol harm. Presumably my past experience as Scottish Justice Secretary in invoking legislation on alcohol, including kicking off minimum unit pricing—as opposed to past indiscretions of which I am less proud—have allowed me some focus. We must consider how alcohol harm comes about.
The papers available to me as a result of sitting on the commission on alcohol harm have been revelatory to me, even as somebody who served for seven and a half years as Justice Secretary and has been aware of the harm across huge swathes of our society, as correctly pointed out by the hon. Member for Congleton. The testimony from children in particular—those who have grown up in families with alcohol-dependent parents and where other siblings have been affected by other issues—is quite distressing, to say the least. For that reason, we require a reaction.
I have a personal interest too. Bus passes are issued to people at a lower age in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. I went to two funerals lately of friends with whom I grew up, neither of whom lived long enough to get their bus pass. Both of them succumbed to alcohol. Nobody sets out to succumb to alcohol and die as a result of it. In the case of those two close friends, it happened because they had underlying issues. They were lost souls and had problems, and indeed had suffered themselves. It was a tragedy, and they deserve our sympathy every bit as much as anybody else who dies from any other aspect. The issues remain universal, and how we tackle them. It is about affordability, availability, and advertising.
I am certain, through my experience of seven and a half years, that more education alone will not work. That was stated by someone in the alcohol industry when I first went into office. Someone said, “What we need is to educate people better.” That is utter nonsense. We have been doing that throughout my lifetime. Do we need to educate better? For sure we do, but the idea that we will be able to tackle the problem in our society simply through better education or greater awareness is not capable of being sustained. Action needs to be taken. As the hon. Member for Congleton correctly said, that does not mean that one needs to be a prohibitionist. I most certainly am not, and I enjoy a drink along with my friends and indeed my family. Alcohol is an important part of our economy, and an important lubricant within wider social aspects. As hon. Members said in interventions, it will be affecting how our people deal with matters. It cannot simply be a matter of prohibition.
Affordability is key. Minimum unit pricing is important, and David Cameron supported it when I introduced it in Scotland. England and Wales should take it on board, and Wales, to its credit, is looking at that. Equally, it has to be borne in mind that minimum unit pricing was never meant to be a stand-alone policy; it was meant to tie in with other tax regimes, and that means other fiscal and tax charges. We need the proverbial belt and braces. Scotland cannot deliver all it wants through MUP without being able to control the excise duty, so there has to be action on that. While I support steps to protect the Scotch whisky industry from actions and levies imposed in the United States of America, I am disappointed that we have not seen a continuation of the increase to tackle it hard here.
However, this is about not just affordability but availability. I am always reminded of John Carnochan, the head of our violence reduction unit, who talked about alcohol problems in our peripheral housing schemes. He made the point that if he wanted a haircut, he went to the barber, and if he wanted new shoes, he went to a shoe shop, so why, if he wanted alcohol, could he go to virtually any shop? Within 500 metres of where I live, in both London and Edinburgh, people can go out of their front door to anything upward of 40 outlets that sell alcohol on or off-trade. The likelihood is that as a result of coronavirus, there may be a cull of the on-trade outlets, but the off-trade outlets will remain, and that is where the significant problem has grown. In my lifetime, off-sales have gone up massively and the on-sale trade has declined massively. That is an issue, because alcohol consumption is a learned pattern. People need others there who encourage them to moderate their drinking and make it a social pastime, as opposed to them perhaps sitting at home consuming to excess. That is why even in Scotland, action has to be taken to restrict availability. There are far too many off-sale outlets. We need to encourage licensing boards not to issue licences and, where there is over-provision, to ensure that that does not happen.
Equally, there is the question of advertising. For alcohol, it is becoming almost subliminal. The evidence coming through from young people giving testimony to the harms commissioner is clear: they view alcohol almost as another product, but it is not. We enjoy it and benefit from it, and our economy even requires it, but it is not another product—it is a licensed drug. Therefore, how we make it available and allow it to be advertised is fundamental. We are taking action as a society to ensure that we restrict smoking so that it is no longer the cool thing to do. We need to do likewise with alcohol, because the advertising at sporting events has most certainly had a detrimental impact.
I welcome the steps that the Minister has taken. I look forward to further action from her and the UK Government, but it is also fair to say that those in the devolved Administrations also have to take action, because we are on a journey. We cannot stay as we are. The harm is too great and further action is needed. To sum up, this cannot simply be about education; we need to tackle affordability, availability and advertising.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to follow my two colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), who have done us a great service by looking at the underlying causes of alcohol consumption and its role in society. Those very important factors need to be taken into account.
I totally agree with the hon. Member for East Lothian that education on its own will not solve the problem. A much bigger attack on the whole way we drink, and the reasons why, is required. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised a number of those, particularly pointing out people’s need for alcohol when they are lonely, and we should look at that in more detail. Public Health England states that between the ages of 15 and 49, alcohol is the leading risk factor for ill health. It also pointed out that working years of life lost would be saved as a result if this situation were to end.
I raise two issues in particular—one about drink-driving and another relating to pregnancy. I absolutely support the coronavirus strategy. In 2014, there were 240 fatalities as a result of alcohol. That has to be set against the number of fatalities at the moment from the coronavirus. Getting some perspective on this is essential to tackling the disease. I would certainly like to see a lower limit for drink-driving. There has been some success in curbing drink-driving, but I do not think it has been enough. It still accounts for a large amount of hospital admissions and difficulties in that area.
There is an important point relating to pregnancy. There is a tremendous amount of advice for a woman who is looking to become pregnant or is pregnant, but pregnancy does not arise from just one person, it arises from a couple, and there needs to be equal concentration on the result of drinking alcohol for the man as well as the woman.
We know that drinking during pregnancy can lead to lifelong physical, behavioural and cognitive disabilities for the child. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned foetal alcohol syndrome as a sign that a woman has drunk too much during pregnancy. Of course, binge drinking is the great no-no. A long list of difficulties occur as a result, but I will not go into them all here; a number of speakers have already gone into that.
However, the important question is when to advise a woman to stop drinking altogether, since that is the advice of the medical establishment in this area. There is a very good indication that she should stop when she intends to get pregnant, rather than when she is pregnant. There can be a fairly long period between someone intending to get pregnant and knowing that they are pregnant, which reinforces the value of that.
I mentioned that the role of the man needs to be taken into account, and I repeat that the ability of a man to stay off alcohol when wanting to create a family is essential. I pointed out that a long-term risk is that alcohol increases the risk of infertility. There are issues here that we need to take into account. We need to provide much wider advice to reinforce that. The short-term risks of alcohol fall on men, but the long-term risks of alcohol fall on women. Understanding that is a helpful way of approaching this for the future.
I have two Members left to call. Before I call the next, I ask them to bear it in mind that I would like to call the first Opposition spokesperson at 10.30 am. That gives each speaker about seven minutes each, if that is sufficient, but I will not set a formal time limit.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to debate this matter with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am always inspired by her compassion and her devotion to doing all she can to make her constituency and the nation a better place to live. That always encourages me and encourages all of us.
I am also pleased to stand with the hon. Lady on many things; I do not think there is anything that she and I disagree on—not that I am aware of anyway. We are kindred spirits across political parties. We may have different opinions on the politics, but not on the constitutional issues and certainly not on what we want for society.
I am a great believer in all things in moderation. Since becoming a type 2 diabetic I have realised that the key to my continued health lies in my ability to eat in moderation. It took me many years to realise that. The issue with alcohol is that many people struggle for moderation, just as I used to struggle with sweet food—two bottles of Coca-Cola with a Chinese takeaway from Davy Lee’s in Newtownards, five nights a week. In addition to that, there was the stress issue. I was probably Davy Lee’s best customer. Now I have a meal from there once in three months, at most, and it is “no Coke here”. I have no sweet drinks whatsoever.
The issue of alcohol-related harm is not ring-fenced for people with alcoholism, or any specific age group. It is a UK-wide problem across classes, genders and race, and we need a better way to address it. We look to the Minister for a helpful response. I concur with the comments of those who have spoken—and probably those who will speak after me—in that we need to address the issue not only in England but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, from where I have got my statistics and information.
Across the United Kingdom, 80 people a day die because of alcohol, and that statistic has to change. In Northern Ireland there were more than 11,000 hospital admissions due to alcohol in 2016-17. Across the UK 33 people a day are diagnosed with an alcohol-related cancer. There is a high cost to those numbers, and it is not only medical and physical; it is emotional and affects families. Healthcare costs associated with alcohol in Northern Ireland are estimated at £122 million, and alcohol is strongly linked to health inequalities there. We can see that it is, in our offices and advice centres. The rate of alcohol-specific deaths is more than three times higher in Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas than in its least deprived areas. I see that in my office every day, as I am sure you do, Mr Paisley. I see families who are broken by alcohol, by verbal and physical exchanges, by the effect on children, by abuse, marriage break-up, despair and sadness.
Shockingly, alcohol is involved in 40% of violent crime in Northern Ireland. I understand that the relationship between alcohol and domestic violence is complex, but research finds that between 25% and 50% of perpetrators of domestic abuse have been drinking at the time of the assault. The figure is as high as 73% in some studies. I concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said in reference to the coronavirus and the steps that the Government have taken. I welcome what the Government have done and urge everyone everywhere to focus on the directions and rules laid down by the Prime Minister and the Government. As my hon. Friend said, if there is no sport or social interaction during the coronavirus outbreak, people will be at home—perhaps for 24 hours a day, if they are struck down with the virus. There is potential for all sorts of problems and, let us be honest, people will probably go to the off-licence—or someone will go for them—and buy drink in. They will consume alcohol at home. I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I can see great potential for issues to arise from that.
It is for that reason that I support the calls by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK for minimum pricing. In its words:
“The cheaper alcohol is, the more people drink, and the more harm is caused. One of the reasons why alcohol harm has been rising is because alcohol has become much more affordable over the last few decades. It is possible to buy a bottle of…cider, containing the same amount of alcohol as 19 shots of vodka, for as little as £3.70.”
That is someone’s high for under a fiver. The alliance states:
“The most effective policy to tackle such cheap high-strength drinks is minimum unit pricing (MUP). By setting a floor price linked to the amount of alcohol in a product, MUP targets the cheapest drinks which are linked to the most harm, while having minimal impact on moderate drinkers or on pub and restaurant prices.
MUP was introduced in Scotland in 2018 and in Wales in March 2020. The early evidence from Scotland is very encouraging”.
I often look to Scotland for the direction it is taking on health issues. Particularly in this case it has shown what the rest of us can do. The alliance says that
“off-trade alcohol sales fell by 3.6% in the year following MUP; in England and Wales, they rose by 3.2% over the same time. The minister of health in the Republic of Ireland has recently written to the Northern Irish executive regarding implementing MUP on both sides of the border”.
I fully support that, and I urge the Northern Assembly to take that action and to do it as soon as possible.
It is essential that Northern Ireland, the part of the United Kingdom with the second highest rate of alcohol-specific deaths, is not left behind. I want to see minimum unit pricing in Northern Ireland. For the protection of health in my country, I stand by these calls, Mr Paisley, as I know you will, too, and I urge the Minister to consider how we can help to minimise alcohol harm without adversely affecting our hospitality sector, which is vital. If people drink in moderation, that is okay, but we are talking about those people who do not do it in moderation. That is why this debate is so important.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and I thank the hon. Member for Congleton again for bringing this matter forward. Her desire to help to make homes and communities stronger and happier by reducing the harm caused by alcohol is something that is close to my heart, close to my chest and close to the person that I am.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I wanted to take part in it because alcohol harm has been a live issue in Gateshead and the rest of the north-east for a long while. Across Gateshead, which covers my community, the admission rate for alcohol-related conditions in 2010-11 was 817 per 100,000, compared with 643 for England as a whole. However, when we look at 2018-19, the latest year for which we have figures, we see that the rate had increased by 28% compared with an all-England increase of 3%. Admission rates for alcohol-related conditions now stand at 1,045 per 100,000 for Gateshead, compared with 664 per 100,000 across England.
I will talk specifically about minimum unit pricing, as other colleagues have done. Sheffield University research shows that if there was a minimum unit price of 50p per unit, there could be 8,000 fewer deaths, 14,000 fewer hospital admissions and 21,000 fewer crimes related to alcohol consumption every year. The impact of minimum unit pricing would be greatest in the most deprived areas, even though—this point is really important—people in those communities do not necessarily consume larger amounts of alcohol. Nevertheless, nine out of 10 alcohol-related deaths in those areas could be prevented.
I will also say a little about the impact of pubs, because most Members will have been lobbied very strongly by constituents, as I have been, as part of the Long Live the Local campaign, especially in the run-up to the Budget. I agree with the idea behind Long Live the Local. In fact, I will declare an interest, as a community shareholder in the community pub in the village where I live, Ye Olde Cross; we won an award recently for saving our pub. However, having made that plug, pubs seriously have an important role to play in the community.
Evidence already mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) shows that minimum unit pricing would have little impact on pubs, as the minimum unit price is aimed at the strongest and the cheapest alcohol. Across the UK as a whole and more specifically across the north-east of England, where my constituency is, 48% of pub managers support minimum unit pricing, because they are competing with cheap, shop-bought alcohol that is consumed at home or while people are out and about.
I want to be clear that to resolve this issue, we should not simply point the finger at individuals; this is a public health issue and it must be tackled as such. For many people, it is linked to poverty, poor social conditions and lack of opportunity, so we need to take a holistic approach to resolving it, and minimum unit pricing is one element of that approach.
I am sure that the Minister knows what I am about to say—we need to restore public health funding. We also need to ensure that public health directors know what their funding is, so that they can provide the appropriate services, as a matter of urgency.
As other Members have said, minimum unit pricing must be part of a wider strategy. I urge the Minister to consider minimum unit pricing as an important part of that strategy along with marketing, which makes alcohol more attractive.
I thank colleagues at Balance North East for their research and for working with me on this issue. I also want to say that this is not about completely stopping people drinking; that is a personal choice. It is about ensuring that the odds are not stacked against people who may find it difficult not to drink to excess.
I am pleased to be participating in this debate. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for giving us a very thoughtful and comprehensive opening to the debate. I begin also by saying that people have mentioned the effect of being isolated at home because of the coronavirus and that it is worth bearing in mind, as we go through this crisis, that drinking alcohol lowers the body’s immunity.
We have heard a lot today about the damage of alcohol over-consumption. The cost to our families, our communities and ourselves is almost incalculable. It cannot be counted in pounds and pence, although very often we are forced to do that, for practical reasons. Alcohol abuse leads people to lose their homes, families and jobs. There is a cost in hospital admissions, perhaps on numerous occasions, and people may even end up encountering the criminal justice system. Victims of alcohol abuse become economically inactive. They often become absent parents. The damage to mental health and physical and emotional wellbeing is profound.
I remember standing in this Chamber a couple of years ago to speak on alcohol abuse. A number of us involved in that debate were willing to admit that we came from homes with an alcoholic parent. My father was by all accounts an alcoholic, although I never knew him, as he died when I was 15 months old—he was very much helped on his way by alcohol. The damage to my family was not insignificant. My husband’s father was also an alcoholic and died because of the demon drink. These stories are not unusual; in fact, they are far too common. Almost every person we meet has a family member or knows someone who is an alcoholic. That is very sad, but it is a fact of life. However, that does not mean that we cannot turn things around. It does not mean there are not measures that we can take and, in Scotland’s case, have already taken to combat this problem. There is no silver bullet, but much can be done to mitigate the harmful grip that alcohol has on our communities. In the round, a number of measures can be taken.
In Scotland, 686 hospital admissions and 22 deaths every week are due to alcohol. In 2018, the figure for alcohol-specific deaths was 1,136. In 2018-19, there were 35,685 alcohol-related hospital admissions in general acute hospitals. Worryingly, hospital admissions are still more than four times higher than the level seen in the 1980s. Clearly, in Scotland, we could not simply shrug our shoulders and tolerate that. We tried to turn the situation around. I am pleased that the SNP Government chose to use the powers at their disposal to tackle the level of alcohol harm suffered by our communities, at great cost to those communities, on every single measure.
The hon. Member for Congleton pointed out the need for England to have a revised or updated alcohol strategy, and she is correct to say so, as the current one is out of date. Indeed, the Scottish Government updated their own alcohol strategy in 2018.
I could stand here today and talk about the fact that the Scottish Government have invested almost £800 million to tackle alcohol harm and drug use since 2008 and will allocate a further £95 million next year to reduce the harms caused by alcohol and drugs. I could mention—indeed, I have already alluded to—the Scottish Government’s alcohol framework setting out 20 actions that build on existing measures to change Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. I could even mention the legislation introduced by the Scottish Government to ban irresponsible alcohol promotions, such as the multi-buy discounts in supermarkets.
I am worried about time, so I will press on, if that is okay.
That legislation was associated with a 2.6% reduction in consumption in the 12-month period following its introduction from October 2011. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) might be interested to know that in 2014 Scotland reduced the legal alcohol limit for drivers from 80 mg to 50 mg in every 100 ml of blood. That reduction has not been made in the rest of the UK, which, apart from Scotland, currently has the joint highest levels in Europe that are permitted for driving. I could mention a whole range of measures—
I compliment the hon. Lady and particularly the Scottish Parliament on what they are doing. The hon. Lady has outlined a blueprint for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We should all take note of it and let it be our blueprint for Northern Ireland, Wales and England.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I will go on to say, there is no room for complacency in any part of the United Kingdom. There are things that work that every part of the United Kingdom should implement, and the UK should continue to review them to see how the measures can be improved.
All the measures that have been taken, on their own merits and collectively, represent real action and commitment to dealing with the scourge of alcohol on our communities. Many of them were set out by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), who has significant insight into the issue from his role as Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government. There has been broad agreement today that minimum unit pricing for alcohol is the single most significant action that can be taken to tackle alcohol harm, as we have seen in Scotland, but it is not a silver bullet. Nothing is, and nothing ever will be. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian reminded us, it is part of a package of measures and must be seen in that context. I urge the Minister to emulate that measure in England in order to benefit the communities that many Members in this Chamber represent.
When it comes to the strongest drinks on the market, in England we can buy cider for 18p, lager for 23p, vodka for 36p and wine for 38p—I am talking about units, not bottles. Minimum unit pricing was introduced in 2018 in Scotland. Shamefully, the policy was delayed for several years as the alcohol industry dragged it through every court it could find to stop it or delay its implementation for as long as possible. Studies indicated that there would be around 121 fewer deaths a year as a result, and there would be a fall in hospital admissions of just over 2,000 a year by the end of year 20 of the policy.
It gives me no pleasure to say that the initiative sadly met more blocks during its passage through the Scottish Parliament, as Opposition parties opposed it purely on the basis that nothing the SNP Government introduced could ever be supported. Although that is the usual response to any SNP policy in the Scottish Parliament, eventually the Tories abandoned their absurd opposition. Labour, however, simply could not bring itself to do so because it was an SNP initiative. The Labour party argued and argued against it and grew more ridiculous with every word. In the end, unable to support it even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it would be a key weapon in the battle against alcohol harm, Labour contented itself with abstaining on the issue. I know that many Labour MPs from other parts of the UK looked on at their Labour colleagues with bewilderment at what was going on—not for the first time, and probably not for the last. Willingness to put narrow party politics before public health is one of several reasons why the Labour party in Scotland is completely adrift. Some issues go far beyond party political lines.
The evaluation of the first year of alcohol minimum pricing has been very promising. As the first country in the world to introduce such a measure, we saw off-trade sales per adult in Scotland fall by 3.6% in the first year after implementation. In the same period in England, there was a rise of 3.2%. There was an 18.6% fall in off-trade cider sales per adult in Scotland in the year following minimum pricing, and an 8.2% rise in sales in England and Wales. There is still more to do, and there can be absolutely no complacency.
A 50p per unit price provides a proportionate response to tackle higher-risk alcohol use. We know there is a proven link between consumption and harm, and that minimum unit pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high-strength alcohol that causes so much harm. Going back to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, the World Health Organisation said that tobacco education was not, and could not be, as effective as regulation and Government action. We need to remember that when we seek to tackle alcohol harm.
People in Scotland still buy 9% more alcohol per head than those in England and Wales, but that gap is closing because of growing sales of alcohol in England and Wales last year. A 50p minimum unit price is no longer sufficient, because after it was brought in in 2012, the implementation of the policy was delayed by court action for years after the 50p level was set. It is time to explore raising that unit price to 60p, because it has to be set at a level where it is effective; it is not there for some kind of virtue signalling. A 60p minimum unit price seems reasonable to me.
I urge the Minister to carefully examine the action that has been taken in Scotland to tackle alcohol harm. It is a basic economic fact that if the price goes up, consumption goes down, and if the price goes down, consumption goes up; it is not rocket science. There are no silver bullets for tackling this issue, but there is some good practice in Scotland. Scotland, as well as England, has to build on what we already know and what we are already doing. I urge the Minister to emulate this practice for the good of the families and the communities who live with this scourge every day, and who need action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on having secured this debate. It is always a pleasure to hear from a fellow Cheshire MP, and she introduced the subject extremely well. She was right to say that this is an extraordinary time, but when we hopefully get through the current crisis, the issue of alcohol harm will still need to be tackled. She was also right to say that as we face this crisis, there is an increased risk that long periods of self-isolation will lead to excessive drinking. I know there is tremendous pressure on the Department at the moment, but I hope that important point will be considered. The hon. Lady has also described the importance of integrating the loneliness and social prescribing agenda into alcohol support strategies.
We also heard from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), who brought his own experience to bear on this matter. He was clear that affordability, availability and advertising are the key ways in which to tackle this issue, and that education on its own is not enough; he was also right to identify off-sales as a trend that needs looking at. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made some interesting points about drink-drive limits and also raised the issue of drinking before conception—before the period of pregnancy—which we do not talk enough about at the moment. As always, we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who discussed in detail the history of his eating habits, raising an important point about moderation and controlling temptation that can be applied equally to this area. He also clearly highlighted the social difficulties caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who spoke mainly about minimum unit pricing. She talked about the benefits that the University of Sheffield’s study demonstrated such pricing could create, and made the interesting point that 48% of publicans support minimum unit pricing, which we do not always appreciate. She was also right that a holistic approach needs to be taken to alcohol harm, which is a point that most Members touched on to some extent.
Every year, thousands of people die because of alcohol consumption and many more people are harmed. This is an issue that goes beyond the individual and affects the whole of society, including their family and their whole community. The statistics we have heard this morning are shocking, and I make no apologies for repeating some of them, because they are worth repeating. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death for 15 to 49-year-olds in England, and eight people die every day due to alcohol. Alcohol-related hospital admissions are at a record high, having risen by 44% over the past decade. In 2018, there were 1.1 million admissions to hospital related to alcohol use. Every day, 33 people are diagnosed with one of seven types of alcohol-related cancer, and liver disease is a major and increasing cause of death. It causes about 2% of all deaths in the UK every year, having increased by a shocking 400% since 1970.
Those numbers come at a high cost. Alcohol costs NHS England £3.5 billion annually, and 25% of A&E workers’ time is spent dealing with alcohol-related incidents. It is also reckoned to cost the economy £1.2 billion to £1.4 billion annually. In total, over 10 million in the UK consume more than the recommended levels of alcohol.
As we heard, 2 million people have an alcohol-dependent parent; at least 200,000 children live with at least one alcohol-dependent adult. According to the Children’s Society, parental alcohol abuse damages the lives of 700,000 teenagers across the UK. More than 4,000 children a year contact Childline with concerns about their parents’ alcohol use—it is the most common reason for children to call about their parents. We know from previous debates about the adverse childhood experiences of growing up with a parent with alcohol or substance misuse, which can have lasting, and sometimes devastating, impacts on children. We hear about them having to fend for themselves, when they have no option but to take on as best they can the adult responsibilities foisted upon them.
Children themselves may get into a similar spiral. One in three diagnosed mental health conditions in adults is known to directly relate to adverse childhood experiences. The World Health Organisation outlines a cycle of violence, because alcohol and substance misuse impacts on children’s lives, with a devastating impact on their adulthood.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has campaigned passionately on these issues; he is clear that alcohol addiction is a public health issue and is strongly linked to health inequalities in England. The rate of alcohol-specific deaths is more than double in the most deprived areas compared with the least. Tackling alcohol harm is a key route to increase the health of our nation, to reduce health inequalities and to reduce pressure on our public services. That means investment in those services, focus on prevention and challenging the wider circumstances and social determinants of ill health, including addiction. We struggle with that at the moment, because alcohol services continue to be cut because of public health spending reductions of around £700 million, including addiction services cut by £162 million. That has an impact; we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon that local authorities still do not know their public health allocation for next year, despite it coming into force in two weeks’ time.
We must fund alcohol treatment services fully; the hon. Member for Congleton highlighted that 88% of those who need services in Cheshire East are not getting that support. Unless we take this issue seriously, that figure will not improve.
I want to say a few words about workforce. Whenever we talk about health issues, there are always workforce implications. The number of training posts in addiction psychiatry has decreased by 60% since 2006. In 2017, the Royal College of Psychiatrists census found that the NHS had 20% fewer consultant addiction psychiatrist posts than four years previously. Obviously, that has an impact on frontline staff, and there is less one-to-one client contact, which is vital. We must improve co-ordination and partnership working with mental health services. Too many people who experience addiction problems also experience mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. Yet just one in four people with a diagnosed mental health problem in substance treatment also receives mental health treatment. We have talked many times about the need for mental health to get parity of esteem.
The Government’s alcohol strategy in 2012 devoted just two paragraphs to recognising the link between co-morbidities of alcohol problems and mental health. That simply is not good enough. Dual diagnosis must be the expectation, not the exception. Just as we need to do more to improve recovery and addiction services, we need to be bolder on prevention and population health interventions. We have a proud record on bringing down smoking rates, because we have taken decisive action. We need to do the same with alcohol abuse; it must be at the heart of the prevention agenda.
There are three areas that should be included—transparency on alcohol labelling, pricing, and prevention and marketing. Unfortunately, there is not time to go through all those in much detail, but I know that the Government committed to a new prevention Green Paper and updated alcohol strategy. While I appreciate that the Department has huge pressures on it at the moment, it would be helpful if the Minister gave us an indication of when we might expect to see that, if she is able to, because that will be the key to making progress on those issues in the future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate. Despite all that is going on around us, there have been some substantial contributions to the conversation that have made some really important points. I am responding on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who is currently working on emergency legislation for coronavirus, and will do my very best to give a full response to the questions that have been raised.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her comments, particularly about the work that we are doing in response to coronavirus. I should add that, although I am grateful that she thanked the ministerial team, the thanks should go to those on the frontline, such as the NHS and social care workforce. They are the ones who are really taking the issue on.
I commend my hon. Friend for the huge amount of work that she has done on this matter and for her commitment to ensuring that we reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Most people drink responsibly and the good news is that we are seeing an overall decrease in the number of people who drink, especially among young people. However, the Government are not complacent and are determined to do more to support people at risk from alcohol misuse. Our aim is to ensure that people are directed to the appropriate service wherever and whenever they look for help.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for stepping in to respond to the debate. She said that most people drink responsibly, but Drinkaware’s statistics, which are very worrying, show that 49% of men are classified as increasing or higher risk drinkers compared with 31% of women. That is a very high percentage.
As I said, I fully appreciate and respect my hon. Friend for the huge amount of work that she does to urge us to recognise the harmful effects alcohol can have.
We know that alcohol misuse can have an impact on hospital care and demand. It contributes to a wide range of conditions including cardiovascular disease, cancer and liver disease, as well as accidents, violence and self-harm. Some 12% to 15% of A&E attendances are alcohol-related, and alcohol is a causal factor in the patient’s diagnosis for more than 1.1 million hospital admissions every year. We absolutely take my hon. Friend’s concerns seriously.
As part of our NHS long term plan, alcohol care teams are being introduced in hospitals with the highest number of alcohol-related admissions. It has been shown that those teams significantly reduce avoidable bed days and re-admissions. The seven-days per week service at Royal Bolton Hospital saved 2,000 bed days in its first year, and modelling suggests that alcohol care teams in every non-specialist acute hospital will save 254,000 bed days and 78,000 admissions per year by their third year of operation.
Thanks to the personal testimony and campaigning by hon. Members present and by others who were unable to attend, the Government have invested £6 million to improve outcomes for children with alcohol-dependent parents. That funding includes £4.5 million for nine local areas to test innovative ways of working and to join up systems to support children and families—promising results are emerging in those areas. We have also allocated £1.5 million to voluntary sector organisations to build resources and capacity at national level, including helpline and contact-centre support through the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. We are also investing £6 million through a capital fund to enable local authorities to improve services and facilities for people with alcohol problems.
We continue to educate the public, ensuring that people are aware of the health risks of alcohol through local and national programmes, such as Public Health England’s One You campaign. The alcohol risk assessment in the NHS health check is used to inform a discussion on reducing the individual’s risk. New guidance encourages referral for liver investigation, where risk is identified. In addition, there is a commissioning for quality and innovation—CQUIN—scheme to incentivise increased cirrhosis and fibrosis tests for alcohol-dependent patients.
My hon. Friend also mentioned labelling. We have worked with industry to communicate the UK chief medical officer’s low risk drinking guidelines on the labelling of alcohol products. The Portman Group and others in the industry have made a commitment that labels will reflect the guidelines and we are closely monitoring progress.
We have also made a commitment in the prevention Green Paper to work with industry to deliver a significant increase in the availability of alcohol-free and low-alcohol products by 2025. A roundtable is being organised to take this work forward. Encouragingly, sales of no or low-alcohol beer are up 30% since 2016 and “nolo” alcohol is set to be one of the driving trends of 2020, although I am sure trends are being reviewed in the light of the pandemic.
Public Health England supports local authorities in their work of needs assessment and commissioning alcohol and drug prevention and treatment services by providing advice, guidance and data. PHE is developing UK-wide clinical guidelines for alcohol treatment. That work will promote good practice and improve the quality of service provision, resulting in better outcomes for patients.
We know that alcohol-exposed pregnancies present a significant public health problem across the country. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder can have a major impact on the early years development of children and their life chances. There is great work under way at local levels to tackle this. For example, the Greater Manchester health and social care partnership recently launched its #DRYMESTER campaign to raise awareness of drinking alcohol when pregnant. NICE are currently consulting on a draft quality standard on FASD. The voluntary sector also plays a vital role here. As part of the children of alcohol-dependent parents funding programme, over £500,000 is being made available to support work on FASD.
Finally, the good news from the Budget is that £46 million in funding is being provided to improve support to individuals experiencing multiple complex needs. That includes tackling homelessness, reoffending and substance abuse, including alcohol misuse. In addition, as part of our rough sleepers programme, there is £262 million of new funding for substance misuse treatment services. When fully deployed, that is expected to help more than 11,000 rough sleepers a year. It will enable people to move off the streets and support them to maintain a tenancy for the long term. The funding complements £237 million announced by the Prime Minister for accommodation for rough sleepers, and a further £144 million for associated support services.
Several hon. Members raised minimum unit pricing, particularly the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who drew on her experience in Scotland. There are no plans to implement minimum unit pricing in England at present, but the Government continue to monitor the evidence as it emerges from Scotland and Wales.
Several hon. Members talked about the Government’s alcohol addiction strategy. As announced in November, we are undertaking a UK-wide cross-Government addiction strategy. Plans on the contents of the strategy are being developed and we will have more to say on this shortly.
I listened carefully when the Minister said that the Government currently have no plans to implement minimum unit pricing. In the light of that, and given the funding and investment she talks about that will deal with the consequences of alcohol addiction, does she agree that tackling the consequences is less effective than tackling the problem at source? Cider and some of the highest content alcohol is on sale in shops in England for less than a bottle of water or a pint of milk. Does she agree that making alcohol a little bit more expensive could have an impact?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and I take her point. It is important that we continue to look at the evidence and that is the approach we will follow. I thank everyone here today for their contributions to this important debate and for having this conversation.
I urge the Minister to contact each of the regional devolved Administrations, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It would be a good idea for interaction with those three regional Administrations, to gauge a universal policy for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to take all the evidence from other parts of the United Kingdom, which could gel a strategy that we could all agree on. That would be a substantial way forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about working together, and the UK Government working with the devolved Administrations, drawing on the lessons that we have all learned and the evidence we all have. I do not think I will make a commitment to do that immediately in the light of the current public health situation, but he does make a very good point.
The Government absolutely are taking action and we are determined to do more to support people who are most vulnerable from alcohol misuse.
I thank the Minister for Care for stepping in to respond to this debate. I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the hon. Members for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for their contributions.
It is very rare that we hear in this place such a united voice from Members of Parliament from all political parties, but we did so today, because we recognise that alcohol harm is a major threat to our country’s wellbeing. It is a blight, particularly on the lives of the most vulnerable—the youngest and those in many of our most deprived areas. Wider society, too, is paying an incalculable toll. What came across again and again in the debate was that, although all the initiatives that we have heard from the Minister are good and we are grateful for them, much more needs to be done. Alcohol harm must be elevated in the national prevention agenda. A distinct and separate alcohol harm strategy is essential.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling alcohol harm.
Lea Castle Farm Quarry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Lea Castle Farm Quarry.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to be in Westminster Hall, even as it evacuates so only the three of us are left, alongside you and your good team. I completely understand, as this very specific local issue of the Lea Castle quarry in my constituency is not of huge interest to other people.
It is quite ironic to have this Minister here responding to this debate. I look back on a January Sunday afternoon in 2004, when he and I were in the final of the Wyre Forest Conservative Association competition to become the parliamentary candidate for the constituency. I beat him, but it could easily have been the Minister standing here, championing the cause for his constituents— as I know he does very well—and me elsewhere.
This is a highly specific issue and I appreciate that the Minister cannot necessarily go into details because of the planning application, but the strength of feeling about it in my constituency is incredibly strong. Basically, the application is to excavate 105 acres of Lea Castle farm in my constituency, bang in between the villages of Wolverley and Cookley and to the north of Kidderminster. The quarry, as I say, is 105 acres and is set to be excavated over a 10-year period, with a requirement to restore the land to its original agricultural use at the end of that period. The family who own Lea Castle farm have entered into an agreement with NRS Aggregates, which will undertake the excavation.
Before I get to the meat of my points, I want to talk about a few points of agreement, because there are certain things that I do agree with. First, I completely agree that we need to quarry; it is essential that we can dig out aggregates and building materials to meet the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes over the period of this Parliament, and 1 million over the complete forecast period. The materials have to come from somewhere, and holes in the ground are as good a place as any, although it is worth bearing in mind that recycling aggregates is something we should do.
Secondly, I understand that, to lessen the impact on the environment, the nearer a quarry is to any development, the better; fewer miles driven by lorries lowers damage to the environment. The Wyre Forest local plan sets ambitions for around 5,400 homes between now and 2032, the vast majority of which will need aggregate resources.
Thirdly, the planning application is designed to be sensitive. It proposes a phased process, with a central plant being established for the full 10-year period, and five processes lasting, I guess, two years each, with each successive phase being required to infill the previous phase to reduce the impact on the local area. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are requirements to have a left-only exit from the site, thereby avoiding the village of Wolverley and all the schools in the locality.
Fourthly, there are the community benefits from £2 per tonne local community tax, known as the aggregates levy. That is fantastic; it was brought in in 2002 and mitigates the impact on the local community, so that the community can benefit from it. However, I would say that the Government made a mistake in 2010 when as a result of the spending review they ended the aggregates levy sustainability fund. That fund brought together industry, environmentalists and local communities to restore areas affected by extraction and to transform degraded sites back into areas that could be used by the local community.
Those are the areas where I broadly agree with the Government’s position, but there are many areas of contention. First is the location of the quarry, which is bang in between two villages—Wolverley to the west, directly on its western extreme, and Cookley to the north; to the south is Sion Hill, a suburb of Kidderminster. There are four schools within a mile’s distance of the centre of the site: Wolverley Church of England Secondary School is 0.9 of a mile away, Cookley Sebright Primary School is five eighths of a mile away, St Oswald’s CE Primary School in Kidderminster is just over half a mile away and Heathfield Knoll School’s nursery is on the other side of the road from the edge of the second phase of the site. Wolverley Sebright Primary School is just over a mile away, but, as I say, that is measuring from the centre of the site; the full extent of the 105 acres means that the site it is much closer to some of those schools.
Within the immediate locality are three communities: Cookley has 2,034 people on the electoral roll, with 1,114 homes; Wolverley has 1,820 people on the electoral roll and Sion Hill has 760. A lot of people live very close to this site, and despite the proposal’s being low impact, it is inevitable that they will suffer from noise pollution, dust pollution and the impact on highways. Of course, I completely understand that there is an enormous amount of legislation surrounding, for example, the pollution put up by silicates as they come off these sites, and there is a requirement to suppress them. One would hope that NRS Aggregates would comply fully with that legislation, and I expect it to do so, but it is possible that there will be accidents. While accidents are wholly to be avoided, and any punishment is the right thing to do, the problem is that, while it is possible to get away with an accident in an area with nobody living around it, the middle of a highly populated area is a really bad place to have one. That creates a greater threat to the local community.
Finally, we have a riding stables, which is privately owned, right in the middle of the site. The riding stables will be quarried all around over the 10-year period. Their lives will be appallingly badly affected. The whole planning application has profound impacts on the local community and the local community is very heavily against it.
Looking to the future, the planning application is merely for a 10-year period, to extract 3 million tonnes of aggregates from a 105-acre site. I recently met Mr Louis Strong, who seemed a perfectly reasonable and nice chap. He is the son of the site’s owner; he is 36 years old and wants to be a farmer. The site has been in the family for three generations, and while his father is a successful entrepreneur doing land deals who now lives in Jersey, Mr Strong strikes me as being a very sincere individual who genuinely wants to farm. I think his wishes are at odds with his father’s. His father previously applied to secure planning permission for the site to be a golf course; although planning was approved, the plans were shelved for one reason or another. The farm is around 250 acres, and although they farm one or two other sites locally, the farm seems only marginally viable. Louis Strong is understandably seeking alternative cash generation schemes from his farm. Farm diversification is a wholly understandable and desirable option, and Mr Strong wants to continue farming the site once it has returned to agricultural use.
I used to be an investment banker. Among other things, I used to invest in and study aggregate companies and extraction companies. I am absolutely convinced of the sincerity of Mr Strong’s desire to be a farmer, but the key principal in the application is NRS Aggregates Ltd, which in this case—it does a number of different things—is entirely in the business of extracting value from the ground. I know the company will be eager to secure the maximum output from the quarry. To deliver its fiduciary duty to shareholders—having secured the big heave of getting the initial planning permission across the line— it will almost certainly seek to maximise the output beyond that stated in its initial low-impact intentions.
There are too many variables that could change decisions over the coming 10 years. As we know, extraction rates are determined by market demand, and the cost to developers of sand and gravel are a function of market price and delivery cost. We are proposing in the Budget to increase the demand for aggregates by encouraging the building of 300,000 houses per year over the next few years. That can result only in an increase in the price of the aggregate and a subsequent increase in quarrying. Although the argument is that local demand means there is a local market, it requires the demand locally to match in every way the continuous extraction of 300 tonnes per annum. How can anyone predict at this stage the exact flow of local demand? It requires synergy for a decade, which is very unlikely to happen.
Should there be a period of low development locally, the quarry will have to find markets further afield or slow production. That would bring into question the end date of the process. Similarly, if demand is high, will the quarry beef up production and seek to vary its planning permission in order to excavate at a higher, and thus more aggravating, rate? That will cause greater concern and upset to the local community. If market rates for sand and gravel continue to rise, there will be a greater imperative to dig more. If the company seeks to change the planning grant to extract more aggregates from the area, it will create more hassle for my community. In any event, the average six-room home requires around 100 tonnes of sand and gravel—in Wyre Forest, that equates to a total demand for 5,400 tonnes of sand and gravel, compared with 3 million tonnes being excavated. The vast majority of the quarry’s output will actually have to go out of the district.
Looking at the green issues, the local plan has a variety of sites across the district. Meeting low-emission targets for delivery could easily result in a subsequent application to change the left-only exit policy from the site, meaning that lorries would drive past a number of schools and through villages. On this particular argument, the environment’s interests are at odds with those of the local community. Did I mention that the quarry is smack in the middle of the green belt? It is quite offensive in terms of the green belt legislation.
There are plenty of examples of quarries that have submitted subsequent planning applications to enhance their size. Clifton quarry in Worcestershire was extended in 2016. In 2017, Willingdon quarry sought to enable the production of a further 2.07 million tonnes of sand and gravel. There was a proposed extension to restore Chadwich Lane quarry in Bromsgrove. There was an extension to Barton Quarry Western to extract 6.3 million tonnes of sand and gravel over a period of 10 years. These are all extensions, not the absolute planning. At Newington quarry there was a proposal for an extension to sand and gravel extraction. The Norton Bottoms quarry applied for a four-phase extension, Hints quarry for a variation of conditions, and Methlick quarry for an extension for a further 10 years—and on it goes. Quarries change their planning applications because they want to extend what is going on. Lea Castle Farm quarry is already hideously offensive to the local community. What will it become if NRS Aggregates decides it wants to maximise the output from this opportunity?
The application is due to go before Worcestershire County Council’s planning committee later this year, possibly in May. Officers are committed to ensuring that planning law is upheld. It may well be that they recommend approval. All of us know that planning committee members are prevented from predetermination, so I have no idea how the planning committee will vote, but I think that if its members take the recommendation of the officers, it is not impossible that this may get passed. If the application fails, the refusal will almost certainly be challenged. I warn the Minister that, in the event of a successful appeal and the inspector passing the application, I will ask him to call in the decision to get the Secretary of State to look at it.
There are plenty of examples where planning has been refused in the past. For example, a proposed expansion of Wangford quarry in Suffolk was blocked given its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The planning inspector found that there were no exceptional circumstances to justify the expansion of mineral extraction on the site. At the Thrislington quarry in County Durham, residents fought Lafarge Aggregates’ proposed extension to the quarry. Officers had recommended that the planning committee did not object to the development, but councillors blocked the quarry due to the unprecedented level of objection to the scheme, with 1,366 individual letters and objections. It is entirely possible that at Lea Castle Farm quarry, an application may have a similar number of objections.
At Bengeo quarry in Hertford, campaigners were fighting plans to quarry an extra 1.25 million tonnes of sand and gravel from its field. The planning inspector rejected plans for the quarry, and the developer appealed to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State backed the views of residents and the planning inspector decided that the quarry had the potential to threaten water supplies and loss of amenities. More important, and very similar to what we face at Lea Castle farm, his concerns were also raised due to health risks from silica dust in the air and significant damage to open space and the green belt. Similarly, at Fullamoor quarry in Oxfordshire, an Oxfordshire based company, Hills Quarry Products, wanted to use land over 12 and a half years to extract 2.5 million tonnes of earth. The application was finally rejected in 2017. The company reapplied in 2018 and the council again turned the application down, concerned about the green belt and severe highways impact; that was for a smaller and lower impact development.
I am not against quarrying, but I am against quarrying in people’s backyards in semi-urban areas. Canada has a rule forbidding quarrying within 600 metres of schools and residences. I know there is an argument that there is more available space there, but none the less the point is still well made. No part of this quarry is not within a 600-metre radius of a school or property adjacent to this site.
Today, I want to make the Minister aware that, if the planning inspectors put the application through, I will ask him to call it in and give all his support to help the Secretary of State come to a sensible decision—in case of doubt, “sensible” means backing my constituents. I also want to ask the Minister to review planning laws on quarries. I completely accept that we need quarries, but we cannot have quarries so close to people’s private residences, businesses, and schools. It does not make any sense. If Canada can have a 600 metre rule, why can we not have something similar here? I look forward to hearing how the Minister would have dealt with this had he been elected Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest all those years ago.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, I think for the first time, but it is an even greater pleasure to respond to the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) introduced. He said that the Chamber lacks quantity, but I do not think it lacks quality while he sits here. He is absolutely right: it was 16 years ago one Sunday afternoon when he defeated me in the selection for the Conservative candidacy in Wyre Forest. He also knows, though he did not choose to tell you, that he beat me by one vote, although I suspect that after 16 years of his candidacy and some other years as Member of Parliament, and after his performance today on behalf of his constituents, were I to stand against him again, he would defeat me by a landslide. He is a doughty campaigner and champion for his constituents.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that there is a due and proper process to be followed in the consideration of planning applications for mineral development, in this case by Worcestershire County Council. Although the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system means that I am unable to comment on the merits of individual planning applications, he is right that there is much upon which we can agree, for example, the importance of building the right sort of new homes, which are appropriate and sensitive to their location and surroundings, and the means by which those homes are built.
Determining planning applications is a matter, in the first instance, for the local planning authority to carefully consider and decide in accordance with proper planning and legal requirements. All planning applications have to be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. I want to stress at this point that the local planning authority is best placed to determine local development proposals. Residents must have confidence that their local council will consider and determine this application in a fair and open manner, as is its duty. The planning application for mineral extraction at Lea Castle Farm quarry is currently, as my hon. Friend has said, being considered by Worcestershire County Council and is, I understand, of a type and scale that requires it to be subject to an environmental impact assessment and have an accompanying environmental statement.
The aim of the EIA is to protect the environment by ensuring that a local planning authority, when deciding whether to grant planning permission for a project that could have significant effects on the environment, does so in full knowledge of those likely effects and takes them into account in its decision-making process. The environmental statement accompanying the planning application assesses a range of environmental effects, including issues such as air quality, dust, health, traffic, noise, heritage, biodiversity and visual impacts, as well as many other matters, some of which are of particular concern to local communities. It is for the mineral planning authority to assess the adequacy of the information provided in determining the application, taking into account all relevant material considerations, including the views of local people, local stakeholders and, of course, the local Member of Parliament.
The Government’s view, as set out in the national planning policy framework, is that the planning system should be genuinely plan-led. It is important we have succinct and up-to-date plans to provide a positive vision for the future of each area; a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities, including making sufficient provision for minerals; and a platform for local people to shape their surroundings. Our policy states that it is essential that there is a sufficient supply of minerals to provide the infrastructure, buildings, energy and goods the country needs.
Mineral planning authorities are charged with providing for the extraction of mineral resources of local and national importance. They are required to plan for a steady and adequate supply of aggregates, including crushed rock, sand and gravel, by designating specific sites, preferred areas or areas for search. In my constituency, there are several such aggregate sites. Staffordshire, like Worcestershire, is a major provider of aggregate, so I am familiar with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.
Unlike other developments, however, minerals can be worked only where they are found. They are temporary in nature and a finite natural resource that needs to be made best use of. That creates unique challenges for local areas of how best to meet local and wider mineral needs while ensuring that mineral operations do not have unacceptable adverse consequences on the natural and historical environment or on human health. Given that I come from a similar constituency with a similar background, I understand some of the points that my hon. Friend raised.
My hon. Friend mentioned Canada. He is right to say that Canada has a very different geography from that of the United Kingdom. The open spaces in Canada are somewhat more significant than those in the UK. However, I of course recognise the challenges that he has identified. The national planning policy framework is regularly reviewed, and this is an issue that he will bring to me again and again, and I am very happy to consider his points.
I fully understand the concerns of local communities such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned—Wolverley, Cookley and Broadwaters—about the proposed Lea Castle Farm quarry, particularly concerns about any adverse impacts on homes, businesses and the local environment. He mentioned a riding stables. High Speed 2 cuts through my constituency. I also have a riding stables and horse training centre in my constituency, run by Eddie McMahon, which is similarly affected. So again, I understand the challenges that my hon. Friend’s local businesses face.
My hon. Friend mentioned in passing his concerns about future extension plans for the quarry. I remind him that any future extensions will be subject to further planning permission, and have to be judged on their merits at the time. It is not the case that the quarry can simply extend and extend beyond the permissions that have already been granted.
As I explained earlier, given that this is a live planning application under consideration by Worcestershire County Council, and that there is a submitted local plan undergoing examination by the Planning Inspectorate, I am not in a position to directly address the specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents. Nevertheless, it is vital that people’s concerns are heard and that local residents are listened to. That is why all steps of our planning system are supported by a public consultation process, through which people can consider the proposals and the applications.
Worcestershire County Council submitted its mineral local plan for examination to the Secretary of State on 17 December 2019. I have to say that it was rather overdue, because I think that the plan, as currently adopted, was constituted in 1997. So it is important that an up-to-date plan is in place. The Secretary of State has appointed an independent planning inspector to assess the soundness and legal compliance of the plan. The inspector will consider the evidence provided by the local planning authority to support the plan and any representations that have been put forward by local people and other interested parties, including, of course, my hon. Friend. The examination hearings are due to open on Tuesday 5 May and the second week of hearings will be held in the week commencing 1 June, if necessary. Those hearings are an opportunity for people to voice any concerns or anxieties that they have.
I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate’s procedural practice encourages Members to participate in examination hearing sessions, and that the Government also encourage Members to involve themselves in this way. I do not suspect that I will need to encourage my hon. Friend very much further in that regard.
Unfortunately, because of its very nature, new development will have some effect on the local environment. It is for that reason that there are clear and defined measures by which development proposals and their potential impact on residents, local communities and the environment are assessed. Of course, the NPPF includes a requirement for local plans to be accompanied by a sustainability appraisal, which allows the potential environmental, economic and social impacts of the proposals to be taken into account systematically, and such plans should play a key role throughout the plan-making process.
The sustainability appraisal plays an important part in demonstrating that the local plan reflects sustainability objectives and has considered reasonable alternatives. A sustainability appraisal and a habitats regulation assessment has been undertaken for the Worcestershire minerals local plan, and those will be before the planning inspector.
I appreciate that I have not been able fully to address some of the specific concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and his constituents. However, I hope that my explanation of the system has provided some reassurance to him and to residents that their voices are being heard—they are being listened to and will be taken into account before any decision is reached. I encourage him to continue to champion his constituents and their concerns. I look forward to his further representations, and I am absolutely sure that he will not be inviting me back to Worcestershire and his local association because he would not impose on me the humiliation of being defeated by such a huge margin.
Question put and agreed to.
Football Attendances: VAR
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered VAR and its effect on football attendances.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, particularly as it is so difficult to get the opportunity to speak to a Sheffield Wednesday supporter about football at the moment.
I confess that it feels somewhat incongruous, as the country’s attention is focused on the coronavirus crisis and football has come to a stop, for Parliament to debate a non-life threatening matter such as video assistant referees and their impact on football attendances. I have been attempting for several weeks to secure a debate on this subject in the fortnightly ballot; it is somewhat unfortunate that the debate was finally drawn in this of all weeks.
The coronavirus crisis is both a medical and economic crisis, and the financial health of our national game is an issue that should matter to us. Football—particularly the Premier League—is one of the nation’s key economic and cultural exports, and anything that affects the Premier League’s popularity and esteem matters. Although we all accept that the there are more pressing matters, there will be a day when coronavirus is in the past and we will turn again to the normality that makes life rich, varied and enjoyable. I hope that those watching at home will accept that debate is being held in that spirit and that taking an hour or less to discuss the impact that VAR has had on football will not in any way diminish the Government’s preparedness to tackle the coronavirus crisis and to take the necessary steps to support businesses and people through it.
There seems to be almost universal agreement that the way that VAR is currently used in the English Premier League is bad for football. Opinion is less uniform on whether it is a good idea done badly or just a bad idea. During my speech, I intend to make the case for the abolition of VAR, while also looking at some of the steps that could be taken to improve it if the EPL, clubs and the wider game insist that it is here to stay and can only be reformed rather than abolished.
To explain why I believe that VAR should be abolished completely, I must start by explaining what I see as football’s enduring appeal. There is a reason why football is the most successful, the richest and the most widely watched and played sport in the history of our planet. Football’s appeal is in both its simplicity and its accessibility. Wherever someone may be in the world, if they have something round and two rocks for goalposts, they have a game. Until very recently, no matter the level, football’s core rules were the same. Whether in the local park, where more people play than watch, or at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 people, football was football.
Alongside that simplicity, football’s unique selling point is the rarity of the goal. A goal can be a thing of beauty—a thrilling movement that builds to a crescendo with a thrilling release—or it can be workmanlike and brutal, with the ball forced over the line. It can be fortunate, freakish or amazingly simple and, sometimes, it can even be comical and farcical. The goal can be controversial, a moment to delight in and bring a nation together in a shared explosion of joy; or it can be tragic, as an entire ground and nation clasp their heads in their hands in perfect unison. No other moment in any other sport is so special as the moment in football when a goal is scored. However that goal is scored, it is rare and important, and because of its rarity and importance, it matters and it is celebrated.
That moment, which is the fundamental ethos of what it means to love football, is the moment that VAR interferes with. We are robbed of that moment of simple joy or despair by a faceless man sitting in an industrial estate in south-west London, miles away from those who really care. All the fans can do is wait for his dreadful, often imperfect, verdict. The wild, breathless celebrations are halted by the dreadful, purple appearance on the big screen of the words “checking goal”. Sometimes celebrations that have been under way for 30 seconds or more are placed on pause as two sets of fans stop and stare at a screen that offers them nothing but the fact that uncertainty now reigns.
In a sport that thrives on being played without delay, that uncertainty can last for three minutes or more. The chant about VAR is so commonplace that there is not a single premiership fan who could not instantly sing it. If VAR offered flawless decision making, I would still say that it was not worth it, but it does not even do that. When VAR was introduced we were promised that it would overturn clear and obvious errors, but it has become a farce.
For a toenail offside, 30 seconds before a goal was scored—and after a three-minute delay—Sheffield United’s goal at Tottenham was ruled offside. Arsenal scored a goal at Old Trafford that was uncontested by the Manchester United defenders because the linesman’s flag had gone up several seconds before the goal was scored. West Ham fans celebrated their last-minute equaliser at Bramall Lane for a full 45 seconds before there was even a suggestion that it might be called into question. I must confess that that last-minute disallowed goal brought me momentary pleasure, but even as we celebrated the goal being disallowed a part of me mourned what we had all lost.
I have explained why I do not want VAR in football, but even if it must be tolerated, so much is wrong with how it is being delivered. First, the technology is applied to offside decisions on the basis of where one player’s most prominent limb is in relation to another player at the specific moment when the film is frozen. A millisecond either side of that, however, and the player might have been onside. The technology is imperfect in terms of the exact moment when the ball was kicked. VAR is overruling goals on hairline decisions with a technology that is not good enough to deliver the level of precision that it pretends to offer. A camera that is not in line with the offside line is used to overrule a decision by a linesman who was, accepting that arbitrary lines drawn on a screen provide an accurate description of who was furthest forward by a millimetre.
I guarantee that if VAR, this dreadful stain on the beautiful game, continues long into the future, fans will look back in 20 years and laugh at the technology on which we currently rely to determine whether someone was offside. VAR has exposed the gap between our expectation of players’ performances and those of referees. When a striker skies a shot over the bar or a goalkeeper lets the ball slip from his grasp, fans on his side are willing to view that error in the context of the overall performance, but no such allowance is ever given to the referee. That thirst for perfection in decision making—a product of the pundit era and the enormous investment in technology by Sky Sports and others, designed to improve our enjoyment of the game—has driven us to the soulless VAR experiment.
For years, the coverage of every match, and of every post-match managerial interview, has included a section on the decisions that the referee made or the manager’s view of whether the referee was any good. It turns out that managers whose teams lost usually thought that he was not. We all became used to that as part of the background music to every match. Now the focus has shifted from whether the referee was right to whether VAR was right. Every week, the football headlines are not about the performances of the players but about the decisions made and the technology.
In attempting to justify the success of VAR, the English Premier League’s note to me in advance of the debate informed me that a decision was overturned in only one in every three matches, as though that should show me how little it was intervening. Far from it. If VAR is correcting so few decisions, what problem are we trying to solve? It has ruined a lot more goal celebrations for me than that, and not just those that are overturned. Even the celebrations that ultimately are not in vain are not the same because fans wonder whether what happened was something that will be called into question. The spontaneity that is so crucial and endemic to football is lost as a result of VAR.
VAR is also changing the way that football is played, refereed and watched. It is changing the decision making to the detriment of the fairness of the sporting contest. Linesmen are instructed not to flag for offside unless they are absolutely sure, even if they believe it is offside. A linesman in an EFL Championship game who would flag for offside, because he thinks it is, will in the Premier League allow the game to carry on because it was close, giving an unfair advantage to the attacking side. This can lead to a load of football that is a waste of time, because ultimately a goal is disallowed or to an offside player winning a corner or a free kick that then leads to a goal that should never have happened, because the linesman thinks that he was probably offside anyway but did not give it, because he was correctly following the edict not to flag for a marginal offside. When I think about the difference between the fan experience in the Premier League and the Championship, I almost envy you, Mr Betts—but perhaps I would not go that far.
If VAR is to continue, changes are needed both to the rules of the game and VAR’s operation if it is going to be anything other than a drag on the appeal of a hugely successful product. Most crucially, the offside law needs reviewing. New referees and linesmen were always taught that if a player is level, they are onside, as the rules state. In real time, that made sense, but in the VAR era, there is no such thing as level. It now means that if, at the moment that the screen is frozen, one player’s toe is a millimetre beyond another player’s shoulder, the goal is disallowed. That is not what the offside rule was designed to outlaw and it needs rewriting, because it is spoiling the sport’s simplicity, which is so important. We need to return to the original principle that if the majority of two players’ bodies are basically level, the striker is considered to be onside.
Secondly, fans must be involved in the process, as other sports manage, with the pictures that are being viewed by the referee also available for fans in the stadium. Thirdly, the referee is the referee and he should view the original pictures. If he is certain that he has made a clear and obvious error, only at that moment should the decision be altered. Finally, a clear and obvious error should mean precisely that. If it takes someone three minutes to work out whether something was an error, it was not clear and obvious. In cricket, there is “umpire’s call”, which means that a degree of latitude is given, meaning that they stay with the original decision to allow for the uncertainty in the technology and the decision that is made. That should be adopted in football so that fewer hairline decisions are overturned and fans can once again celebrate a goal, knowing that unless there is a clear and obvious error, there will be no change to the decision.
I am pleased to have brought this important matter to Parliament. The title of the debate refers to the effect that VAR has on football attendances. That was partly because the Table Office considered football attendances to be a matter that the House was allowed an opinion on, while the rules of football were not, and partly because the evidence is that VAR is reducing football fans’ enjoyment. A YouGov poll showed that 67% of fans who watch football felt that VAR had made watching football a “less enjoyable” experience. Can anyone imagine any other industry introducing, at great expense, an innovation that its paying customers said made its product worse, and then, instead of scrapping it, reacting by doubling down on it and claiming that it was progress that we all had to get to enjoy?
I do not like the principle of VAR. I hate the implementation of it. It professes a precision that it does not deliver. It makes the game our children watch a different sport from the one they play. It changes the way that football’s rules are refereed and it makes obsolete or unworkable rules that made sense with on-field referees in the pre-VAR era. The beautiful game is diminished by VAR, and I say “Scrap it.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I know that you take a close interest in football as well.
I commend the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) for securing the debate. I had expected that the SNP spokesperson would be summing up many contributions, but understandably many hon. Members are focused elsewhere today. It feels as if we could be said to be fiddling while Rome burns, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the debate was applied for several weeks ago, and it is not too much of an inconvenience to spend an hour or so focused on an issue that is on the minds of many football fans. Later in my remarks I will refer to the situation with covid-19 and its impact on our football clubs, which is a bigger, existential threat.
I declare an interest, as I am a proud season ticket holder of the pride of Lanarkshire, the Airdrieonians football club, which is the best wee football team in the land. Although I spend the majority of my Saturdays at football, I have never seen VAR in action, partly because we do not have it in Scotland, certainly not at league 1 level. However, I have seen it on TV a lot. This is the only time, certainly in public, that I will confess to being a small “c” conservative. It might not surprise too many people, but on the issue of football, I am absolutely a small “c” conservative and a traditionalist. I believe that football should be played at 3 o’clock on Saturday. It is a nonsense that teams are playing just about every night of the week. For example, a situation where Newcastle is playing Portsmouth on a Thursday night is not helpful for fans trying to get to games. VAR is just another step down the road of pandering to the commercialisation of football, and particularly TV.
As a football fan, I tend to take a view that over the course of a season some decisions will go for a team and some will go against it. Sometimes a stonewall penalty will be denied, but a soft one will be allowed. In my view, it tends to level out over the course of a season. The cost of VAR for clubs, especially in Scotland, is an issue. The technology is obviously hugely expensive. There are situations in the English premiership where the likes of clubs such as Manchester United do not have the screens to show VAR. That plays into the idea that fans are being excluded from the VAR process, and that they are having to watch the referee making shapes in the sky. It is a nonsense and not helpful for fans. It makes them feel excluded.
There is a separate issue with the amount of time being taken to consult VAR. It interrupts the flow of the match. In the English premiership there are now regularly situations where there are five or six minutes of stoppage time for the first half of a game, which is absolutely ridiculous. Some countries other than Scotland tend to have more stoppage time, but I will not necessarily name them. After the second half there might be three or four minutes added, to take into account substitutions, but the idea that there would be five or six minutes of stoppage time in a first half is a nonsense.
In the opening part of the season, Liverpool beat Norwich 4-1, but there were nine VAR checks in that game. That is huge amount of time for fans to sit and try to work out what on earth is going on. It has been suggested that it could be around 10 years before fans finally get their heads around VAR. Perhaps it is for that reason that so many football fans are chanting, “It’s not football anymore,” in the stands.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield made a point about the post-match discussions. More often than not, we have a discussion in the pub or going home in the car about the whether the referee got it right or wrong. With VAR, we need to remember that there is still a human element involved; the decision still has to be made by a human, but now not necessarily the referee in the park but someone in a centre elsewhere, in London, I think.
I was not planning to intervene, but my hon. Friend is doing an impersonation of a footballing Luddite. Does he agree that these decisions can cost millions of pounds and a club’s future can be mapped out on such decisions? It is not that VAR is wrong in and of itself, but its implementation should be improved, rather than chucking the whole deal or experiment out, as he is suggesting.
He and I are very good friends but, unusually, on this point I disagree with him. I tend to take the position of the hon. Member for Chesterfield of being quite keen to see the back of VAR altogether, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend takes a slightly different view.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. I have always been a big fan of video refereeing coming into football, but VAR is doing its level best to dissuade me of that support. I played rugby and am a big follower of American football. Lots of sports have used video evidence and it has worked. In the likes of cricket, the process is followed in live time. The issue is the transparency of the process, and the fact that fans are not involved. Does he agree that if changes were made to VAR, and if it followed other sports, it could be a success?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds us of his time playing rugby. He is far too modest to tell the House that he was actually a very good rugby player but had to retire due to injury. He does not talk about that very often. I once again find myself in a situation in which I must say that, on this issue, I speak personally—there is probably no SNP policy on VAR, but I need to be slightly careful not to over-egg the pudding.
I want to come on to the interpretation of the handball rule.
I am glad that my hon. Friend put that on the record. That point is well made.
Coming back to the interpretation of the handball rule, the rules around handball have been reviewed and changed in recent years, which in many respects accounts for some of the stranglehold on the game. A few weeks ago, alongside my hon. Friends here and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), I watched the Hearts-Hibs game. There was a whole bit of commentary towards the end of the game that focused on whether Hearts had handled the ball. What actually happened was that a player was going down for a slide tackle to try to get the ball and put his hand down behind him to try to break his fall, and the ball came off his arm. Clearly, that was not a deliberate handball, but depending on their interpretation of the rules, some might say it was, so we need to review the handball rules. I appreciate that that decision is not necessarily within the gift of the Minister, although one day he might be that powerful; he can certainly aspire to that.
I also want to see a review of the offside rule. I agree with the hon. Member for Chesterfield that this microscopic analysis is absolutely killing the game. We now see situations where a referee might decide that something was a goal, but the VAR decides, after two minutes of consultation and with 10, 11 or 12 different camera angles, that somebody’s toenail—that was the hon. Gentleman’s example—might have been offside, which is clearly nonsense. I guess it comes back to his point that we call football the beautiful game for a reason. We do not call it the forensic game or the legalistic game, which it is increasingly becoming.
Before I conclude, I will address what is actually the biggest threat facing our game, which is obviously coronavirus. Most professional clubs—certainly my own—do not have a lucrative sponsorship deal or big TV deal. Indeed, many are not sitting on big reserves. In the case of Airdrieonians, something like 45% to 50% of its revenue comes from gate receipts. It is probably a bit of a nonsense to expect the football season to resume in April—I think most of us probably appreciate that no football will be played this side of the summer, although a decision will be taken about that later in the week—so the Government should definitely give more clarity about what will actually happen, in terms of sport being played and the safety around that.
There is also a question of what should happen to the football season. Will it be declared null and void? Are we in a situation where we just say that whoever is top of a particular league should be designated as champions?
I see that my hon. Friend approves. However, my club is five points off the top of the league with eight games to go. I certainly take the view that we should restart when it is safe to do so in the summer, and perhaps have a truncated season, although I appreciate the difficulties owing to players who might be out of contract in May. However, I fear that I might be diverging slightly from the topic of debate.
The overarching point that I want to leave with the Minister and all of Government is the idea that these are challenging times for football clubs. Most of us in this Chamber appreciate that football clubs are not just a business. For so many of us football is a part of our culture, our community and our history, and it must be supported during these immensely difficult times.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) for securing this debate, which comes at a time of crisis for our country. Coronavirus has closed clubs up and down the country and loads of pressing matters are on Members’ minds today. Earlier we learnt that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), is self-isolating with his family, so we send him our regards and hope that he gets well soon and is okay. Also, we send our thoughts to all the fans and players around the country who love the game. For them it is absolutely unbelievable that they have to go for weeks on end without watching their players or playing the game themselves, so we also think about them.
There is something incredibly British—
And something incredibly Scottish about our discussing VAR and football at a time of crisis. We have heard lyrical, passionate and poetic descriptions of the game. I agree with what the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said about the smaller clubs. As we go forward with the closures, we really have to think about the small community clubs such as we saw in Bury a few months ago. We must try to put in place opportunities to protect them from closure because they are the very heart of our communities. They provide jobs and for the businesses that support those clubs it is really important that we make sure they survive this terrible crisis.
We are undoubtedly a nation of football lovers. Both recent World cups captured the public’s imagination, and the national teams of our home nations enjoyed fantastic support. There is a collective belief in the game. We want it to absolutely thrive. During the men’s World cup in 2018, most of the British football-supporting public experienced the video assistant referee for the first time. During the World cup, what became known as VAR was generally received as an exciting addition that made the game fairer, but managed to avoid becoming a hindrance. However, the same cannot be said when it was introduced into the premier league a year later at the beginning of the season.
It is easy to forget that, ahead of VAR’s introduction into our beautiful game, many were welcoming, some with a little trepidation, because it might have been the chance to make football fair. Far too often the back pages were dominated by a goal that might just have been or a goal that was or should not have been, or an unjust sending off or a dive outrageously missed by the poor mortal referees. VAR was an opportunity to allow football to thrive and to make the story about the sport and the drama, and not the controversy. Regrettably, such optimism quickly diminished.
This season, as we have heard from hon. Members, VAR has quickly established itself as the scourge of fans, commentators and pundits. Football is a game that happens in the moment. It is not comparable to tennis, cricket, snooker, or, to a lesser extent, rugby, where there are natural pauses or breaks in the game: an appropriate moment where there can be a quick look or a double check. Iconic moments in football when the ball ripples the back of the net and terraces erupt have too often been lost this season and replaced with anxious faces, as we have heard, watching the screen to see if the goal has gone to be checked. It causes undue agony for fans. The question is whether losing such moments of joy and jubilation are worth it in the pursuit of absolute decision-making accuracy. As things stand, VAR is losing that argument.
Too often fans in the stadium or at home, or even the players on the pitch, do not understand what is being checked. “Squint and you’ll see it” offsides are one thing, but the goals that get ruled out for a foul that happened much earlier in the play are another. However, easy as it would be, we must not get carried away with criticisms. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and others have called for VAR to be scrapped, it is quite possible that it is here to stay. This is the maiden season of a radical, bold change. It was overly optimistic to expect such a seismic shift in a game that ignites so much passion to be received as easily as a duck takes to water.
However, to understand and appreciate that is not to say that changes do not need to be made. If VAR is to remain, the in-stadium experience must change. Fans who are used to living in the moment enjoying a game blow by blow can no longer be expected to watch and wait for minutes on end—long minutes—for those purple screens to make a game-changing decision. The scope of VAR referrals must be made completely clear. Checks should be completed in a certain timeframe, and fan communication must improve. Certainly what I enjoy about rugby is that it is possible to hear what is going on, which keeps people connected to the game and engaged in the decisions. Out of all Britain’s leagues, VAR is currently used only in the premier league—not in the championship or other leagues below. Next season there will be 17 clubs that have experienced playing under VAR and three that do not have that experience. That could be a disadvantage, considering that we already know how difficult a maiden season in the premier league can be. We in West Yorkshire hope to see Leeds United back in the premier season soon. Hopefully Huddersfield Town will join the elite soon, too.
I shall be watching with concern to see whether acclimatising to VAR will hamper the newly promoted clubs. It is only fair to say that I have had representations on this from the premier league, as I am sure others have, ahead of the debate. It helpfully points out that VAR is only 29 games into its first ever season. Stadium attendance since its introduction is tracking at a record high of 97.5%, although it is questionable whether that is about VAR or just the brilliance of the football. The league is working with the clubs on guidance with respect to stadium information for fans. I take all that on board; but the premier league is the crème de la crème of football. Children from places that we in this Chamber have never heard of go to bed dreaming of one day playing in it. Such is its success that it is beamed all over the world, and its superstars are truly global. Therefore, while I am willing to take on board the premier league’s opinions, fans are right to expect a better, more successful introduction.
In conclusion, VAR must learn to work better. It is vital for fans, future fans and the future of the game. The Labour party and, I am sure, every Member present, and Members across the House, look forward very much to premier league football, and the rest of football, getting back to their brilliant best as soon as it is safe for them to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) for securing today’s debate and for the contribution he has made today, and for those of other Members, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and of course the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin).
I very much appreciated, as I am sure everyone did, the professional tone in which the hon. Member for Chesterfield introduced the debate, given the circumstances. We obviously take the coronavirus situation extremely seriously, but football fans around the world also need to look to the future, as he said. We need something to look forward to, as well, and the hon. Gentleman explained that he has been trying for the debate for a considerable time. I recognise that these are slightly unfortunate circumstances, but he explained very well.
Football clubs are the heart of local communities. They have unique social value and many enjoy a rich history. Our football competitions are the best in the world and some of our greatest assets. The top tier of domestic competition, the premier league, is one of our most important soft power assets. It is the most watched and supported football league in the world, with matches broadcast to more than 1.3 billion homes in 192 countries. Part of what makes it the most attractive league in the world is the stellar quality of its competition, and we want that to continue. However, I must be clear: it is down to the premier league and its clubs to decide the rules of their competition—not the Government and, I am afraid, not even the Sports Minister. I may have a view, but I am afraid I have no such control. This year, the premier league decided to introduce the video assistant referee, commonly known as VAR.
Since the first introduction of VAR to English football, in the FA cup third-round tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace back in 2018, it has been much debated in pubs, football clubs and homes across the country. I am sure that that debate will continue. The premier league continues to deliver a fantastic experience, and the introduction of VAR does not seem to have hampered attendance, which is tracking at a record 97.5%, as the Leader of the Opposition—[Interruption.] Maybe one day! As the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), said. That is great capacity for this season, and builds on seven consecutive previous seasons in which utilisation has been above 95%. VAR does not appear to be reducing fans’ appetite to turn up to support their team. That healthy picture is reflected in all professional leagues: attendance at the English football league has reached its highest levels in 60 years.
We should be a little careful about those statistics. The vast majority of fans at premier league games are watching via season tickets. It is a hard habit to break, and no one is suggesting that they will leave in their droves, but if 67% of those watching are saying, “This is making my experience worse,” simply saying, “Well, they’re still turning up,” is not good enough.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the level of enjoyment in the games, but the key thing is attendance and people watching. That is a metric we need to pay careful attention to. The passionate way in which he articulated the emotional impact of scoring a goal and the potential disappointment with the delays on the VAR, I understand, but we can all remember times when we passionately disagreed with a terrible decision. We should not forget such circumstances.
More than 18 million people made their way to league fixtures during the 2018-19 season, the highest figure since 1959. Cumulative attendances across the championship, league one and league two broke the 18 million barrier for a third consecutive year, with the average gate across all three divisions eclipsing 11,000.
The EFL Away Fan Experience Project, which was launched for the 2016-17 season, is a prime example of the work of the football authorities to improve fans’ experience at matches. The EFL is not only focused on those fans attending the game, though. Its new iFollow service offers fans the chance to watch selected live games and to enjoy audio commentary from matches across the EFL, meaning that games remain accessible to those who may have moved away from the area or cannot make it to matches with their physical presence.
It is great to see that the game is going from strength to strength in this country. The football authorities are engaging with fans to improve their matchday experience and the record-breaking attendance implies that that is working. They continue to do a great job running their respective competitions, and it is right that any decisions over their rules, including the future use of VAR, should rest with them as custodians of the game. Again, I am not convinced that fans want the Sports Minister to decide on such things, or on the offside or the handball rule.
Attendance at top-tier football games is important, but it is also vital for games at a local level. Frequently, grassroots games are being called off owing to a lack of available or adequate facilities. The Government have therefore committed to investing £550 million in grassroots football facilities in support of our bid for the men’s 2030 World cup. That will help to improve facilities all across the country, meaning that by 2030 every adult and child, in every community across England, will be no more than 15 minutes away from a quality pitch.
That investment will build on the great work already done by the Football Foundation, a charity jointly funded by the Government, the Football Association and the premier league. Since its inception in 2000, the Football Foundation has delivered £495 million towards developing and creating new facilities.
The premier league is doing great work with children across the country through its Kicks programme. Kicks offers young people, often those most at risk of getting involved in antisocial behaviour, regular and constructive activities delivered by respected club staff.
Football forms a significant part of many of our lives, and the game is giving back to communities right across the country. I am grateful for today’s wide-ranging discussion about the beautiful game. Football is an important part of this country’s history, and the Government are committed to investing in the grassroots game to ensure it can continue to be enjoyed by all.
I call Toby Perkins to wind up. I will just say that as Chair I have to remain neutral, and I think I have been more than restrained in not rising to the bait of his comments about football rivalries in Sheffield. We will leave it there, and I will see him afterwards.
I am somewhat nervous now, Mr Betts!
I thank those Members who have contributed. I appreciate that, as everyone has said, there are other matters that concern us, but the case that I have made over the course of my speech remains my view. I also welcome the comments that other people have made about the ways in which VAR can be improved; I accept the likelihood that there will be reform to VAR and, hopefully, improved engagement with fans and spectators rather than abolition, which is what I would prefer.
On the subject of attendance, the demands of the public are not to be ignored. As someone who has attended football matches for 40 years or more, the popularity of football is not what it has always been. There have been times when it was a very different experience, and we should not take for granted the successes we have had. It is incumbent on those who are in charge of the game to understand what they have and why their product is so successful, and to preserve and safeguard it. When the people who put in the money to make that product so successful urge them to change direction, they should take that seriously.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered VAR and its effect on football attendances.
Private Rented Sector
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the private rented sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I declare my interest as a landlady to private renters and I refer everyone here to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I know the whole House is focused on the coronavirus—rightfully so—and I think I speak on behalf of everyone here when I say that our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones and those suffering the symptoms and having to self-isolate. I give a nod to everyone here, including our civil servants who have made the effort to come in. Things are quite scary, and I have just found out that my daughter’s nursery is closing, which is the scariest prospect for the children. I want to talk about how coronavirus will impact those who privately rent, especially those on a low income.
The crisis poses a serious threat to private renters. I wanted to bring this topic up because I do not want people to have to choose between whether they pay rent or self-isolate should they be faced with the symptoms in the months and weeks ahead. I am sure the Minister understands that we need to act now to protect tenants. A large number could be unfairly evicted, which could lead to homelessness if people start to fall behind in paying rent in one of the scariest and most dangerous periods of our history in this country. It is vital that we protect people in the private rented sector from homelessness and vital to insulate them financially to ensure that security of tenure is available to them if they feel they need to self-isolate and cannot go to work. I hope the Minister will seriously consider Labour’s Front Bench proposals on rent deferrals and a ban on evicting those who fall behind in their rent because of coronavirus.
A lot has been talked about coronavirus in terms of what happens if we get it, what we should do, and how we should self-isolate, but one thing missing, perhaps rightly, is what happens when we actually get the symptoms. The godmother of my children—Members need not worry; I have not been near her in weeks—got it and she told me the breath was taken away out of her. She was lying in bed and could not get up. She felt like a shadow of her former self. There was absolutely no way she could go to work, but she is in a situation where, even if she does not go to work, she will still get paid. She is one of the lucky ones because she can continue to live in her house, but that is not the case for all of us, which is why this debate is so important today.
It is not only working-age renters that coronavirus will impact. I have looked at the Office for National Statistics and found a few facts and figures that surprised me. The private rented sector is gradually becoming older as fewer families can afford to buy a home. According to Age UK, more than 700,000 over-60s privately rent in England, and the proportion of households headed by older renters has doubled in the past 15 years. In my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, an estimated 937 over-60s are on housing benefit alone. Older renters are more likely than homeowners to have long-term health problems. I am sure other Members are aware from their advice surgeries that problems in the private rented sector are rife. We have probably all dealt with damp walls and other conditions that people live in. We have to ensure that older and more vulnerable renters are protected, which is why this debate is so important today.
We know that poorly maintained housing is rife in the private rented sector. As a democracy, as a Government and as a country, we need to start looking at it more and more, especially as we have been warned over and over again that we are more likely to get the virus if we have an underlying health condition.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a passionate speech. The other day at the all-party group on housing and planning, it was pointed out that one in four adults in this country suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition, and one in five says that it is exacerbated by their housing. Does she agree that with this killer/death/invisible pandemic in our midst we should address mental health conditions, too, in the housing picture? Will she also pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and her Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which the Government agreed to only after Grenfell?
I will pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) shortly, but what my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) says is very important. I have not mentioned mental health in this speech, because it is already too long, as most people can see. However, every time I hold an advice surgery, 80% of my casework is based on housing. When I deal with housing casework, people say, “Well, I have asthma”, or this or that problem medically, and then, “As a result, I have had mental health problems,” so there is a clear link between the housing conditions that someone lives in and the mental health problems that they may develop. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that the Minister will address this topic.
More and more people are growing old in substandard rented accommodation, and that shines a light on the fact that, as a country, we do not take private renting seriously. Five million people in the UK live in the private rented sector, which is an enormous number, up from 2.8 million in 2007. The proportion of renting households in London, where my hon. Friend and I are MPs, is expected to grow to 40% of the total in five years’ time. Again, these are staggering figures, yet I feel that too often as politicians, and as a Government, we see renting as nothing more than a stepping stone to home ownership. While the aspiration to own a home is common among us, including many of my constituents, the obscene cost of housing, especially in London, puts this dream well out of reach for the hundreds of thousands of private renters who are living on the breadline and the 63% who say that they have no savings at all. We have to do more to tackle the problem facing private renters. The economic and social crisis that we face as a result of coronavirus is shining a light on how many low-income private renters’ lives are fragile, and it lends greater urgency—and maybe provides an opportunity—to address this and provide them with the security and safety that they need.
I want to talk a bit about my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, because we have one of the largest proportions of people who live in private rented houses in the country—30% of my constituency privately rents. The more than doubling of the private rented sector over the last 20 years has meant that in the Borough of Camden, which I live in, that type of tenure is now only slightly smaller than the owner-occupied sector. Ahead of this debate, I emailed my constituents to ask them for their experiences and thoughts about it. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who emailed to talk about their experience and how important this issue was to them. Many made the point that privately renting is not a short-term solution for them. They will have to do it for the rest of their lives, and therefore, they feel very passionately that we as politicians should tackle the problems that come with it.
The No. 1 thing that came up over and over again is how unaffordable renting in London is. That came out loud and clear and I am sure that my hon. Friend—a London Member—will recognise that. Renters in Camden face the fourth highest rents in the whole country. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom flat is over £2,000. That reflects the dramatic growth in rents that we have seen in the last decade, far outstripping any rise in earnings that my constituents may have had.
I very much agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. Is not one of the problems the failure to keep the level of rents in track with the local housing allowance, which supports families on low incomes who rent privately? On the latest assessment, after the four-year freeze that we have had, and the tiny inflation rise this year across England, only in 2% of the country can people afford to rent a three-bedroom home within the local housing allowance.
I will come to the link between local housing allowance rents and rental growth later, but I thoroughly agree with my right hon. Friend that because the link has been broken, people are put at risk of eviction and eventually homelessness. He will know that more than ever, representing a London constituency, where there are serious problems with overcrowding—I know his constituency well.
We have seen a dramatic growth in rents in the last decade. The average private rent is an astonishing £4,500 more than it was in 2010. That is how much it has accelerated in the last 10 years and here are some of the results. Some 30% of tenants now struggle to pay rent; over a quarter of London renters spend more than half their wages on rent alone; one in three older renters lives in poverty after rent has been paid; and it is no wonder that 60% of renting families say they are just one pay cheque away from losing their home.
On that point, over the past week, I have been contacted by many constituents with coronavirus. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for the Government to step in and ensure that those people are looked after, as has been done in other countries?
This is why I felt that we should continue with this debate even though I know there are other things on our mind. With the virus, there is a big link to those who are renting. This is a time when we need to pull together and make demands of the Government to fix this problem, which has been ongoing for a long time but which requires particular urgency now in the light of the situation we are facing.
The impact of coronavirus on low-income private renters could be devastating. I know many renters are already contacting housing charities and renters’ organisations such as ACORN out of fear they will not be able to pay rent this month: those on zero-hours contracts are particularly worried. I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituents are emailing her constantly about that.
Statutory sick pay of £94.25 will not even come close to covering rent for most Londoners. Members from these constituencies in this room will know that their constituents are struggling to make ends meet, and they could face far bigger income reductions from the loss of a job or working hours. I hope the Government will listen to calls from Opposition Members and others to increase statutory sick pay and give more protection to low paid, insecure and self-employed workers from the effects of coronavirus.
Anyone who needs to self-isolate—I keep making the point—needs to be able to do so without fearing that they will lose their home or that they will not be able to feed their children or themselves. We have to make sure that anyone who has a cough or a fever feels that they can stay at home without fear of falling behind on their rent and suffering huge financial repercussions.
Does my good friend concur that landlord licensing is a good way of ensuring that, in the private rented sector, the most vulnerable members of our constituencies live in adequate accommodation and do not suffer adversely because of the poor quality of their properties, exacerbating their health conditions? Will she call on the Government to extend landlord licensing in Liverpool?
I will come to this later in my speech, but I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Some of the conditions in which our constituents and especially those who are very vulnerable live, which are described to me and in some of the reports I have read, is despicable. We have got to do something about this and tackle the issue, which is becoming a serious problem across the country—not just in London but, as my hon. Friend says, in Liverpool as well.
The long-term impact of our failure to tackle sky-high rents is a slow erosion of our communities. That is why I brought this debate here because I am worried about what that is doing to our communities. Local people from my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn are being driven out of areas where they grew up and which they love but where they cannot afford to live.
The Conservative Government have wasted so much time, effort and money on schemes such as Help to Buy. I know some people benefit from that, but the vast majority of my constituents have not. We want the Government to build genuinely affordable homes and we need to bring down rents in the private sector. Now we want to make sure the Government do not block mayors such as Sadiq Khan from introducing sensible rent control. That will help people in my constituency from being priced out of London. I feel very strongly about this. I grew up in my constituency and I went to school there, but I can afford to live there. There are thousands like me who were born there, lived there and went to school there, but who feel they can no longer afford to live there.
I will turn now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about poor housing conditions. Anyone who has held advice surgeries will know that conditions in the private rental sector are the worst of any tenure. One in four privately rented homes is classified as “non-decent”, which should make us hang our hands in shame. That means that an estimated 600,000 children are living in housing that is either damp, dangerous or overcrowded, sometimes lacking in basic facilities. Some 200,000 households are in overcrowded private-rented accommodation, including a shocking 32% in Camden, where I live. That could pose huge challenges for people who have coronavirus or have the symptoms of it and want to self-isolate.
Advice4Renters, a fantastic organisation based in the Brent part of my constituency, highlighted the story of one family who have developed serious health problems as a result of nearly two decades of living in a property that Brent Council eventually declared uninhabitable. The surveyor’s report makes for grim reading—I am sure lots of Members have seen similar reports. It talks about water leaks, black mould, rotten wood, waterlogged brickwork, insufficient heating, loose electrical sockets, long-broken fixtures, cracked walls—the list goes on.
Another corporate landlord who has been sued multiple times by both Camden and Brent left one elderly resident with health problems in accommodation with serious water penetration for more than 15 years. With coronavirus posing the greatest risk to exactly the people I am describing, it is vital that we provide resources to local councils to enforce improvements to their housing.
It is not all gloom and doom. Obviously, there are good landlords. I spoke to a landlord who is going to let his private tenants defer payment until August to ensure that they do not feel nervous and are not living in fear. There are good landlords, and I am grateful for all the good landlords who are showing compassion at a difficult time. They take care of their properties and respect their tenants. One of the most thoughtful responses I received when I emailed my constituents ahead of this debate was from a landlord who keeps rent low. He said that he wants to see tenants’ rights strengthened. He thinks that the market will be better if his tenants have better rights than they have right now. Unfortunately, there are far too many landlords exploiting the lack of protection for tenants, to avoid responsibilities, and who are, in some cases, breaking the law. There are some cases where people have come to my surgery and I say, “They are actually breaking the law.”
One particularly aggressive corporate landlord I am dealing with at the moment—he will remain unnamed, although I am very inclined to name him—has hundreds of properties in my constituency. Constituents have spoken to me about how he is aggressively refurbishing properties to drive out existing tenants and drive up rents.
One of the issues we face at the moment is that private landlords are benefiting significantly from housing benefit and public sector money. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how we invest that money in a different way to ensure that our constituents live in good properties? We need to look at how public sector funding stays in the public sector, to support the most vulnerable.
I agree with my hon. Friend and will come to that topic later in my speech.
We are hearing stories of some landlords trying to increase rents since coronavirus hit and refusing to negotiate with tenants over rent holidays in response to the pandemic. That not only highlights the need for the compulsory rent deferrals that Labour is calling for—I hope the Minister will address that point—but for a universal register of landlords, to crack down on rogue landlords and to give renters the information they need to make informed choices when they are thinking of renting a house. As one good landlord who lives locally wrote to me, a register is in the interest of good landlords.
I am pleased to see that Labour is leading the way around the country. The Welsh Labour Government have introduced a compulsory licensing scheme, called Rent Smart Wales. Sadiq Khan, who I have already mentioned, has used the limited powers he has to introduce a rogue landlord checker. Brent is one of the councils that has successively used selective licensing to improve conditions in thousands of homes and to prosecute rogue landlords. It was disappointing that Brent’s application to expand the licensing scheme was rejected by Ministers last month. The Government should be encouraging landlord licensing, rather than trying to shut it down at every opportunity. I hope that the Government will look seriously at introducing an England-wide landlord register.
The most important thing that renters need is enforceable rights to get their accommodation improved, if it is not to standard. They have some options. The first is to contact the local authority, which has the power to inspect properties and take enforcement action against landlords. However, local government funding has been cut so much—by 43% since 2010—that councils’ ability to enforce standards has been decimated. The amount available to spend on housing enforcement has fallen by 25% in that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned that our constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, to whom I pay tribute, pushed the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 through Parliament. That means that renters can take their landlord to court. However, to do that people need the financial means, and the Tories have taken an axe to the legal aid system. I hope that they will look again at that, because few people can now apply for legal aid for housing matters. There is a need to restore funding to both local government and legal aid.
There is a lot more I want to say but, because of the time, I will ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he can answer. First, what measures do the Government plan to bring in to support private renters who are affected by coronavirus? That is the obvious question. In particular, will he support low-income and insecure workers, including those on housing benefit, so that they can self-isolate safely and not worry about eviction? Secondly, with rents in London remaining so stubbornly high, for what possible reason are the Government refusing to devolve powers to introduce sensible rent controls? Why are they blocking attempts by regional and local governments to bring in landlord licensing? Thirdly, when will the renters reform Bill be introduced, and how long will it take for no-fault evictions to be scrapped? Will the Minister consider bringing in emergency legislation to ban evictions for rent arrears caused by loss of a job or income as a result of the virus? What measures does he plan to tackle DSS discrimination in the private rented sector, so that people have a fair shot at getting accommodation and councils can easily rehouse homeless people? Finally, I have focused on older renters, and, given the risk to them from the virus, what urgent steps will the Government take to improve conditions in the private rented sector, so that people can be safe in their homes?
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the urgency of the situation. This is a time when the country needs to come together and help the most vulnerable. We need to be bold and bring in emergency legislation to make sure that low-income private renters are not hit hardest by the virus that is taking over the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate to the House and for the way she did so. She brought a constructive tone to the issues that she raised, and is clearly passionate on behalf of her constituents. She made clear points about the number of people living in the private rented sector whom she represents, and the clear, positive level of engagement that she has with her constituents about those matters. I commend her for that, and I understand about her daughter’s nursery provision being cancelled. My two boys are under two and theirs has been cancelled this week. She made a number of points about the seriousness of the situation we face with covid-19 and I shall come on to that. I will touch on as many of the points she raised as possible.
The hon. Lady is clearly right that not only is the private rented sector the second largest tenure in England, housing more than 11 million people and representing about 19% of all housing in England; it is also housing an increasingly diverse range of tenants. The sector plays a hugely important role in providing homes across the country and is an integral element of our approach to making sure that the housing market works for people across the country. Yet the housing market has undoubtedly left many tenants feeling insecure. She highlighted that articulately in her speech. We are clear that we will introduce a better deal for renters and deliver a package of reforms aimed at creating a fairer, more effective rental market. We know that there is a lot more to do. We are committed to taking action and we know that that action must improve people’s lives across the country and deliver a sector that works for everyone living in it. Everyone renting in the private sector has the right to feel secure in their home and settled in their community, and to plan for the future with confidence. Millions of responsible tenants could be uprooted by their landlords with little notice and often, as I am sure we all agree, with little justification. That is wrong, and we plan to put an end to it.
We are therefore making the biggest change to the private rented sector in a generation: our rental reform Bill will introduce a better deal for tenants. It will contain a package of reforms to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market, improving the lives of many renters across our country. We will set out our plans for the Bill in the coming months. We are now working intensively with stakeholder organisations across the private rented sector to ensure we get that right. That is informing the development of the legislation, so that we create a system that really works.
The hon. Lady touched on older renters in her speech. She is absolutely right that the private rented sector is home to an increasing number of older people. Poor standards are a real risk for that group. We are working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that older people can keep their homes warm. That is why we are embarking on a major drive to improve standards in the private rented sector. The vast majority of landlords, I am sure we agree, are responsible and law-abiding people who care passionately and deeply about providing good-quality accommodation for the people who live in their homes.
Standards in the private rented sector, however, are lower than those in other tenures. That is not acceptable, and we have given local authorities strong enforcement powers, including banning orders, to address that by law. Private rented homes must be free from the most serious health and safety hazards. They must have smoke detectors on every floor and have gas boilers and installations checked every year. Just this morning, we debated our regulations requiring landlords to carry out electrical safety inspections at least every five years. I am grateful that support for that measure came from across the House. Landlords must also prove that the electrics in their property meet the legal standards, or get the work done to make them safe.
The hon. Lady and other Members raised the important issue of the mental health of tenants in the PRS. She is absolutely right: poor standards can affect mental health negatively. That is why they will form an important part of our reforms of the housing health-and-safety rating system. She also asked about the national register to protect tenants. We absolutely want to get the balance right between supporting good landlords and tackling criminals. We have already introduced a database of rogue landlords and property agents so that local authorities can tackle the worst offenders and prevent them from operating in order better to protect tenants. The consultation on extending information on the database to tenants closed on 12 October. We are reviewing the responses. When we publish any follow-up, I am happy to ensure that the hon. Lady is sighted of that information.
I highlight the fact that the vast majority of landlords play an important role in providing decent quality housing, but we are determined to crack down on the small number of unscrupulous landlords who neglect their property and exploit their tenants. We want such landlords to comply or to leave the sector altogether. The cost of enforcement should be placed on the few landlords who deliberately rent out substandard and unsafe accommodation, not on the taxpayer. We are also looking at ways to improve access to, and to expand the scope of, the database.
Given the time, I will turn to covid-19. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have taken a hugely constructive view of how to support people through this hugely difficult situation faced by our country. The hon. Lady is right that no one should feel that they cannot afford to self-isolate in the current climate. To preface some of the remarks that I am about to make, we have already announced some measures, but I confirm that very shortly the Chancellor will outline a further package of support for people in this sector later today. I cannot, unfortunately, update her on exactly what that is before it is announced; I hope she understands. However, I confirm that this is being taken very seriously, and we are working on it intensively to ensure that we can get it announced as quickly as possible.
We have already announced a range of measures, including a £500 million hardship fund. We will set out more details of that shortly. We are bringing forward measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the first day rather than the fourth. We also have a range of support in place for those who do not receive statutory sick pay, including those on universal credit and contribution-based employment support allowance. I hope that the hon. Lady will bear with us for a few more hours to hear some more detail.
We are committed to building a private sector that works for everyone across our country. We will introduce a better deal for renters that improves the lives of people across our country. I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Surrey: M25 Noise Pollution
I beg to move,
That this House has considered M25 noise pollution in Surrey.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I am delighted to have secured this debate.
The issue at hand is a simple one. Between junctions 10 and 11 on the M25, the surface of the motorway consists of concrete blocks. The concrete surface itself is noisy, and there are gaps between each of the concrete blocks that constitute the road. The repetitive buffeting that occurs as a vehicle’s tyres pass over these expansion joints adds substantially to the overall noise levels. Take it from me, Sir Gary, it is unpleasant and noisy to drive on, and it causes noise pollution for several thousand of my constituents who live in Byfleet, West Byfleet and Pyrford. The noise is so loud and incessant that it can regularly carry for up to 3 km or so, but when the wind is in certain directions, it can also affect those who live up to 4 km away.
The noise is, of course, also heard by residents living and working near the M25 in the neighbouring constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) for his diligent work and support on this important matter, and to his predecessor, the right hon. Philip Hammond, with whom I have also liaised closely on this in previous years. I also acknowledge the work and campaigning of the key members of the M25 J10-11 Action Group, who have highlighted this matter very effectively since forming their group in June 2019, and the leadership of that organisation by Councillor Amanda Boote, who has brought formidable amounts of drive and energy to that role.
Some 20 years ago, the then Labour Government announced their commitment to replacing or overlaying all concrete main roads with lower-noise materials by 31 March 2011, irrespective of maintenance needs. Sadly, during a subsequent Labour Government’s spending review—in 2008, I believe—it was considered that that commitment was no longer affordable, presumably due to fiscal tightening in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Since then I have been told by Highways England and by Ministers that, while they appreciate the concerns of residents, there are currently no plans to resurface the 7 km section of the M25. They have assured me and my constituents that they are looking for ways to improve the situation, and Highways England has recently done work to repair failed joints in the concrete carriageways.
However, it is clear to all those who use this section of the M25 that the driving experience is still unpleasant and noisy, and the feedback so far from local residents is that the work has not made an appreciable difference to the overall noise levels for surrounding communities. At one point in our recent correspondence, Highways England told me that it does not now resurface a concrete road unless it is strictly needed from the point of view of driving safety, and that in the case of the M25, with continued maintenance, it did not expect the road to need resurfacing for many years to come.
But what about the lives of residents who have to put up with these unacceptable noise levels? Why should residents be kept awake at night? Why should residents not be able to enjoy their gardens in summertime or even be able to open their windows? What about the impact on teachers and children, who cannot help hearing this noise in their schools? Mrs Letitia Mackie, the deputy head of Byfleet primary school, told me the other week:
“Byfleet primary school lies directly beside the M25, at a stretch where the concrete is in place. Our children and families live within the catchment area for the school and many of their homes are very close to the M25 as well. The sound of the vehicles rumbling over the concrete can be heard in our playground and on a windy day it tends to be even louder. However, at night the sound carries much further and many of our pupils speak of not being able to sleep, or having a disturbed night, every night. Sleep is a major factor in growing up to be healthy and strong, and we are very concerned that some of our children have had this sleep disruption all of their lives. How has this affected their ability to learn and what are the long-term health issues that they may face? It is a serious limiting factor in our aim to enable each child to reach their full potential.”
Those are wise words, expressing genuine concerns.
Surely something must be done about this issue. Doubtless the cost of resurfacing this section of road will be high, but I am confident that that cost pales in comparison with the damage that this section of road is doing to the lives of thousands of my constituents and their children.
Last month, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and I joined members of the M25 J10-11 Action Group to deliver a petition signed by over 3,000 local residents to No. 10 Downing Street. The petition is not asking for every motorway section in the UK to be resurfaced and nor is it asking for the other concrete sections of the M25 to be resurfaced where there are no built-up or residential neighbourhoods nearby. However, it is petitioning for the carriageway between junctions 10 and 11 to be resurfaced properly, so that residents and pupils can enjoy their lives without this incessant noise.
The petition read as follows:
“The petition of the residents of Woking declares that the resurfacing work and noise reduction must be carried out on the M25 between junctions 10 and 11…further that these residents, children attending local schools and people who work in the area have been and are currently adversely affected by the ever increasing volume of traffic and continued deterioration of the original surface; and acknowledges that an online petition for drivers has collected a significant number of signatures calling for the resurfacing of the road. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Transport and Highways England to fully resurface and significantly reduce the noise levels on the M25 between junctions 10 and 11.”
On 3 March, I received an answer to two written parliamentary questions, which I believe is the most recent formal response on this important matter that I have received to date from either Ministers or Highways England. The reply from the Minister who is here today read as follows:
“Highways England is aware that noise is an important issue for residents living next to the M25 motorway between junctions 10 and 11, and is actively looking for ways to improve the situation.
Work to repair failed joints in the concrete carriageways was completed in November 2019 and this should help to reduce the noise level.
There are currently no plans to resurface the carriageways on this section of the M25, but there is a trial to test materials and techniques which could help to reduce noise and improve the performance of concrete surfaces which is currently being carried out on the M1. The trial includes measurement of the noise reduction achieved and the rate of deterioration of the different treatments and is anticipated to continue until 2022. The results of this trial will help Highways England to decide how to manage concrete surfaces on its roads in the future, including this section of the M25.”
It is hugely disappointing to me that the Government and Highways England seem to have set their face against an acceptable resolution of this matter within the next year or so. I hope that the arguments set out in the petition and put forward by me and my colleagues in this debate can lead to the urgent work that I believe is required. After all, we have been waiting since the millennium for an initial Government promise on this matter to be fulfilled, and the long-suffering residents of the areas most affected have had to put up with this noise since the opening of the M25 in 1986.
If urgent action does not prove possible, I would like a firm undertaking from the Minister that this issue will be fully sorted out within 12 months of the results of those tests on the concrete surfaces of the M1 being completed. That is a reasonable request to make on behalf of those residents whose quality of life has been blighted for the past 34 years.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) for all his work in this area, and to the M25 action group. Most of what I intended to say was quite eloquently summed up by my hon. Friend, so I will just go over a few points, to reiterate the strength of my hon. Friend’s argument. I appreciate that, given current events, this is arguably not the right time for this debate. It is right that the Government must prioritise tackling the current pandemic, but Members must also continue to represent the wider needs of our constituencies.
When we emerge from the current social restrictions, ensuring a swift return to economic and social activity will be vital, and our infrastructure will be key. However, improvements to our infrastructure also need to be quality, because it cannot be that our residents are already hugely adversely affected by the impact of our infrastructure—noise pollution on the M25. Many of my constituents are quite seriously affected by the noise. In parts of New Haw, Addlestone and Chertsey, cars can be heard rattling past a kilometre away from the motorway. When driving up the motorway, as I have done many times, cars shake with the noise. It is quite clear to everybody how that noise can go over the barriers and affect people living locally.
Is the Minister willing to commit to reviewing the proposals for this stretch of the M25 later this year, and to meet me and my hon. Friend, in order to take this forward and look at how we can improve the situation?
It is always an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Woking (Mr Lord) on securing this debate, which is incredibly important to his constituents. I intend to keep my remarks incredibly brief, not least because I know the Minister, and I know that she is working incredibly hard with her officials on other business.
Noise pollution is an issue, and motorists clearly find this problem deeply unpleasant when driving. I know that the AA is often inundated with complaints and concerns about faults to vehicles, and I also know that this is a road safety issue, in that some people slam on the brakes when they hear the noise. Noise pollution is a major issue. It causes physical and mental health problems. The Budget committed to a £30 billion investment in road networks, but a surge in road building will only increase road noise and pollution.
The Government should reduce road usage by better investing in public transport, such as bus networks and—in the area of the hon. Member for Woking—the South Western rail network. In addition, the Government need to do much more to encourage the uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles. That is all I want to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) for securing this debate on an issue that I know he and his constituents feel strongly about. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who offered his thoughts on the subject.
I believe that the roads Minister, my colleague, Baroness Vere, would be happy to meet hon. Members to discuss their concerns about the M25. I will highlight that I am very aware of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned in relation to this section of the M25. I travelled on it extensively over the years prior to my becoming a Member of Parliament, so I am not completely ignorant of the challenges.
I understand and appreciate that the constant noise generated by road traffic can be seen as a real burden by those living next door to a busy road. As this debate has highlighted, the road surface in place on this section of the M25 in Surrey is a real problem for those who live near it. The use of concrete as a road surface undoubtedly has flaws, compared with asphalt. Nevertheless, it was and remains a resilient and durable material, which is why it was used extensively throughout the 1980s, and specifically in 1985 when this section of road was built. Concrete is extremely durable: it lasts about three times as long as asphalt, demonstrated by the fact that this section of the M25 has not been resurfaced, as others have been.
The concrete surface of the road is not the only reason why noise levels in this area are high. It is important to remember that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done extensive work to highlight those areas of this section of the M25 that are considered excessively noisy. DEFRA has designated those areas as noise important areas, and Highways England is working hard to do what it can to reduce noise levels in them. I will say more about that issue later.
Much has been made of the fact that one solution to the noise problem could be to resurface this section of the M25 with asphalt. It has been suggested that a layer of asphalt could simply be put over the concrete, or the whole section could be removed and replaced. However, both of those approaches would lead to further problems. Resurfacing over the concrete with a layer of asphalt would mean that the joints between the slabs would continue to show through, which would present real weaknesses in the road surface. This is particularly the case because this section of the M25 was widened in the mid-1990s, so the joints are now in the lane, not under the white lines as they were originally. Because the asphalt on those joints would be subjected to constant wear and tear from vehicles, it would degrade more quickly, resulting in more frequent closures to repeatedly resurface the road. It would also mean that one of the causes of the noise in the area—that is, the noise created by cars travelling over the joints—would not be properly resolved.
An alternative proposal is that the concrete be removed in its entirety. However, doing so on one of the busiest sections of motorway in the country would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive. Lanes would need to be shut entirely for extended periods of time to both remove the concrete and replace it with a new surface, and the difficulty of removing the concrete from under and around bridges would further increase costs. Therefore, both resurfacing over the concrete with asphalt and replacing the road surface in its entirety are costly and disruptive options: covering with asphalt would not resolve the issue sufficiently and would lead to an increase in disruptive works on the motorway, and replacing the concrete would be prohibitively expensive and disruptive.
Having covered some of the proposed solutions to the problem of noise from the M25 in Surrey and explained why they do not make either practical or economic sense, it is important to highlight what is being done. A great deal of work is going on that aims to reduce or resolve the noise issues experienced by those who live closest to the motorway. Highways England is well aware of the noise important areas that DEFRA has highlighted, and has done extensive work to ensure preventative methods are in place at these locations. In most cases, those preventative methods take the form of a barrier alongside the road that shields the properties nearby from much of the noise. There are no further sections of this part of the M25 in Surrey at which barriers would be of significant benefit to those living in the vicinity.
There are, of course, other areas that are not as densely populated and are without barriers, but nevertheless still need noise mitigation action to be carried out. In those areas, designated as locations where there are fewer than 10 properties, it does not make economic sense to install a barrier. Therefore, in those locations, there has been an offer to install noise insulation, which is essentially double glazing designed to reduce the amount of noise experienced in those properties. I absolutely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking that such measures do necessarily not control the noise levels residents experience in their gardens and the wider atmosphere outside properties. I also note his point about the primary school.
Nine sites on this section of the M25 have already had noise insulation offered and installed where house- holds wanted it; on a further two sites it has yet to be completed. Highways England has also identified further sites where noise insulation would be a possible solution.
Noise insulation is not the only approach being taken. Extensive work is under way to replace the joints between the slabs of concrete. As my hon. Friend outlined, the joints are one of the main causes of noise, and replacing them is not only good for the condition of the road surface but helps to reduce noise. The joints are being made flush with the surface of the road.
Although work on this section of the M25 has been focused on mitigating noise and improving the experience of those living close by, other sections of the strategic road network also have concrete surfaces. Highways England is currently running a trial on the M1 at junction 5 near Bricket Wood in which it is looking at materials and surfacing techniques that could be used to reduce the noise of traffic travelling over concrete. The trial started in 2018 and is due to complete in 2022. So far, Highways England has identified a number of potential solutions to reducing noise. There are still more options to investigate before the trial finishes in 2022. I do not want to prejudge any of the results of the trial, but the solutions that it identifies will help form the basis of Highways England’s planning as it looks to the future. That is particularly important because any ways to reduce road surface noise effectively and cheaply mean that locations such as those in Surrey on the M25 can be treated, with the lives of those living nearby significantly improved.
Finally, I turn to what is happening now and in the immediate future on this section of the M25. Highways England is focused on maintenance to ensure that the road infrastructure on this section of the M25 remains in a suitable condition. That includes work to reduce the amount of water ingress through joints. There is a programme of retexturing that will increase safety for the travelling public as it will increase grip on the road surface, which has been smoothed down over time. Highways England will also conduct a review of the joints between junctions 8 and 10 this year, with an expectation that any works will be carried out in the 2020-21 financial year.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for the constructive approach that Members have taken to tackling an issue that affects their constituents so much. As I said at the start of my speech, I recognise the noise concerns of those living in the vicinity of the M25. The Government are well aware of these issues—as my hon. Friend outlined, he and colleagues have been lobbying on it over a number of years—and Highways England is fully committed to doing what it can to reduce noise levels in those areas.
My hon. Friend asked me to guarantee that works will be agreed within 12 months of the trial finishing. He will appreciate that I am unable to guarantee that absolutely, but I guarantee that once the trials have taken place, Ministers will work with hon. Members to ensure that we can take forward the remedial works that are possible and economical. That will be either through mitigation such as barriers, noise insulation or regular maintenance of the road surface, or through innovation and development of new techniques and use of materials to reduce the level of noise for constituents living around the M25 and for those who drive over it.
I thank the Minister for responding to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and I would very much like to take up her offer of exploring the potential solutions and reiterating the challenges and problems with the roads Minister, so I look forward to that meeting. I was encouraged, and even tantalised a little, by what treatments might be being tested. I hope that they can bring some succour and an end to the worst aspects of the problems that my constituents have faced over many years. I also thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for speaking, I think, broadly in support of my constituents and for recognising the challenges that they face.
I would particularly like to offer warm thanks to my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It was a great pleasure to go with him and some campaigning constituents to take the petition outlining these problems right to the door of No. 10 Downing Street—to the heart of Government. If I may say so, he is already a great champion of his constituents. I very much look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead on this and any other issue that affects both our constituencies.
Thank you, Sir Gary, for your chairmanship. I look forward to battling on for my constituents on this important matter in the months and years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered M25 noise pollution in Surrey.