Thursday 5 November 2020
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
Baby Loss: Covid-19
This is now the fifth year the House has marked Baby Loss Awareness Week—as with many things, covid-19 caused some delay, as Baby Loss Awareness Week took place a month ago—and I am pleased and grateful that we are here today. It is extremely encouraging and moving that right hon. and hon. Members have ensured that this important issue has been debated often in recent years, helping to deliver an unmistakable message outside this place about its importance in Parliament, the Department of Health and Social Care and the national health service. Most importantly, that sends a message to bereaved families, letting them know that there are people in this place who truly understand how it feels.
Please forgive me for telling my story today, in as much detail as I dare. It is important to me that my baby’s short story helps to shine a light on what is a really dark situation for many people. “I can see straightaway that something isn’t right”—those are the words that broke my heart and changed my life forever. It was 3 January 2019, and my husband and I were at the routine 20-week scan for our second baby. My first pregnancy had been healthy and straightforward and resulted in our fabulous daughter. At age 42, I had been slightly anxious about my 12-week scan, but happily all tests had come back clear. My midwife encouraged me to birth again at our midwife-led centre, and I was keen to stay healthy in order to do just that.
We had celebrated a low-key but cosy Christmas and new year with family and friends. I felt content and reassured by my kicking baby and wondered what the following year would bring. Three days later, we went for our 20-week scan and would receive the terrible news from the sonographer that our baby had an extremely severe form of spina bifida. I lay on the couch and grabbed my husband’s hand tightly. Tears stung my eyes—not unlike now. When I glanced at him, his eyes were watering, too. We did not dare believe what had just happened.
Just over an hour later, we were sitting in the office at our main hospital, the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, with a wonderful consultant and an incredibly kind bereavement midwife. We were met at reception and taken to a small room and brought some tea. I just knew this was not going to end well, but I did not know what to expect. I was checked again, and any hope we had was extinguished by a slow and silent shake of the head. But my baby was still kicking. So started the most traumatic weekend of my life to date.
We had no idea what would happen next. Our world had started to swim and spiral away, and neither of us knew what questions we should ask.
I will try not to get emotional myself. I understand the hon. Lady’s grief—we all do. We understand how important it is for parents to come through this terrible time. We have had similar things in my own family, so I understand exactly how she feels. I was trying to give her a bit of time, and what do I do? I start to blubber as well. I apologise for that. I just want to say that I really feel her pain.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which has succeeded.
I must say that we were looked after with extreme kindness by everyone at the RCHT. Not a day goes by when I do not think of them and thank them silently. On that day, we were barely left alone. We were provided with lots of information and given lots of time to process. I want to emphasise that, because what comes next feels pretty brutal. However, the staff make it all as bearable as they can, but it is shocking when it happens, and I want to convey that.
We were talked through what I am going to call the process. Before we left that day, I had signed a form to consent to infanticide—the termination of our much-wanted baby’s life. This is a decision that the mother must make, as the baby still belongs to her body. I could have chosen not to do this, but at nearly 21 weeks gestation my baby had no rights of its own. To be born before dying, a midwife would stay with the baby until it passes away. I am told that this is much more traumatic for the baby.
The next day we returned and endured the procedure. I have never felt so helpless. I was voluntarily allowing somebody to inject a long needle through my skin, into my womb and into my baby’s heart, so that they could inject some potassium to end that little life. Our baby was very strong, and it took longer than it usually does. I hung on to my husband and let him be strong for me, not that he felt that he was. I felt my baby kicking until the very end.
Two days later we returned to the RCHT. It was a Sunday morning, and we had been told to go to the Daisy suite. That is where women birth if their baby is going to be stillborn. It means they do not have to interact with other pregnant women or newborns while labouring. However, when we got there, it was being used by another woman who was there with her dad. She had been brought in as an emergency the night before, and her baby had stopped moving at 38 weeks. I felt that she needed the space more than I did.
I was induced and endured an eight and a half hour labour, which was much longer and far more intense than with my first baby. Finally, I delivered. I had not planned to look at my baby. To be honest, I was scared of what I might see. The midwife said to me, “You have the most beautiful baby girl.” And there she was, a perfect, beautiful, sleeping girl. She was tiny. She looked just like her big sister. I held her, I kissed her and I told her how much she was loved, and then I let her go. We named her Lily Wren Mackrory—Lily for peace, Wren because she is our smallest little girl, Mackrory.
Baby loss is far more widespread than I ever realised before it happened to my family. Many people are bearing this grief, often silently. Pregnancy and childbirth have always been perilous for women. Even now, in 2020, with all our medical advances, there are so many babies we simply cannot save. Miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of a newborn are all too common. Thousands of parents experience pregnancy or baby loss every year. It is estimated that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and 14 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day in the UK.
I do not want to be completely self-indulgent during my speech today, but I do not know how else to relay how raw that feels for those parents and how important it is that we talk about it. I have one word to describe the grief I felt following the loss of Lily—primal. I just wanted to bring my baby home. I wanted her to be healthy. It dominated my entire being. I wanted to watch her kicking feet and to feel the grip of her tiny fingers on mine.
Weirdly, I gained an understanding about why some species, particularly penguins, steal each other’s babies when their own eggs do not make it. It is a physical ache down the arms and in the stomach. What had I got wrong? What had I eaten or not eaten that had made her so poorly? Was it because I was too old? Since I already had one healthy, amazing child, perhaps I had simply pushed my luck. Of course, none of that is true.
Having our then four-year-old meant that a daily routine had to continue, thank goodness. My husband and I were alarmed by the statistic we read that 50% of couples who experience baby loss end up splitting up. We were determined not to be one of them. We vowed to let each other grieve at our own individual pace and not to expect too much of each other. One would take the load when the other felt overwhelmed, angry or helpless. We allowed family and trusted friends to help us as a couple, as well as separately, but during the worst days I thought I would never recover. People do, of course, but they are changed. That was how 2019 began for me, and it ended with me coming into this place.
The experience I have just described is fairly shocking when it happens, but sadly it is not unusual. This year, Baby Loss Awareness Week focused on highlighting baby loss during the covid pandemic. From start to finish, I simply could not have got through that horrendous weekend without my husband at my side, yet we have been expecting women to do that since covid hit our shores earlier this year. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, I have had the privilege of listening to many experiences and testimonies and learning what baby loss charities and the APPG have achieved so far. Despite my position in this, I am still fairly new to the experience.
Last year, during Baby Loss Awareness Week, before I became a Member of Parliament, I attended a service in Truro with my husband as a member of the public and a bereaved parent. I looked at the book of remembrance, at Lily’s date, and there was her name in full. It was the first time I had seen it written anywhere, apart from in a small memorial that we had placed on my grandmother’s grave. There was another name there: a little boy named Isaac. I realised straightaway that he was the baby boy who had been born on the Daisy suite on the same day as Lily.
In August 2020, the APPG held a virtual meeting—my first as co-chair—focused on the impact of covid-19 on pregnancy and baby loss. We heard evidence from organisations that support women and partners who experience loss at any stage. The evidence was stark. Covid-19 has exacerbated existing challenges and has had a negative impact on the experience of women and their partners and families at the worst possible time of their lives. Hospital trusts that had traditionally been struggling in this area appear to be the most vulnerable.
I will summarise what the APPG found. Partners have been excluded from appointments and scans, and often have not even been able to join the consultation by video or speaker phone. That has led to women receiving bad news or making decisions alone. In a neonatal setting, mothers and partners had visiting rights severely restricted. Those factors all increased the sense of isolation experienced by bereaved women and their families. Thanks to a successful campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), many trusts have reversed the decision to prevent partners from being present at scans and births. However, many still cannot or will not.
Women have reported restrictions on the way that they can access health services relating to their pregnancy. They often find that accident and emergency is the only route available. Scans have been cancelled, and mothers with concerns about their baby’s movement have reported being sent away from hospitals. Some key staff, such as health visitors, have been redeployed during the pandemic, which means that women cannot access the services they need. After receiving bad news, information on options and choices has not been forthcoming. For example, women report a lack of information about pain, bleeding and what to do with pregnancy remains after experiencing a miscarriage.
In maternity and neonatal settings, a lack of time and available space has impacted on whether staff can provide opportunities for memory-making after a stillbirth or a neonatal death. That is massively important for grief and recovery. In some cases, women chose not to access health services, taking the important “stay at home” message of the Government’s campaign to heart. In the early stages of the covid pandemic, in some hospital settings, personal protective equipment was a barrier to delivery of compassionate bereavement care, and staff struggled to communicate in the way they would prefer. Hospitals reported shortages of face-to-face interpreters to help communicate with women who do not speak English. After a stillbirth, neonatal death or sudden infant death, some families whose baby had a post-mortem had the results communicated by post or email, which is not appropriate.
Although some new ways of communicating began during lockdown, such as virtual antenatal appointments, they are not accessible to all and do not always provide the same reassurance as an in-person scan or consultation. I even heard the tragic story via one of our bereavement charities of a woman who had given birth to a stillborn baby, and because the mother had tested positive for covid, her baby was simply zipped in a body bag and taken away. I must add that that was at the height of the pandemic in April.
The APPG found that lockdown had exacerbated risk factors for some types of baby loss—particularly involving deprivation and domestic violence. After a loss, the isolation of lockdown contributed to negative impacts on women’s and partners’ mental health and their ability to access support from friends, family, psychological professionals and community outreach services.
In response, the APPG called on NHS England to initiate a minimum acceptable standard for involving partners when pregnancy or baby loss is anticipated or occurs, whether in relation to attendance at scans or appointments, or parental access to neonatal units. There is too much variation between hospitals at present, which must be addressed with national guidance. I know that that has already begun. I also ask for the swift reinstatement of the provision of choices for women facing pregnancy or baby loss in respect of the mental health impacts of covid-19 on those bereaved through pregnancy and baby loss, in order to plan services for that group in the future.
I thank the Department of Health and Social Care; health professionals; baby loss charities such as Sands, The Lullaby Trust, Aching Arms, and particularly Cradle in Cornwall and a lovely lady there named Emma Pearce—there are so many to mention; Members of this place, past and present; and, most of all, bereaved families for their co-operation on the work to date in this vitally important APPG. I hope that, while in post, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) and I can continue their important work and bring solace to families in their darkest time, as well as trying to prevent more losses in the first place. I look forward to working with colleagues, including the Minister, to achieve that.
I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate, and also for speaking with such bravery and honesty. It is a real inspiration—she has done Lily proud.
Coronavirus has impacted every part of our lives, often in ways that we did not think or expect. We took things for granted little things, such as holding the hands of loved ones who are in pain or upset, or even those across the political divide. When restrictions were put in place in hospitals for visitors, fathers, partners and support networks in relation to scans for expectant mums, I was not surprised to receive pleas from women in Luton who were saying that they really needed somebody there to support them through their scans and neonatal appointments.
That is especially important to people who have had difficult pregnancies or miscarriages or who have suffered baby loss in the past. Not every scan is one of joy, and the time before a scan can be an incredibly anxious, nervous one, full of dread. Holding someone’s hand during that time is incredibly important. That is why I am so pleased to say that, having worked closely on this issue, the fantastic team at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital was one of the first to enact the new guidance allowing visitors to come to scans with expectant mothers.
As we know, with coronavirus everything is always under review. I really hope that the Government continue to support trusts in enabling that to happen as long as is humanly possible, because it is important. It is not like the films on TV when someone sees two pink lines and then suddenly the film fast-forwards to the very large woman buying lots of baby clothes and then screaming for a couple of minutes, and out pops the baby. For many people, that is not the reality of pregnancy. It is not that simple. Miscarriage and baby loss are part of the pregnancy journey that are often just not talked about. Yet, a quarter of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. If we are to end the stigma, the silence and sometimes the shame, we need to be open and honest.
The first time I miscarried, I was at work. I knew that something was not right, so I booked myself a scan during lunch break. I was by myself then, and they told me that there was no heartbeat. To be honest, what happened next was a bit of a blur, but I still remember the emotional and physical pain as if it was yesterday. I will be perfectly honest: a miscarriage is not like a period. It is incredibly physically and emotionally painful. The second time, we were further along. I was not alone for that scan. It did not make the news any easier, but I cannot describe the difference it made to have my hand held, gently squeezing support to one another.
During these losses, and throughout the pregnancy of my wonderful rainbow baby—the term for a baby born after miscarriage or baby loss—my friends and family were there every step of the way, and held me close to get me through those dark times. But my fear is for all those women who no longer have that support. That is exactly why I urge the Government to hold out for as long as they can to ensure that visitors can come to the scans of expectant mums, and to tackle the cause of the doubling of stillbirths during this lockdown.
I want to pay tribute to the Miscarriage Association. Without its support, I know that myself and thousands of women would still have struggled, and struggled alone. Social media is often a cesspit; but I have to say, for any woman who has miscarried, or is pregnant following miscarriages or baby loss, the Miscarriage Association’s website and forums on Facebook are an oasis of comfort, information and understanding. During this time, I know that we cannot hold the hands of everyone we want to. There are women out there, associations, charities and hospitals doing their best to get us through, and I hope the Government listen to their concerns and work with them so that no woman endures baby loss alone and so that women are no longer an afterthought throughout this pandemic.
I have been here 23 years and I have never seen a Doorkeeper distributing tissues to Members during a debate—I thank him. I am sure this is going to be a harrowing debate. There is a limit of about seven and a half minutes on speeches so that everybody can tell us their story.
It is an honour to follow two such remarkable speeches. Nothing I say will come close to the extraordinary emotions that we have heard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), with whom it is a great honour to co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss. When my hon. Friend talked about seeing Lily’s name in the registry of Truro cathedral, I think what we all thought was that is just the first of many important moments that Lily will be remembered—this is another of those moments. What is so striking about the courage shown by my hon. Friend, and by so many families, is that she chose to relive the agony that she went through over and over again, because she wants to stop other families going through that same pain. That represents extraordinary courage, and I think it is an incredibly good omen for her time in this place that she is prepared to do that.
It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who has made an extraordinary contribution to the Health and Social Care Committee in the short time that we have been working together. She drew my attention to the issue of women having to cope with extreme emotional stress on their own during the maternity process. I thank her for that, along with all the other work she has done on the Committee on maternity issues. On Tuesday we heard from James Titcombe, one of the best known baby loss campaigners in the country, who, the Minister told me, lost his son Joshua exactly 12 years ago today. James gave an inspirational testimony. It is because of those many families up and down the country that we are having this debate today. I also thank the Minister, who I know will give a compassionate and supportive response. She totally gets patient safety and these issues, and will be doing everything she can to resolve them.
We all understand the importance of infection prevention and control in a pandemic. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), as a doctor herself, will understand that. The answer surely has to be an expansion of the testing facilities, which we know are in the process of being expanded. If we are able to test everyone in the city of Liverpool, it must be within our grasp to make it possible to test people who want to be with their partners in those crucial moments of a pregnancy.
I hope that today’s debate will shine a spotlight on the wider issues around baby loss. The uncomfortable truth for all of us is that in this country, according to the latest figures I have seen, we lose about 3.9 babies per 1,000 born in neonatal deaths—deaths within the first 28 days. In Sweden, the rate is about half that. That means that if we had Swedish safety levels in this country, about 1,000 more babies would live every year.
The Select Committee is doing a big inquiry into what lessons need to be learned. I will just talk about one particular lesson that has long been a concern of mine. We make it far too difficult for doctors, midwives and nurses to speak openly about any mistakes they may have made or may have seen, because still, in too many parts of the NHS, we have a blame culture. People are worried that they might lose their job, they might get disbarred or there might be negative consequences for others they work with. We heard on Tuesday that one reason why Sweden has managed to achieve a much lower neonatal death rate is that they have made it much easier for doctors, midwives and nurses to speak openly about things that may have gone wrong. They have managed to change a blame culture into a learning culture.
One thing I hope we will look at is whether it is appropriate under the law that the only way a family can get compensation in this country is if they can prove clinical negligence. That immediately creates antagonism between a family, who perhaps have a child born disabled and desperately need financial support for that child’s life, and the doctors, midwives and nurses responsible for that child’s birth, who also want to help the family with every fibre in their body, but worry that if they speak openly about what happened, they might end up with a successful claim of clinical negligence against them. I hope that is something we can address.
I want to finish by saying this. As we reflect on how to be more compassionate with people going through some of the extreme agonies that we have heard this afternoon, we should always remember that the best possible way to handle baby loss is to ensure that it never happens in the first place. Getting the culture right in our maternity units is the best way that we can save heartache for thousands of families. It is the best tribute to baby girls such as Lily and to baby boys such as Joshua Titcombe, and it is the best way that we can turn the wonderful intentions we are hearing in this debating Chamber into actions that will make a difference for the lives of many.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
This is a very important debate on something that affects all our constituents in a very direct and personal way. Some 25% of all pregnancies in the United Kingdom end in miscarriage and 14 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day in the United Kingdom. Each of us across this House, no matter what party we are from, no matter what region of the United Kingdom we are from, no matter what culture or class we are from, knows that we are here to be a voice for constituents and for those people who contact us.
I want to be a voice today for Donna. Donna emailed me this week and told me, “Ian, I want you to be in that debate today, and I want you to tell people about my story and I want you to insist that people understand just some of the pressures families and individuals and mums and women go under at these crucial times.” Donna and her husband had their second consecutive miscarriage in February of this year. In April, she found out that she was again pregnant.
Donna felt that she had to isolate, because obviously she had some health issues and she wanted to make sure that she was in as good a health position as possible for what was to be a hopeful, exciting time for her and her family. Because of covid, however, she was told that she could not have an early pregnancy reassurance scan. Those scans are critical not only in giving confidence and assurance to mum, but to check on the health of the unborn child.
Donna felt pain one day. She told her GP, and the pregnancy clinic then agreed to give her an early scan. Little did she know that she was going to see two heartbeats that day, because she was pregnant with twins, so it was very exciting. She had to attend that clinic on her own, and that was the only time she saw her unborn babies alive. She tells me that on the way home in the car, she could not contain her excitement to tell her husband, and he too was so excited. The two of them, in her own words, had “never been so happy in all of their lives.” Unfortunately, that was the only time she ever saw the heartbeats of her unborn children. It was a very stressful time thereafter. She had to go back after feeling more pain, and discovered a few weeks later that unfortunately both heartbeats had ceased and those babies were to be unborn.
Donna was given three options to expel this pregnancy: naturally, through medicine, or through surgery. Due to covid-19, the options narrowed, and she was told she would have to go for the natural expelling of the pregnancy. She had so looked forward to having these babies, but it was not to be the case. Two weeks later, she went to the hospital with the saved remains to have them tested. She tells me a week later, she got a phone call from the clinic to tell her that her “product”—an unfortunate term—was ready for collection, and that she should make arrangements to go to the mortuary. She did that. She arrived at the mortuary, and had to sign a release form as the mother, which was another pull to her heartstrings and emotions. The whole experience was beyond surreal, and made her feel very emotional.
Donna was referred to the recurrent pregnancy loss clinic. However, the waiting list is now nine months, as the consultant in Northern Ireland who deals with this unfortunately has to shield themselves. As of today, she is sitting in her eighth week of being pregnant again, and is waiting for her next scan. I think we can all understand just something of the emotion and pain that she is going through. On the one hand, the mixed feelings of increased excitement, and on the other hand, increased worry and stress. Covid-19 obviously puts pressures on the entirety of the health system, and we have heard over the last few weeks the problems relating to mental health, and the increase in mental health pressures.
None of us can put ourselves in the shoes of an individual unless we have actually been there ourselves. This is an opportunity to make sure these issues are voiced, that people hear about them, and that they start to understand that these needs are practical ones. We might see a woman walking down the street and we will not know the trauma, heartache or mental health pressures that she has gone through. We do not know what the other, related problems might be with her family or her partner. I hope this debate will serve as a very useful, powerful and positive platform and opportunity for our constituents to know that this House cares, that Parliament cares, that the Minister cares, and that the Department will try to do something about it by encouraging our health service to direct its resources towards vulnerable and needy constituents.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate. It is a privilege to follow so many esteemed speeches. I also want to place on the record my thanks to the Doorkeeper for bringing out tissues, because I definitely came very unprepared for this debate.
When parents first find out they are going to have a baby, it is usually a moment of immense happiness. They naturally think about what that baby may look like, what their smile may be, whether it is a boy or girl and the things they will achieve: maybe the sports they will play, the schools they might go to, or the weddings they might have. Unfortunately, not everyone can see those dreams come to fruition. Too often, baby loss occurs and those dreams, hopes and aspirations can be shattered suddenly, leaving behind grieving and traumatised parents. As we have heard, thousands of parents experience pregnancy or baby loss every year. Where I am from in the west midlands, it accounts for 12% of perinatal deaths and 14% of neonatal deaths. From the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, we see 7.46% of stillborn babies and 2.77% of neonatal deaths.
I want to talk about the Woodland House appeal at Birmingham Women’s Hospital and also the Lily Mae Foundation, an amazing charity set up to help deal with baby loss in my constituency. The issue has long struck a chord with me. Long before I was elected to this place, I served as president of the Greater Birmingham chambers of commerce, where the president has the privilege of choosing a charity. Had I not come to this place, my charity of choice as I was entering my second year was going to be the Woodland House appeal for Birmingham Women’s Hospital. I was invited to visit the hospital by the head of fundraising, Louise McCathie, who took me round and showed me the journey that parents undertake when they go through the journey of baby loss, from the clinical rooms all the way to the mortuary.
As I walked through the hospital, three things really stuck out. The first was the emotionless, clinical places where parents first find out really bad and harrowing news. I can only imagine the isolated and lonely feeling that both parents must feel as they receive that news. The second thing that struck me was the fact that grieving parents might have to walk in and out of the hospital with celebrating parents. Of course, I do not begrudge any parent celebrating the birth of a child, but it obviously accentuates the trauma as grieving parents see celebrating parents with balloons and toys and other children running around.
Then I made my way to the mortuary, where it was pretty daunting to see the cold, clinical corridors. Next to the mortuary was the cramped room where parents can say their final goodbyes. There was also a laundry, and it struck me that having a tailored bereavement suite was the compassionate thing to do, which is precisely what the Woodland House appeal is designed to do, as it looks to raise £3.5 million to make a tailored space away from the hustle and bustle of the main hospital where families can spend time together in a safe, secure and serene surrounding before they feel ready to face the world again. I certainly wish the Woodland House appeal the very best of luck. I found out today that it is almost at the £1 million mark.
The Lily Mae Foundation, based in my constituency, was set up after Lily Mae, the daughter of founders Ryan and Amy, sadly passed away. I visited the foundation a couple of months ago, when I was allowed to, and was blown away by how the founders had achieved so much and made such a significant impact. Frankly, it makes me proud to be their Member of Parliament. I certainly hope that I can support them for many years to come. They do various things. They have regularly provided 10 hospitals in the west midlands and Warwickshire area with 500 to 600 memory boxes a year, which allow bereaved parents and their families to build precious memories for their babies. There are potentially siblings, so they provide sibling support packs to deal with the trauma that they might have.
Amy also undertakes one-to-one baby loss support. Currently, she is providing support to 47 clients with regular one-to-one sessions. It is a sad fact that the number of people who need those sessions far exceeds what Amy is able to currently supply, and there is a waiting list of clients. Of course, there is also much more complicated grief. I should mention her husband Ryan, who, when I went to visit them, was a week away from jumping out of a plane for their 10Ten10 campaign—it has been 10 years since Lily Mae passed away. Despite covid scuppering their plans, Ryan went ahead and did it, so I commend them for their passion and hard work, and I thank them for all that they do. I might even join them for a skydive one day.
Finally, I want to make two further points, because we are here to see what we can do to progress things. I want to put on the record my desire that hospitals do not place restrictions on partners during this really difficult period, because preventing visits to mothers who might be going through the most harrowing experience that they will ever face is a callous thing to do. Allowing them to at least have their partner there to support them through the trauma can only be a good thing. It should not be beyond hospitals to allow that. Again, I make a plea to ensure that we have sufficient bereavement suites, so that parents can deal with their loss in an appropriate manner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) on securing such an important debate, on her moving contribution and on her strength and courage in sharing her story about her loss of baby Lily.
This year will be remembered as a difficult year for so many people, but particularly for those who have lost loved ones—especially a much-longed-for baby. I rise to speak today because my difficult year in relation to baby loss was 2003, which coincided with the SARS outbreak. Stopping in Singapore for a couple of days in February 2003, on our way to introduce our first-born to her New Zealand grandparents, my husband, our baby daughter and I became very ill with a high temperature and a continuous cough. Only a few days later, our baby was coughing up blood and we were straight into A&E, where she was treated for pneumonia for several days. We were not counted in any official statistics, and we were not tested. It could have been any other type of virus that was prevalent at the time, but it was an illness that knocked us for six. It is the most ill I have ever been in my life. I was so ill that I was not well enough to care for my baby. I went on to miscarry in June, September and December of that year.
Although my personal experience is anecdotal, and correlation is not causation, the timing of my experience got me wondering—as we are discussing the effects of long covid and any viral illness—whether a lingering heightened immune response has any bearing on an increased incidence of miscarriages. I would be interested to know of any scientific research, either historical or under way now, that links this issue with repeat miscarriages.
I know that my year of grief was a fundamental tipping point in my life and caused me to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew, believed, cherished and held dear. Being an immigrant to this country, I understand a little about isolation: I have not had time to build extensive networks, and I do not have the deep roots that many people who have grown up here have. I did have my National Childbirth Trust group, and I will never forget how blessed I was that I was busy hosting our regular gathering when I started contracting at 14 weeks, two weeks after we had announced to everybody that we were pregnant again. One friend scooped up my daughter and took her home to look after her, and the other took me to the local doctor. She was with me when my waters broke. Then she took me to A&E and stayed with me through a difficult labour and delivery. I was not prepared for many things, including my milk coming in afterwards—or that, years later, I would have flashbacks.
I asked for a test to be done on that particular miscarriage, because it was further along than the other two. Unfortunately, I received a note from the consultant a couple of weeks later to say that they had not done the test and that the foetus had been taken to be incinerated. As hon. Members have said, it leaves people left wondering what they have done wrong. What could have been done differently? Not having answers is probably one of the most difficult things. I can only imagine how difficult it is for families who have had to endure this situation through lockdown conditions. We need to ensure that support is in place for such families.
By the time our second child arrived, I had been pregnant, almost continually, for 18 months. I have spoken openly about suffering from both perinatal and post-natal depression. The effects of baby loss are profound and long-lasting. The passage of time has softened my grief, and my mother always said you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but if I can use today’s important debate to send a message to women who are coping with baby loss during this time of extra concern and difficulty with covid, I would say this: be kind to yourself, and be patient. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your frontline healthcare providers, and get any support that you need with mental health.
Taking the opportunity to tell our stories, as we are doing today, is a wonderful thing that women can do for each other. It lets others know that they are not alone, especially at this time, when we are more concerned about isolation and loneliness than ever before.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), but I am going to ask the Member speaking for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), to come in at this point, because she has to get on to a special flight. I apologise for not having told the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam in advance.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I apologise to anybody in the Chamber whom I may have overlooked, but I do have to get on my flight at Heathrow. I do apologise.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for her excellent opening to the debate and for sharing her experiences. Those of us who have suffered baby loss or stillbirth have a space in our lives that stays with us every single day. We do not get over it. We just somehow learn to build our life around that space, in that shadow—it never goes away.
This annual debate is very special to me, because I suffered in 2009 a stillbirth at full term, in which I too almost died, and that stillbirth followed a miscarriage in 2008, after five years of fertility treatment. As is the case for so many parents, perhaps the hardest aspect of coping with the loss for my husband and me—we are not unique in this regard—is the knowledge that our loss was due to glaring mistakes in my care. I am grateful to be able to have a voice in this debate today—a voice not just for baby Kenneth, whom I lost, but for all the lost babies and their grief-stricken parents, who will never be quite the same after such a profound loss.
This year, the context of our baby loss debate is that it takes place in the shadow of covid-19. It is not yet known what risk covid poses to pregnant women, although the points made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) were certainly worth listening to in weighing that up. It has been reported that there was a rise in stillbirths between April and June this year, at the peak of the pandemic. There were about 40 stillbirths after labour began, compared with 24 in the same period last year, according to the patient safety body, so that is something to consider. It may be, as we have heard, because women delay seeking care because they are concerned about covid. If that is the case, we need to understand that expectant mums clearly need reassurance and to feel secure in the knowledge that the NHS, even as it deals with covid, is still there for them.
Those who have suffered the loss of a child during the covid period report that the new restrictions in our hospital environments, such as the need for staff to wear protective equipment, can present a barrier to delivering the kind of care that bereavement requires. One thing that I always mention in these yearly debates about baby loss is the terrible, isolating grief that such a loss brings. With the best will in the world, people often do not know what to say to you, because the loss of a baby before, during or shortly after birth is like no other loss. In the normal course of events, when we suffer a loss, whether of a husband, father, mother or brother, there is a life that has been lived and there are memories that people can talk about and take comfort from. They can talk about what the person was like and how they lived their life and so on. Those recollections can help people to bring comfort as they share the bonds of grief. But for those families who have suffered a stillbirth or a baby loss, there are no such shared memories. There was no opportunity to make those memories. All there is, is a deep sense of being robbed of a life—a life filled with potential that will never be realised.
During covid, the isolation of grief that always accompanies the unnatural event of burying your child is all the more stark. You cannot have the comfort of close family members. You cannot have people rallying round, as they would wish to, to distract you from your stupor of grief and your sense of bewilderment at the loss of the baby you have been waiting for for nine months and for whom you had prepared, perhaps even for longer than nine months. That rallying round is simply not permitted.
The most heartbreaking thing that a parent will ever have to do is bury their own child, but even the funeral comes with limitations during covid. The numbers of people who can attend are limited, so many people who would wish to attend might not be able to do so. Parents are denied the service that they might wish to have and the flowers, the hymns and the cards that they might wish to have. There are restrictions even on who can carry the coffin. These awful, grotesque choices and decisions that no one ever wants to have to make are magnified by their absence during covid-19.
Post baby loss, when the terrible news has been communicated to the wider family, when bereaved parents leave the hospital and return home and when the funeral has taken place, many bereaved parents seek the support of counselling from baby loss charities. I pay tribute to the marvellous work that those charities do, but they tell us that as they try to support parents and families through the trauma of baby loss, measures they need to put in place, such as social distancing, have had a major impact on access to care and support for bereaved parents and have also complicated the grief and responses to pregnancy and baby loss. The Lullaby Trust has pointed out that social distancing may exacerbate grief and isolation. I think that is something we can all understand. As we all struggle with this ongoing health pandemic, as it challenges us all in different ways, how much more are those parents who have lost their child going to struggle?
In this year’s baby loss awareness reflections, as we talk about the loneliness of grief, which is very particular when we are talking about the death of a baby, the context of covid-19 and the specific isolation it brings with it makes dealing with the awful life-changing event of losing a baby all the more horrific. I hope we can all consider how that can be addressed, to help those we represent who are going through this horror as we grapple with the challenges of covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I would just like to say a huge thank you to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and to every Member who has spoken about their experience today. It is really important that we are having this debate on the effect of covid on services.
This debate is very difficult for me. I had not planned to talk about my experience today, because the experience of many of my constituents and the stories from up and down the country show that lessons desperately need to be learned and more support is needed for how we care for people through the covid crisis. However, after hearing the contributions from other hon. Members, I feel that it is only fair that I share my story.
My thoughts go out to all those families who are facing bereavement and baby loss and miscarriage at this time. I want to focus, particularly, on partners being able to attend appointments, emergency and otherwise, and on mental health and redeployment of key staff. We need to recognise that this is not just a short-term challenge and we could be seeing many more months of disruption as a result of covid-19.
As we know, as many as one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage and 14 stillbirths happen every day. I first raised the issues of maternity services back in June, because I heard concerns from my constituents about them. Little did I know that I would experience a miscarriage in August and would have to go through some of the issues that my constituents had raised with me—going to A&E and my partner having to wait in the car park; getting confused and muddled about my dates; being unable to have a hug or someone to hold my hand or support me on hearing the news that I was having a miscarriage.
It was a very difficult situation and one that I want no one else to have to go through. No one should have to hear that news on their own.
We would all like to express our thanks to my hon. Friend for her bravery in sharing her personal experience, especially as it is so recent and clearly so raw, and also because it is an experience that her constituents have written about. You are doing a fantastic job representing them here today.
Thank you. I can’t see because my glasses have steamed up because of my tears.
Receiving bad news alone is incredibly traumatic and challenging. Having to then go and repeat that news to your partner in a car park is another level of difficult, at a point when you are struggling to process the information. It is impossible to take in everything that has been raised or to answer any of your partner’s questions when you get into the car. No one should be put in that position, but too many people have been.
While I welcome the Government’s change of advice and guidance on allowing partners to attend scans and appointments, it is currently not enough to improve access. I urge the Minister to do more and not assume that the job is done on this issue. Unfortunately, when I talk to my local services about my own experience and that of others, they say that they are still unable to operate in a way that is safe to allow partners. I know partners have been forced to wait outside, not knowing what is happening on the other side of those walls, unable to attend and support their loved ones, including those who have already experienced the loss of a baby. They have been unable to discuss options and many have been left alone for long periods after receiving devastating news, as staff are unable to comfort them, other than to offer a tissue.
My constituent has started a petition campaigning for access to neonatal and specialist units, to ensure that all parents with a baby are able to visit their child if they are receiving extra care. It is clear that that depends on postcodes. Simple steps, such as testing both parents to allow them to visit when their child has to stay in hospital and receive treatment, could easily fix that situation. I call for more medium-term answers to be provided, and an increase in investment and space for more covid-secure provision, whether on a regional footprint or in the community within every trust. It should not be down to postcode. Everyone going through this should have the right to be treated with compassion and dignity.
That compassion should extend to providing even more support, in terms of bereavement counselling, at this time. The support that parents or siblings would usually provide is also very difficult. I have not been able to hug my mum since August and it is very hard. We know that space for memory making has also been squeezed. I urge that such spaces be protected, as they are key to the grieving and healing process.
I want to focus on the redeployment of staff in these areas. I pay tribute to all the NHS and local authority staff who are working incredibly hard, under extremely difficult circumstances. However, I question the decision to redeploy health visitors and midwives, who play a key role in helping to detect issues. The redeployment of such staff does not accept the reality that pregnancy, and complications in pregnancy, will continue. They are not elective services and will not stop during a pandemic.
We have seen caseloads massively jump up, in some cases to hundreds more than usual, as staff are left in services and are unable to give their normal professional standards and time to each family. Harrowing reports were covered by BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” earlier in the year on the experience of mothers and the workforce. That was one of the biggest issues raised. I hope the Minister will ensure that the situation is not repeated in the current spike or future spikes, and will be able to make the case to the Department that these are vital key services, for which there is no pause or stop button.
Finally, I hope we can all agree that this issue needs more action, and that support for our constituents must be prioritised. We cannot face going back to a situation with partners waiting in car parks and we need to fix the postcode lottery on that.
I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for applying for the debate, and everyone who has made a significant contribution. They have all been personal and heartfelt. I have spoken numerous times on this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. One issue that this debate helps to address is the impact on the expectant father, as well as the mother, which is sometimes forgotten. I know the impact it has from my own experience 18 years ago. Thankfully, men are now more willing to speak about these issues, which is a good thing, but we must dwell on ensuring that the services that are provided are all encompassing and address the needs of men, as well as the most important needs—those of the mother of the unborn child.
I thank my hon. Friend for intervening. I have made it my business to speak in every debate on this issue. I have looked at some recent facts. In 2018, each day in the UK there were 2,060 babies born alive, 515 babies were miscarried, 144 babies were born pre-term and eight babies were stillborn. The reason I stand here today is to pay tribute to the thousands of heartbroken mothers and fathers.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that emptiness cannot be explained unless it is experienced. I have not personally experienced it myself in my own family, but my mother did. I remember very well that my mother had five miscarriages. That was in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a totally different time. When someone had a miscarriage, people did not talk about it. They would say, “I’m sorry to hear of your loss, but you can always try again.” Two days later, they would be back at work. My sister had three miscarriages and one wee boy who is disabled. That loss is real for her. My private secretary, Naomi, who writes all my speeches and prepares my business for me—a very busy wee girl, by the way—had two miscarriages. I lived through that experience with her, not personally, but as an employer who understood what that heartache and pain was like.
Since the last debate on this issue, so many people contacted me—not because of me, because I am just nobody—to say, “Thank you for speaking up for us,” including people whose partner had carried their baby to full term knowing that baby was neither going to live or breathe beyond two hours. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth told the story in her introduction. That is a real story for some of my constituents. That is why I am here today.
I have two asks of the Minister, if I may. The Minister knows I am very fond of her. I look forward to her response, because I know she has a compassionate heart and understands what all hon. Members have said on behalf of their constituents and themselves.
More testing must be available on the NHS for those who lose two babies in a row rather than three, as is the case currently. I am very close to a young lady who lost two wee babies in a row. She went to her appointment at the Ulster Hospital—my local hospital in Northern Ireland—early pregnancy unit to confirm that all of the baby had come away. The midwife—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) referred to the midwives—compassionately advised her and her husband to look at private options when they talked about their despair. It was terrible that they had to go elsewhere to get that help, but they paid for the private consultation and private tests, and found that something as simple as taking an aspirin daily could possibly address the blood clotting issue that had caused the loss of her little loved ones. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we traumatise women by making them go through a third loss before they can get the help that they need. That is my number one request to the Minister and my Government.
I sincerely urge the Minister to take this back to Government and press the case for at least rudimentary tests to be carried out. I have been contacted by a nurse in my constituency begging me to address the lack of support under pregnancy during the coronavirus. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and others spoke of that. I want to read from her email:
“It was a terrifying, lonely experience made worse by the fact that when I attended the Ulster hospital on Monday morning to have the assessment and scan to confirm if I was indeed miscarrying, I had to do so alone while my husband waited in the car due to the policy of only admitting the patient to the appointment”.
My heart aches for that separation, of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and others spoke. It is a real trauma for those involved, including the nurse and the midwives, and those who have to advise because of the special times we live in.
I understand the difficult times, but the fact is that a woman needs the support of her partner and her partner must be allowed to give that support. The Prime Minister’s reply—he has been quite good with his replies—said that fast and efficient tests will be made available, but we want to see that in place right now. We need to allow support partners to have tests immediately to allow them to attend appointments with their expecting loved ones. Again, I look to the Minister to assure me and others that such people will be on the priority list for a fast test.
Miscarriage is so devastating to families. The effects are felt for years. I remember one of the first cases I heard as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland of a constituent who lost her baby in the ’60s. She told me that she was never allowed to talk about it and mourn. Sixty years later, she still thinks about that. It does not matter how long ago it was; it is still real every day in life.
We must do better for these families, and offer hope, testing and support in taking steps to allow their loved one to be with them every step of the journey. I simply do not want to have to read again of the devastation that my constituent described:
“As a result of this policy my husband learnt of the loss of our baby in the car park of the Ulster hospital, hardly a suitable or private place for a sensitive and emotional conversation. His role as parent was completely undermined and dismissed by this policy”.
To conclude, the journey is that of a family, and the family must be allowed to provide whatever support and love they can give in the face of a devastating loss. To those who have lost a baby I say, “The loss of your baby is important. Your pain is real and you have the right to grieve the loss of the future that you had planned together. It is my honest belief as a Christian and a man of faith that your wee one is safe in the arms of Jesus until you can be with them again.”
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Eagle. It is an honour and a privilege to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this profoundly moving and powerful debate, which I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing. Bravery comes in all forms, and today she has shown the very best of us and done Lily proud. Lily’s honour and name will be timeless in the records of the discussions that we have had today. The hon. Member is incredible.
This is the fifth year running in which we have had such a debate during Baby Loss Awareness Week. It is becoming a very welcome tradition and long may it continue, although obviously we have heard today of the importance of ensuring that we prevent as many deaths as possible. I pay tribute to every Member who has had the courage and conviction to share their experiences on an issue as devastating as baby loss. To live through it is one thing, but to speak about it in a bid to help others is another altogether. After what we have seen today, I have never been more proud to be in this place and to stand among all Members present, regardless of party, political persuasion or geography. It is an honour to hear their stories first hand.
The fact that we cannot provide comfort to one another when talking about this, though we are compelled to, illustrates how hard it must for people going through it not to be able to have the comfort of the ones they love the most, and for some parents to have to hear the very worst news that they will ever receive in a car park or down a phone. Such debates hopefully go some way towards breaking down the stigma that sadly persists. I am sure that having the bravery to speak out on this will bring a great deal of comfort to many who have been affected by baby loss.
I wish to reflect on a few of the compelling contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke so movingly about the experience of multiple loss and was a powerful advocate for the importance of having a loved one there. She was able to draw a stark comparison between the experience of not having someone there and having someone there. We must pay attention to that powerful contribution. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is no longer present, but baby Ken will be immortalised in this place through the story that she shared. I do not know how she delivered that speech, to be honest. Most people I know would not have even been able to speak those words.
I am sure that all of us send our love and best wishes to Donna, who has a powerful advocate in the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I thank him for bringing her story and lived experience to this place—he has done her proud. When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) spoke, I was lost for words. That she lived through the very worst of experiences in August, in the very worst of ways and in the most difficult of circumstances and yet is here now, not even three months later, telling her story in a bid to help others represents a strength rarely found in this world. I thank her so much for all the good she is doing and the voice she is for all those who cannot have one at this time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!]
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) showed, through his emotion, the power of the need to have something to cling on to. He has his faith. However, as he rightly explained, people also need a loved one to be there. I turn to speech of the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson)—wow. It is so important that she raised the issue of what an infection at this time could do to a woman’s body and to the ability to carry a pregnancy. Given how the hon. Member for Guildford—I want to say her name, because this feels like the sort of debate where we should—went through a horrific experience not even in her own home or own environment while having a young child and went on to experience three subsequent losses, I cannot imagine what it took to talk about that today.
The hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) is no longer in his place, but it was great to hear about his incredible work to raise awareness. Jumping out of a plane is testing at the best of times. The chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), spoke powerfully, as always.
As we have heard, losing a baby is one of the most harrowing experiences a person can go through. It is painful, it is devastating, and it is ultimately cruel. It feels like the cruellest of circumstances. We know that, unfortunately, it is all too common and can happen to anyone at any time.
I am often the doctor in A&E who meets the mum when she is coming in. We have heard powerful contributions about stigma and guilt. For me, the take-home is always the overpowering sense from a mother that there is something she could have done. I want to put on the record, and say to those who may be watching, that she has done nothing wrong; she has done everything right. We must do all that we can to fight against the stigma and shame that so many women feel, going through pages and pages of internet sites, wondering, “Did I eat something wrong? Did I lie the wrong way? Should I have gone for that jog?” She did nothing wrong; she did everything right. Her baby was loved.
It is heartbreaking to have conversations like that without a partner, a parent or a best friend present. The first step supporting those affected is drawing attention to this tragic event. I am so proud of the fantastic work of the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance, a collection of more than 90 charities who work relentlessly to ensure that this is on the agenda during Baby Loss Awareness Week and beyond.
In 2020, it would be remiss not to return our attention to the effects of covid-19 when we discuss baby loss. This year of social isolation, solitude and sacrifice has made such tragic occurrences even more tragic. The coronavirus has stripped the humanity out of grieving, with a mother unable to get a hug from her mum and bad news delivered in personal protective equipment while unable to hug a grieving mother or father. We are unable to do what is so instinctively natural to us: to share our grief with those who love us as we lose someone we love.
During the pandemic, there has been reduced access to face-to-face appointments. When appointments do take place in person, partners have been excluded, leaving women to receive the worst news or make the most difficult decisions alone. That has been deeply isolating not only for mothers but for fathers as well. They have that helpless feeling of waiting on the other end of the phone, pacing the room, waiting for it to ring, and then wondering whether they are allowed to show grief, because they are not carrying the baby but they feel the loss equally. They try to be strong for their partner while a part of them dies inside. Virtual appointments just do not carry the same compassion and assurance as seeing someone in person, and as we have heard it can be especially difficult for parents who have already suffered a previous loss. There are challenges in hospital settings, too.
We cannot underestimate the impact that this has on expectant parents. I do not doubt that the Minister will talk about the work that the Government are doing to try to make this more bearable for parents who undergo such a loss. To support bereaved families, it is absolutely crucial that they receive immediate care. There is a direct correlation between when the person going through grief receives the package of mental health support and how long the need for intervention and mental health support continues. The sooner they get it, the better it is for them. Access to bereavement support varies across the country at the best of times, but the redeployment of many NHS staff in the wake of the pandemic has resulted in even greater challenges in accessing that vital support.
This is the most difficult of journeys. Very often, we cannot change the outcome, but we can influence the journey and make it more bearable. The NHS is here for parents going through this. Maternity and neonatal care must not be curtailed during the second wave of covid-19.
I thank all hon. Members for bravely sharing their experiences. I am sorry that I have spoken for so long; I did not even finish what I had planned to say, but sometimes we have to go with the moment. I could not be more proud of the contributions and to call all hon. Members here colleagues.
I definitely will. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. I thank the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin- Khan) for doing the round-up and highlighting everybody’s speeches. I thank all hon. Members for being here today, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this debate. Her speech was a difficult and incredibly brave thing to do.
Normally this debate would be in the main Chamber—I responded to it last year—and were it not for the social distancing in this Chamber, other colleagues would have been here today giving their support, and telling their own difficult stories or sharing their experiences, which is so important in raising the issue. Let us hope that next year the debate will be in the main Chamber. I am disappointed that the debate taking place in the Chamber right now is not taking place here and that we are not in the Chamber. It has almost downplayed the importance of this subject. I want to put it on the record that this debate deserves its place in the main Chamber next year.
I want to pick up on a few of the important points that have been made before I get to the substance of explaining what the NHS is doing. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the issue of the increased number of stillbirths from 24 to 40, and I want to use that to piggyback on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson). This is a new virus. We do not know its full pathology or impact or what we will learn going forward, but the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is absolutely right that the number of stillbirths has gone up. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has launched a thematic review into the reasons behind the change, and we hope it will report within the next few months. We want to unpack that—was it to do with the virus, or was it to do with circumstances?—and to know fully what those details were. She was quite right that the numbers have gone up, but we need to know why. It may not be the virus at all, but we absolutely have to know what it was, and that work is already under way. I just wanted to reassure colleagues on that.
I am delighted that a regular at these debates has just joined the Public Gallery—my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) has been instrumental in the APPG and in bringing forward this debate on a yearly basis. I am delighted that she has joined us, because it would not be quite the same if she was not here, and I thank her for that.
Before I move on to the substance, I will pick up the point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). I thank her for sharing her story, because it was so raw and so new, and her experience was—there is no other way to put it—a dreadful one. However, as the Minister, I have to tread the line of balance, and I would like to say that, yes, on 8 September, along with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, we agreed new guidance that would be sent out to trusts to allow, where possible, partners—and not just partners, but parents or friends—to go in for scans with sonographers and to be there for the mother, so that she has somebody with her to support her throughout all those appointments. Trusts that can do that are doing it wherever possible.
Of course, the answer is the testing, and a lateral flow test will be available for anybody who wants one in Liverpool from tomorrow. That is the key to the future. Those tests give the results in 15 minutes, so they are a bit like a pregnancy test, and the specificity is, I think, 99.9%, so we can be sure and confident in maternity units that parents and partners can go in and that it is a covid-secure place.
As we know, and as the hon. Member for Tooting can inform us all, when young babies are born, their immune systems are very compromised—almost non-existent, and there has been a balance in ensuring that the environments in maternity units are covid-safe. I just give one example of a birthing mother who had two partners accompany her for the birth, both of whom had tested positive for coronavirus within the previous few days.
There is that balance for the NHS staff and midwives as well, because NHS staff have gone down with covid themselves, and we need to keep our midwife workforce working as healthily as possible. Each trust, in conjunction with NHS staff, decides how to apply the guidance and how to make its areas safe and secure for pregnant mothers to go to.
I also mention the case of one sonographer, who does the scans, who told me that her room has no windows because of the glare on the screen. It is 6 feet by 4 feet, and it has a table, the ultrasound equipment, and room for one chair and the bed. There is no ventilation whatever; it is almost an extended cupboard on the inside of the hospital. There is no way that that room could be covid-secure for her for the amount of time it takes to do a scan. Again, we need to keep our sonographers working.
There is a balance. I know that some trusts have changed where the scans are done and that the NHS is trying its very best to ensure that situations such as the one the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam went through —it was just dreadful, and it was so brave of her to recount it so soon—are minimised as far as possible, but having the lateral flow test is the key, so that we know that people going in and out of the hospital are negative for coronavirus. That is the key to the future and to ending this particularly difficult problem.
I thank the charity Sands and the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance for making Baby Loss Awareness Week a success once again. This year, it focused on the feelings of isolation that many women, fathers, partners and other family and friends experience after pregnancy and baby loss. Those feelings of isolation have sadly been amplified by the covid-19 pandemic and the measures that have had to be put in place to keep healthcare workers, patients and the general public safe.
To mark the week, I met with the charities Sands, Bliss and Tommy’s, and hosted the first meeting of my new maternity inequalities oversight forum, a small group of clinical and academic experts and service users that will regularly discuss women and babies from black, Asian and other minority and ethnic backgrounds and those from lower socioeconomic communities. Every stillbirth or baby loss is a tragedy, and it is only right that we support, and remain absolutely committed to supporting, parents through any difficult situations that they may experience at that difficult time.
The reason I established the inequalities oversight forum is that women from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds suffer inequalities during birth. We need to find out the reasons why. We need to find out why black women are five times more likely to have a stillbirth or to die during childbirth. We need to get to the bottom of the reasons and to find out what we can put in place to ensure that, by addressing those issues, we reduce the number of stillbirths.
I was deeply affected by the heartbreaking photographs shared by Chrissy Teigen last month when she lost her son Jack around halfway through her pregnancy. It was incredibly brave, moving the debate out into the public arena again. Closer to home, one of our colleagues and friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), tragically lost his twin boys, Rafe and Teddy, shortly after they were born. I commend the bravery and strength of all those individuals who have come forward, as everyone in the Chamber has today, to open up the conversation about baby loss. For far too long it has carried a stigma, as we have heard, and has been treated as a taboo subject.
I would like to mention the death of Mary Agyapong, a pregnant nurse who died with covid after her baby was delivered at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, where she worked. That deeply affected me, as the hospital serves my constituents. It is a tragic case, and our deepest sympathies remain with Mary Agyapong’s family.
It is one of the Government’s highest priorities to reduce the number of stillbirths and other adverse maternity outcomes, and to make sure that grieving families and friends have access to the support that they need.
On the point about the loss of Mary Agyapong, I would like to share my sadness, as she was a constituent of mine. I hope the Government will continue to support her family throughout this difficult period. As to the point about black, Asian and minority ethnic women suffering more stillbirths and miscarriages throughout pregnancy, that has been heightened throughout covid. What is being done to look into the situation, and how can this be improved for the future?
I apologise: I had not realised that Mary Agyapong was one of the hon. Lady’s constituents.
The situation that the hon. Lady describes is why we established the inequalities forum with a group of clinical experts, including National Maternity Voices, Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent and others. It was for exactly that reason: to try to find out why this is happening, to look at some of the myths around the reasons and to get down to the clinical reasons and to the changes we can implement to stop this. MBRRACE-UK, hon. Members, National Maternity Voices and Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, as well as a number of other people known and recognised as leaders in this field, are trying to drill down into the reasons.
In a way, it is covid, and what has happened, that has made us drill down to focus on that. I hope that as we move a little further forward—we have had our second meeting—I will be able to report some of the findings back to the House. I particularly encourage the hon. Lady to read the MBRRACE-UK report, which focused on the issue. It contains some interesting reading and findings. That report also stimulated the need for the group to look at these issues.
Oh, gosh, I am sorry. I will just mention James Titcombe. It is the 12th anniversary of the death of his baby, Joshua. James has absolutely been an advocate of patient safety, and his work has influenced it. However, I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth time to respond.
I will make it brief. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for being here this afternoon and for the stories that they shared, and particularly the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake)—that was incredibly brave; it is so raw still. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who has shown such kindness to me over the past few weeks and spoken to me privately—we have shared our stories. I think this is a tribute to how this Parliament can work, and I hope that we will be in the Chamber this time next year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people experiencing baby loss.
Food Supply: Covid-19
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, COVID-19 and food supply, HC 263, and the Government response, HC 841.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. We launched our inquiry in April after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It is good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—and also the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who is a great member of the Select Committee. We are a very select bunch this afternoon. What we lack in quantity, we make up in quality—there is no doubt about that. As long as we agree on that, things will be absolutely fine.
When lockdown measures to control the virus took effect and began to have a significant impact on the food supply, panic buying took place in supermarkets, and many businesses in the food sector were forced to close. The Committee therefore took evidence from businesses in the food supply chain, food aid organisations, charities, members of the general public, academics, and Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to inform our report.
I want to pay tribute at this stage to those working in the food supply industry, because they kept working through the pandemic—they kept our factories and processing plants going, the drivers got the supplies out, and the farmers produced the food throughout the pandemic. That showed the need to have good home production as well as making sure that imports get in. Although this is not part of the report, I say to the Minister that it is essential that we have a process for getting the lorries and food through our ports and docks as we leave the European Union. I am sure she is well aware of that.
Our report was published on 30 July, just before the summer recess, and we received a Government response on 10 October. Our report was wide-ranging and was intended to help the Government, particularly on how best to react to a second lockdown, which now, unfortunately, has come to pass. Fortunately, we have not seen the same levels of panic buying in supermarkets yet this time around, and we are better prepared to cope with the demand and surges.
I would like to put on record the fact that there never was any real shortage of food in the supermarkets. It is just that, naturally, once people believe they are going to be locked down, the first thing they think is, “Let’s go and stock up on the essentials.” Let us get the clear message out that the food is there and that we do not need to panic buy.
There are, however, several key issues to with food insecurity, which we addressed in our report, and it will continue to be an issue for the Government as a result of covid-19, especially with a further lockdown. One of them is food redistribution. When we launched our report back in the summer, we did so from the FareShare depot in Deptford, in east London. In our report, we praised the Government for the £5 million they provided to FareShare to redistribute food to the most vulnerable, and we asked whether that money could be extended over the next two years. Could the Minister refer to that when she replies to the debate?
As well as helping those who struggle to afford food as the effects of the pandemic continue, redistributing food would also reduce food waste at the farm gates. In my view, it is very much a win-win and a good use of taxpayers’ money and Government money. It buys a lot of good-quality food and delivers it directly to those who most need it.
We also recommended that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should evaluate the impact of the £63 million it provided to local authorities, assist those struggling to afford food, and consider whether further support is necessary, especially in this new lockdown. The second lockdown has started. Is DEFRA planning to provide any additional funding for the redistribution of food for those who most need it? I know that the Minister is keen for those in the most need to have food. I look forward to what she may have to say.
The Government have recommended that clinically extremely vulnerable people shield again during the current lockdown. It is not clear whether food parcels will be provided through a central scheme led by DEFRA, as they were during the first lockdown. Again, will the Minister confirm whether that will be the case?
During the first wave and the first lockdown, there were a number of issues with delivery slots for online shopping for some vulnerable people, who were unable to get priority booking. I hope, because of all the experience we have had, that that will not happen this time, but we have to be aware that the most vulnerable people who are getting their food online need to get that food. Has DEFRA assessed whether enough online delivery slots are now available, not just for people shielding, but for others who rely on them, such as people with disabilities? We took evidence from people with disabilities who found it quite difficult last time during the lockdown to get food. People advised to shield again are advised not to go to the shops and to shop online. We must ensure that they have support to access the food they need.
I also want to talk a little about free school meals and food vouchers. I know it is not the direct responsibility of the present Minister, but she is the Minister responsible for farming and food. While our report did not make recommendations on whether free school meal vouchers should be available during school holidays, it did look at how the system worked, with vouchers provided to redeem at supermarkets to get foods to the poorest families.
I know from my experience, and from my wife’s during her teaching career, that there is great need to get those vouchers out to vulnerable families. I know this was set up to provide meals while schools were closed, but it was also extended to school holidays. Children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to getting insufficient nutritious food during the school holidays, so I hope the Government are looking at what more can be done for the poorest and most vulnerable children in terms of food access at this time.
I accept that the Government have given more money in universal credit, but the benefit of food vouchers is that they allow people to buy the food directly. The Government would be wise, ahead of the long Christmas holidays, to look again at providing free school meals for children at Christmas, particularly with Marcus Rashford—who is, naturally, very sincere in wanting food to go to children—making a case for it.
In part one of the national food strategy, Henry Dimbleby made a number of recommendations to the Government on food security. As we know, Henry Dimbleby was put there by the previous Secretary of State for DEFRA. The report recommended expanding free school meals for children up to 16 in a household in receipt of universal credit, extending the holiday activities and food programme across the country, and expanding Healthy Start. It would be interesting to hear whether DEFRA and the Minister can say anything about what is happening to that food strategy and that report. Are the Government actively looking at those proposals now?
In our EFRA Committee report, we recommended that the Government consult on whether a right to food should be given a legislative footing. If a person is hungry, the right to food is so important. It takes only one look at me to see that I have probably not been hungry very much lately, but if a person is hungry, that is their main problem in life and it needs to be sorted. Though I make a joke about myself, I take the matter of food security and having enough food very seriously.
We also recommend that a Minister for food security be immediately appointed to deal with these issues. That was a very good part of our report—it had many good parts, but that was a particularly good part. I understand from the Government’s response to our report that Lord Gardiner is actually the Minister responsible for food security, so he might have been here today. I very much respect Lord Gardiner, but I think we actually need a Minister who is almost in the Cabinet if they are to be able to deliver a cross-Cabinet report on food security.
I pay tribute to the Minister for her great work in amending the Agriculture Bill yesterday; it is in a much better state than when it started, although it may need a few more tweaks before we are finished.
Never say never again, Minister, especially in Parliament and in politics. In particular, I am pleased that the Government now have to review food security every three years instead of every five years. However, I think the Agriculture Bill should be much more about food production and food security, as well as about delivering food to everybody—those that can afford it, and those that cannot.
We have an opportunity—it is probably slightly broader than our report—to look at the way we produce healthy food in this country through our agricultural policies, and then deliver that food into the market and to those who most need it. I have always believed that through the new Agriculture Bill, as we move away from the common agricultural policy, we can have more food, healthy food and vegetables—all the things we need in life. Can we not link these things much more? You will probably tell me off, Ms McDonagh, for going a little off the report.
In our EFRA Committee report, we found that the responsibility for food falls across several Government Departments, but there is a risk that food insecurity falls between the cracks, with no clear lead. DEFRA is responsible for food. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has helped to get food parcels out to vulnerable people, the Department for International Trade has a huge impact on our food supply through trade, and the Department for Education is responsible for school meals vouchers. Given the increased challenge of food security in the nation post covid-19, would it not be wise for the Government to ensure that one single Minister draws together policies across Departments, and even in Cabinet? I again emphasise that we need that food—not only what we produce in this country, but imports—to flow freely across the country.
Finally, our report found that the hospitality and food services sectors may take more than a year to recover from forced closures and that further financial difficulties are likely, and that was before this latest lockdown. What assessment has DEFRA made of how this lockdown will affect hospitality and food services businesses and their food and drink suppliers? It is a huge blow to those businesses. We understand why we need a second lockdown, because covid is spreading, and I am not at all against what the Government have had to do, but we have to consider the effect on all those businesses.
When the Government closed businesses back in March, there were huge problems up the supply chain. High-value beef did not have a market in restaurants, and coffee shops closed, which badly affected the milk sector, with many farmers reportedly having to pour milk down the drain. The Government moved to set up a dairy response fund, which was very welcome, and the industry was given more flexibility to take into the retail sector the milk that had been going to the restaurant sector, so the situation improved quite quickly, but we need to be very careful as we go forward. How are the Government going to support food and drink suppliers this time? Restaurants, pubs and bars are now having to close, so that will have an effect.
I am grateful to the Minister for being here today. I have put to her a number of questions from the report and some from me as well. We have today presented what I believe is a well-considered and thoughtful report. It is critical in parts, but it is also helpful to the Government. I look forward to the Government adopting absolutely everything in it.
It is lovely to see a friendly face from Merseyside sitting in the Chair, Ms Eagle. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). It is a great pleasure and an honour to serve under his chairmanship of the EFRA Committee—it is really enjoyable and one of the highlights of my week up here. I thank him very much for all that he has done to secure the debate and promote what is in the report.
The debate could not have come at a more important time, at the start of a second national lockdown, when access to food is so critical to people’s health and lives. My contribution will focus on the Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations on food insecurity, and particularly the response to recommendations 9 to 13, which relate to the local authority emergency assistance grant, free school meals vouchers, food parcels for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and, of course, putting the right to food into UK legislation.
The following point in the report underlines the unfolding disaster of food insecurity happening in all our communities right now:
“Use of food banks was increasing before the pandemic and has effectively doubled during the pandemic. It is likely that the situation will get worse before it gets better.”
Last night we received a report from the Trussell Trust that predicts significant increases in levels of destitution this winter: 670,000 additional people are forecasted to be classed as destitute, meaning that they cannot afford essentials such as housing, energy and food. Of course, that is on top of the millions already suffering food insecurity.
With that in mind, I will start with recommendation 9 of the report, which asks the Government to evaluate the impact of the £63 million provided to local authorities to assist those struggling to afford food, and to consider whether further support is necessary. That funding ran out in October, just ahead of the second lockdown, worryingly. There was rightly an outcry from council leaders when the Prime Minster suggested that they should use the grant, which had already run out, to pay for free school meals over half term. The Government’s own guidance stated that it should not be used to duplicate free school meals vouchers.
In their response to the report, the Government said that they expected the majority of that money to be spent within 12 weeks. They also said that they would evaluate its impact, so I hope the Minister can now commit to the grant being extended, as the Trussell Trust and many other reputable food organisations have called for. The Trussell Trust’s forecast for this winter is indeed shocking. It estimates a 61% increase in need compared with last winter, which is equivalent to an additional 300,000 emergency food parcels.
I know from first hand that the grant has had such a good impact in Liverpool. It has been an absolute lifeline. As a councillor in Everton, I have often used the local welfare assistance funds to target people in need. Local authorities can ensure that it makes a real difference to individuals. I pay tribute to Liverpool City Council, Mayor Joe Anderson, Councillor Jane Corbett and officers such as Martin Jungnitz, who, despite austerity cuts, are championing this scheme, having kept it afloat and allocated £18 million. Unfortunately, the money has run out, so I will ask again: can the emergency assistance grant for food and essential supplies be urgently extended over the winter to support councils in their efforts to ensure that nobody goes hungry?
Recommendations 11 and 12 made it clear how important free school meals vouchers are, noting that the number of children dependent on them is likely to go up significantly as people shift into the benefits system. In their response, the Government claimed that they had:
“taken unprecedented and substantial action to ensure that no child should go hungry as we take measures to tackle coronavirus, including in relation to free school meals.”
That simply does not reflect reality. The Government have not ensured that no child will go hungry—hence there are over a million signatures on Marcus Rashford’s petition on the matter. Just two weeks ago the Government voted down a motion to provide free school meals to children over the winter holidays, and the public have made clear their opinion on this shocking decision. I ask the Government to listen to Marcus Rashford, and to the other agencies, and provide free school meals over Christmas and the holidays that follow. It is their moral duty. Over 4,000 children in my constituency of Liverpool West Derby who rely on free school meals are now at risk of going hungry, in the middle of winter and in the middle of a pandemic, as a direct result of this refusal to extend the scheme.
Recommendation 12 deals with food parcels for the clinically extremely vulnerable. The report made recommendations about the distribution of these food parcels during the first lockdown. There were some extremely concerning findings, such as the feedback that the food parcels did not meet those individuals’ dietary needs, or that they actually put their health at risk. The independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has stated that a small but significant proportion of people had been waiting longer than a month for their first food parcel. I know from first hand the issues faced by many of the people advised to shield, because I work alongside the two co-founders of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, and they are both in that category. They and many thousands across the country will once again be revisiting those fears. We discussed it yesterday on the phone, and they really are both fearful.
The Government’s response to that recommendation is not good enough. It does not address in any detail what they are going to do to ensure that delays in food parcels to the clinically extremely vulnerable do not happen again. It does not recognise the realities that people are living through. Our report stated that if the Government repeat such an endeavour in future, such as during a second wave of covid-19, they should make greater efforts to ensure that nutrition and dietary needs are given a higher priority from the start. Now that day has come, as the second lockdown starts today. Will the Government urgently set out in detail how they will ensure that the dietary needs of the clinically extremely vulnerable are met in the days and weeks to come?
I turn to recommendation 13. I thank the Minister for once again listening to my arguments, and for her interest in this subject and in the community projects in Liverpool, which I spoke to her about. She showed great interest and it really was appreciated. I look forward to updating her in the coming months. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who has been and continues to be a great champion on the subject of food insecurity, and who offers wise counsel when it is needed.
The EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should consult on whether a right to food should be placed on a legislative footing to ensure that they have a reference point for action to tackle and measure food insecurity. It is the Government’s moral duty, regardless of which political party is in office, to ensure that nobody in the country goes hungry. That was echoed last week by Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s adviser on the national food strategy. It should be a legal duty on the Government and a legal right, and it should be taken out of the hands of political decision makers.
Putting a right to food into legislation would oblige the Government of the day to ensure that people never face food insecurity, and issues such as the five-week universal credit delay and the refusal to provide free school meals would be subject to legal challenge. Enshrining a right to food in law would make clear the Government’s obligations, create mechanisms to set positive targets and monitor progress, and introduce avenues to hold Government bodies to account for violations. The events of this year demonstrate that we need that legislation in place now more than ever.
The Government cannot let the disaster of food insecurity continue to unfold, and stand by while so many of our citizens, including my constituents, are at risk of hunger and have to deal with its devastating impact on their health, wellbeing and livelihoods. I urge them to look at the Committee’s report and take urgent steps now to ensure that nobody goes hungry during the second lockdown.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle, albeit very briefly. I am sure it will be a pleasure to serve under Ms McVey’s chairmanship too.
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who speaks with great passion and knowledge. The shadow DEFRA team appreciates all the work and effort he puts in. It is also a huge pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I thought he rather undersold his Committee’s report.
It is not only timely but extremely important. I am possibly somewhat biased. I came to this role somewhat unexpectedly just after Christmas, and although I had done rural policy many years ago, it was not recent. No one at that time imagined that we would be going into the kind of year that we have had so far and, sadly, it looks like we will continue to have.
One of the consequences of that was that I and the shadow team quickly found ourselves in the unusual position of having a dialogue with many of the people who came to give evidence to the Select Committee, in some cases on a weekly basis. On behalf of the shadow DEFRA team, I want to thank Ministers for the access that they gave us at the time—it felt like the door had been cracked open slightly. We are beginning to see just a little of how Government operate. I have to say that we did not get to see very much, but sometimes in those conversations we began to get a sense of how Government work, or maybe do not work—I will make one or two observations on that—and it was appreciated.
It also meant that, from the conversations I had regularly with some people, particularly those who gave evidence, I recognised in the Committee reports what had been going on for many months. I was a shadow Transport Minister in a previous Parliament, and nobody ever explains to you how to do things in this place. Having been on a Select Committee, I realise how much hugely important information is derived from Select Committees. I suspect that the right way to do it is to be on the Select Committee first and then to be a shadow Minister, but it does not always work like that.
Sadly, we come here today at the start of a second national lockdown. Almost the first thing to do is to pay tribute to all the people in the food production system, from farm right the way through to shop, right across the food sector, including charities and all workers in the supply chain. It must be said that in those early conversations there were genuine anxieties and concerns about the supply chain, because it was not clear that it would survive. In the beginning, we did not know how many of the workers would fall prey to covid. It is fair to say that we were fortunate that it did not spread through the workforce in the way that some of us had feared, but that was not guaranteed, and we saw the issues in the shops. It was difficult in a trying period. It was a good example in this place of people working together to make sure that we kept things going.
The report quite rightly asks a series of detailed questions. Any Government faced with that kind of crisis will not get it all right, so I hope that my criticisms, as they are, will be taken in a constructive spirit, because anyone would have struggled with it. There were some important lessons. The first goes back to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool West Derby. Frankly, there is a level of food poverty and insecurity in this country that was already there, and a light has been shone on that to some extent. It is sometimes hard for people in this place to understand what other people’s lives are like. That is a general comment. I look across the Atlantic and I cannot believe that 67 million people have done what they have done—hopefully, 70 million have done the right thing, in my view. The sad truth of the report is that too many people in this country are already in a poor position.
We have already seen a huge rise in food bank use, which is a dilemma for all of us. Whenever I go to my food bank, I always say, “I want to get rid of you.” I am sure that others say the same. We do not want food banks. We should not have food banks in the 21st century, but they have a vital role. The next thing I say is, “Thank you,” because it absolutely needs to be done. The worry is that during this crisis, unsurprisingly, usage has shot up. There were particular challenges for food banks, not least because many of their volunteers were in exactly the age group that needed to shield. It was a difficult period for them. The number of people who came forward to help at that point was encouraging, certainly in my city. I heard that from others too, and it was helped by the fact that they were not necessarily doing other things. As the city unlocked, it meant that there was a transition back again. None of it is easy.
The most recent data from the Food Foundation shows that 14% of adults living with children have now reported experiencing food insecurity in the last six months. That is a trite phrase: “experiencing food insecurity.” What does it mean? It means that they do not have any food. That is an almost unthinkable situation for many of us in this country in the 21st century. A total of 4 million people, including 2.3 million children, are having to make really difficult decisions about what they eat, and then make difficult decisions about nutritional content because they cannot afford to access food.
Some 10% of adults living with children reported that food insecurity has affected their children, forcing them to rely on only a few kinds of low-cost food and possibly unbalanced meals—I am afraid that we have seen cases of people skipping meals altogether. It is only day one of the second lockdown, but I fear that we will see similar issues arising again, and somehow it all seems that much more difficult in winter than in spring, particularly with some of the religious festivals approaching.
This is an issue not just of food supply, but of insufficient income and social support. Labour has repeatedly urged the Government to ensure that the welfare safety net is fit to handle the crisis. Those simple measures that we have proposed include scrapping the five-week wait for universal credit, suspending the benefits cap and updating legacy benefits so that they match the increase in universal credit.
We are not here to re-rehearse those arguments, but it is important that they are put on record, and I think it is pretty incredible, in the face of where we are now, that the £20 per week increase in universal credit is still not guaranteed. I know it is not within the Minister’s gift to make a promise on that today, but I am sure that message will go back strongly. It is quite clear that the £63 million that was put in place, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, was there for a particular time and a particular purpose. We will need it again, so I echo his questions: what is going to be in place, when, and can we get some guarantees on that quickly?
When the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned part one of the national food strategy, he said that Henry Dimbleby had been appointed by the previous Secretary of State—the hon. Gentleman is losing count of Secretaries of State, because by my reckoning it was the previous but one. However, it is an important report and the huge petition that has been running recently picks up those recommendations. We appreciate that they are quite significant and that they are expensive, but the Opposition also recognise that they are what the public are looking to achieve, and I urge the Government to look at them closely. At the start of the pandemic, Labour called for an emergency coronavirus food plan to ensure that everyone in the country has access to nutritious food. I urge the Government to lay out, if not today then very soon, how they plan to meet those kinds of objectives in the period ahead.
The report makes it clear that the Government have made some mistakes. The national free school meals voucher scheme was a particularly trying period. As I think the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, the Minister is not directly responsible for each Government Department, but she does have an overall co-ordinating role, so it is entirely right and proper that we criticise the scheme that was run by Edenred. I am afraid every MP across the House probably had examples in their constituencies; I certainly did in mine. It was a nightmare, frankly, for teachers doing their best to ensure that children were fed. Again, let me be generous to the Government and say that it is not easy to set up a scheme very quickly, but there were some fundamental problems with it, particularly with the online portal. It was very tough on parents who were facing considerable difficulties accessing it, so it really did not seem to work.
One of the biggest problems was the failure to come up with a scheme that gave those vouchers to shops where people live and shop. I could not believe that the Co-op, which is such a fundamental part of so many communities, particularly in cities such as mine, was left out. Of course people can get to the big shops—the people who do not need vouchers; the people who needed the vouchers were much closer to the shops that did not have them. The Minister is acknowledging the problem, but it did go on for a very long time, despite detailed questioning and pressing. I know the Co-op was in near despair, speaking to us very regularly, and my shadow DEFRA colleagues and I kept raising that with the Secretary of State.
Schools needing to source alternative food voucher schemes from this one were also left in confusion about the costs that they were able to bear and the effect that might have on schools that had a financial surplus. We do not want schools to be completely running down their reserves all the time. There was a whole series of things that could have been done better, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton’s report highlights them very effectively. The Committee is absolutely right to say that children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to experiencing insufficient nutritious food during the school holidays.
Given the significant impact on people’s incomes, it is extraordinary that we have had this series of crises. A feature of the Government’s response is that they do not seem to spot very obvious things coming down the road. I can, probably fairly accurately, predict that the Christmas holidays will come along in a few weeks. Without being unkind, I think it might be sensible for the Government to acknowledge that it will happen again and again, and they might as well get things sorted out in advance.
Of course, Marcus Rashford is always cited, and he has done a fantastic job, but it should not have taken him to resolve this issue; the Government should have seen it coming. The Government will be judged on how they respond to this. I hope that they will not fall into the same trap again. Certainly, Labour’s view is very clear that free school meals should be extended.
Alongside children are those people who are clinically extremely vulnerable. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made some important points about some of the early food parcels. Again, let me be generous and say that it was hard to organise them quickly, but it was clear that particularly some of the early parcels were quite inappropriate for many people. If, as I hope we do not, we get to a situation where we need to do that again, I hope that lessons have been learned.
I wholeheartedly echo the Committee’s conclusion that going back to the pre-pandemic normal will not be good enough. That is why we look forward to Henry Dimbleby’s work continuing and a national food strategy emerging. This has been a long-running campaign, and I pay tribute to some of my colleagues, particularly— I cannot remember her constituency, but I think hon. Members will know who I mean. She has done a lot of work arguing for food poverty to be tackled better.
I also hope that the Government will listen on food security. We had this discussion on the Agriculture Bill. There are two types of food security, of course: individual food security, which I have been referring to, and food chain security. Although we had that debate and the Government conceded to move from five years to three, given the situation that we may we find ourselves in fairly soon we may have to address that on a more regular basis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response to our report. What we found in looking into the food chain was that it worked, but it is very much a just-in-time food chain. Especially with fresh fruit and vegetables, and especially in the winter, we need to ensure that we can get those imports in. As much as I want to produce everything in this country if we can, at certain times of the year we will import a lot of salad, vegetables and fruit especially.
The Chair of the Select Committee is right. I will come on to the very pressing fresh food issues that we face, but I agree we need to ensure that that works.
I will touch briefly on the right to food, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, and which featured in Labour’s manifesto last year. I am pleased that the Committee is recommending that that be looked at. It is a complicated issue, because is not quite as obvious as it might seem in just a few words, but it encompasses a range of issues around income security and how we judge what is appropriate in a modern, civilised society. I suspect that that will come in time.
The report mentions how our food is produced. This was a remarkable achievement by everyone involved in the food chain, from farmers right the way through to food processors, but one thing that the report could have touched on a bit more, and that the Government need to look at much more, is how we hear the voices of the people involved in the food processing sector. I have been struck by the lack of transparency. It is a hidden workforce to some extent, and of course it is not always a UK workforce.
That workforce is a key part of how we will ensure that food gets on our shelves and to our people. However, at the moment, we are seeing week by week more incidents of sickness—in East Anglia, my part of the world, we have had some very difficult outbreaks—in some of those factories. The bit that is missing from the analysis is the voice of those workers. I am disappointed that more evidence was not taken from trade unions and particularly some of the national officers. I know that the Government are not necessarily particularly keen on all trade unions, but my work and conversations with national officers show that they have a huge wealth of knowledge, and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and I have been pressing the Government to make more use of that knowledge. I think we all know that if we go to any trade organisation or any major organisation, we will hear a whole series of things about what they would like to be the case. When we talk to the people who are actually doing the work, we very frequently get a rather different account, and it is the lack of that account that is contributing in some cases to the problems that we are seeing.
At the beginning, there were problems about ensuring that there was adequate statutory guidance. There were problems with personal protective equipment. There were problems about social distancing. We hope that that is now sorted, because there has been plenty of time to get the information in place, but there are good employers and less good employers. We want to ensure that the practice of the good employers is spread widely, and there is a real opportunity to do that. I would suggest to the Minister that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might look at commissioning some research on whether there is any link between the work practices and the spread of the disease, because there is a worry about that, which I hear.
There is also, of course, the issue of proper sick pay, because without that people cannot afford to isolate. Even if we get the testing system sorted out, if people are not isolating, it will not work, and if they cannot isolate because the statutory sick pay is too low or they are not getting it properly, we will be able to see exactly why the problem has got worse.
Back in July, the shadow Secretary of State did write to the Secretary of State, urging the Government to follow what we think is the good example of risk assessments being carried out in Wales. I would encourage the Minister to look at that.
We are hearing from our trade union colleagues that they do think that there is a problem, not least because in some cases people are working on agency contracts, which moves them from factory to factory. That has been, I think, addressed in care homes, but I do not think it has been addressed in the food processing sector, and that is in all our interests, frankly. Obviously, we need to get on top of the virus, but if there are people who are putting themselves at risk, that puts others at risk, too.
Some research was done by an organisation called PIRC—Pensions & Investment Research Consultants—which I think did a desk job of looking at some of these things. It found that the number of covid-19 cases at food factories could actually be 30 times higher than those being reported to the Health and Safety Executive. I have been pressing the Department of Health and Social Care with a number of questions on this, but frankly, we have not been getting very good answers, so I think that there is more work to be done, and it would be to everybody’s benefit.
We have of course been supportive of the lockdown measures, but I do think that, right at the beginning, more could have been done to anticipate some of the problems that arose from the closure of the hospitality and food service sector. Again, this is not an easy thing to do. At the beginning, there was criticism, including from the National Farmers Union, of the Government for being too slow in responding to the problems in the dairy sector. It is not an easy thing to shift so much product from one area to another. And on the financial support scheme—the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned this—there is a sense that by the time that the scheme was finally in place, the complexity of it and the eligibility criteria meant that probably not that many people benefited from it, so I hope that that can be looked at again.
I have raised this point informally with the Minister. At the beginning, there were, rightly, measures to relax some of the competition laws, to allow co-operation, particularly in the dairy sector, that would not normally be allowed. I spoke to Dairy UK at the time, and it was very disappointed that one of the statutory instruments was not actually brought before the House for discussion. It said to me that it would have been extremely useful for some of the points to be clarified. As a consequence, the first measure did not really work and a second one had to be laid. I will just make the point. Ministers say of the CRaG—Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—process, for instance, that we can absolutely rely on it. But what happened when we came to try to use this procedure? I spent a lot of time and effort on this. I got the Leader of the Opposition to lay an early-day motion, pray and all the rest of it. When we came to try to use this procedure, what happened? It was earlier than July. The measures have come and gone. They will probably have to be introduced again and we will still not have had any opportunity to query them or, as would be in the Government’s interest, to clarify them. The competition laws are very tight and many producers are nervous about discussions because they have been stung before and ended up with big bills. It is in everybody’s interest. I say gently that we need to make that work better.
It is difficult when the public is worried about supplies, so one has to be careful about one’s use of language. I understand why the Secretary of State was careful. But we asked for a proper, national public advertising campaign at the beginning. That did not seem to be done quickly enough. The Government’s communication messages need to be refined.
We felt that leaving frontline retail staff to deal with some of the issues they faced was rather unfair. We have seen continuing incidents of violence against shopworkers, up 9% this year compared to last year. In response to the report, the Government said they will take lessons from the first lockdown, to deliver better aligned and joined-up communications. I ask the Minister, what communications will they be making to reassure the public that they do not need to stockpile?
I will conclude on a subject, Ms McVey, on which you and I will not agree, namely, the future relationship with the European Union. Looking at what is coming down the line in a few weeks, I would echo the comments of the chair of the Select Committee. Some have thought that it will be fine, because we got through covid-19 with the food supply chain. I think it is exactly the other way around, I am afraid. I would not say we were lucky—people worked very hard—but it was close. When I see all the things exporters and importers will have to do over the next few weeks, it is eyewatering. I am hearing that it is very difficult. However much communication the Government do, it will not be solved.
Everyone is on tenterhooks as we come to the end of the transition period. We will need some urgent planning to get us through all of it. There are some fundamental differences between the approach this Government have taken and the approach of a Labour Government. I do not think we would have relied so much on the private sector to provide solutions. The school meals fiasco showed why that did not work.
As we face a second wave of the pandemic and the second lockdown, I ask the Government to up their game in ensuring people have access to nutritional food, and particularly that food businesses and retailers get good sound advice, so that the buck is not passed on to them to take responsibility. Finally, we must give all the support we can to the farmers, food producers, delivery drivers, factory engineers and all the other people. It is a just-in-time system, and we do not have much time to secure it before we face the problems of the epidemic and some of our own making.
It is a great pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank all those who have worked so hard to keep the nation fed throughout this difficult year. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and his Committee for the work they have done on this excellent report. I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) with whom I have discussed food security and insecurity before. I know he works very hard and is very knowledgeable in this sphere. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who I know will also continue to work with us on these difficult issues.
I will start with the Government’s preparations for the new restrictions that have come into place today. On Monday, the national shielding service system was switched on, allowing clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to register their need for support. That should get them a supermarket delivery slot within seven days as a maximum—so, with any luck, before that. I have done the gov.uk website click-through myself. The system is simple to use, and it can be done on behalf of an older person or someone who cannot access technology.
If that does not work for anyone or for anyone’s constituents, please get in touch with one of the charities that I shall list later, or local authorities which are able to provide direct access to online delivery slots. Having said that, there is good supply of online delivery slots at the moment, commercially. I keep checking that as well, and slots are available today, or they were when I checked earlier.
Today, too, there was further good news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the coronavirus job retention scheme. That is worth checking, but I do not intend to go into any detail, because we have enough to do to go through the recommendations in this extensive report in order, which I will now do.
We welcome recommendations 1, 2 and 3. We have been in daily contact with retailers throughout the pandemic. They told us what was happening abroad before it started here. We in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—given that we supply a lot of food abroad, not least at the smarter end of the fisheries sector—were very aware of what was happening on the continent of Europe before the pandemic got bad here. We knew that the strains on demand experienced in March and April were inevitable as the numbers went up, but the supply chain response demonstrated real resilience.
The point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) was that when we had the previous epidemic, our imports and exports were all under single market regulations. Is the Minister absolutely certain that DEFRA and the Government are ready for the hauliers to be able to import and export food without delay? She mentioned fish, which got me to rise to my feet immediately, because fish by its very nature is perishable. We have to have the right certificates and enough people to issue them. We cannot delay the hauliers, so I seek that reassurance for the record, please.
Yes. I am happy to go into immense detail with my hon. Friend, possibly not in this debate because, frankly, that is the subject of several hours of discussion in itself. I am absolutely certain that we are working very hard, that we have prepared for a no-deal scenario—as the Department has done several times already, and which we still hope will not be the case—and that we have daily meetings about the plans for 1 January.
I am not prepared to say, and would never say, that there will not be bumps along the way in the next few months. I am sure that there will be, and of course the pandemic is not helping the situation. I had a useful meeting with local authority leaders this morning, who are working on this very issue. I am also acutely conscious that the same workforce is dealing with the issues of both the pandemic and the end of the transition period. I will not say that there will be no bumps; I will say that we are as prepared as we possibly can be, but that it is challenging.
To go back to today’s lockdown, supermarkets have seen a clear uplift in sales because of the lockdown and in anticipation of it. We are monitoring the situation closely, and supermarkets say that they are confident of managing availability by using existing stocks and working with their suppliers. Evidence shows—I say this politely to the hon. Member for Cambridge—that messaging to consumers to highlight the resilience of the food supply comes best from supermarkets and those in the retail supply chain. I am prepared to accept that evidence.
It is also clear that as soon as the words beginning with “p” and “b” are mentioned in the media—I will not even say the words, and this is why we never talk about them—people act in a way that is not necessary, buying things that they do not need. We have a swear box in the office for those words. To reassure hon. Members, food supply is holding up very well. There are products on the shelves and nobody needs to buy anything they do not need to eat in the normal course of events.
On recommendation 4, exclusion orders are intended to be used in exceptional circumstances only. The Competition Act 1998 (Groceries) (Coronavirus) (Public Policy Exclusion) Order 2020, which provided a specific and temporary relaxation of elements of UK competition law, was very effective. We should give active consideration to whether it is needed again, and we are doing so. I accept what the hon. Member for Cambridge said about law generally being better scrutinised. When the House was sitting virtually, however, we did not have a virtual way to undertake scrutiny of statutory instruments, and that remains the case. I know that consideration is being given to that, but not everything is perfect in the course of a global pandemic. It was definitely worth introducing that exemption, and I am pleased that we did so.
We agree with recommendations 5 and 6. Click and collect boomed, and retailers worked really hard to increase availability. There were enormous increases in online delivery supply. Tesco is just one example, but other supermarkets are available. The number of its delivery slots went from 660,000—at that point, delivery was not a huge part of Tesco’s business—to 1.5 million, which is an immense job. Many other supermarkets increased their deliveries, too.
There was also a lot of really hard work locally. The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the Co-op, which did enormous work in my constituency just to do local deliveries to old people who had rung up. A volunteer or shop staff member would then drop off the shopping. An immense amount of work went into all that. The temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours rules also really helped—that was another win—and DEFRA waived the 5p carrier bag charge for online orders, which helped minimise contact between drivers and customers. That was another useful learning point.
On recommendation 7, we spent a considerable amount of time on the food and essential supplies to the vulnerable taskforce, which I was privileged to chair, targeting this specific group. Personally, I always refer to the vulnerable instead of putting people into different categories. We work closely with retailers, local authorities and charities to help them make connections and put in place a whole range of services for people who need them. They are still available. We have our own delivery slots, which are obviously provided by retailers but which local authorities and national charities, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Age UK and Scope, can access directly. Some 81% of local authorities can now do direct referrals for supermarket slots, and I thank the team who worked for our taskforce. They did all this very difficult work amazingly quickly. They built computer systems to help deliver it and worked with local authorities to ensure that the supplies and food delivery slots were there for those who needed them.
Recommendations 8 to 11, and probably a few others, focus on food security. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the taskforce’s focus was on ensuring that food got to people who were finding it physically difficult to access it because they were locked down in their houses. However, it became very clear—indeed, this was not a surprise to anyone—that there was a growing and substantial problem with economic access to food. We got a great deal of evidence from those who work on the frontline, and we continue to do so. It is very much a priority of our work going forward.
Food poverty is, of course, a part of wider poverty and is usually dealt with by the welfare system. The Government have put in place a great deal more welfare measures than have been available in the past, with £9 billion extra this financial year, benefiting 16 million extra households. It is important to remember that not everyone in food poverty has children. Indeed, the granular evidence we received daily from those who work on the frontline shows that probably about half of those in food poverty have children. Many of them are single people—they are not necessarily older—living on their own. When we have this discussion, it is important to recognise the different sorts of families.
We are having a thoughtful conversation. It is interesting to hear the Minister say that probably less than half of those receiving benefits have children. Is there an argument that food should be targeted with vouchers, so that it gets to families with children? If the benefit is available to everyone, which is a good thing, those with children are not necessarily targeted. School vouchers target them and make sure that vulnerable children get food.
This is a difficult and delicate area, but the point I am trying to make is that we need to address the needs of all those who are in food poverty. Obviously, children are particularly important but so are adults. If, sadly, we need to get welfare systems up and running later in the pandemic and to address the economic problems that might follow it, we will need to ensure that a holistic approach is taken to all those in food poverty. I will come to more detail in a moment. In terms of the welfare net, universal credit has been increased by £20 a week, and increases to local housing allowance rates have also been helpful to families. We also continue to spend over £95 billion a year on working-age benefits.
In the last few weeks I have had useful conversations with the Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society about the targeted support for which DEFRA made a bid in May and which local authorities dispersed. Some £63 million-worth of food and essential supplies was distributed to the people who local authorities knew were in most need, about half of whom have children. The Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society say that that money was helpful and very well spent. It is being assessed at the moment, not least by those two organisations and other frontline deliverers that communicate regularly with DEFRA.
In May, £16 million was provided directly by Government to food charities, such as FareShare. That was an unusual step for Government to take. Some of that £16 million went directly to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, as none of us likes to see good food go to waste. There is other funding available to WRAP, which is doing excellent work.
In respect of today’s lockdown, for which the hospitality sector did not, given the nature of the disease, have long to prepare—restaurants, for example, still have food that they had ordered—WRAP has today been sharing knowledge, at very short notice, on increasing redistribution. If businesses with multiple pallets of surplus food cannot find a recipient, they should contact WRAP, which will help facilitate connections with people who need it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was a key part of my taskforce. We work closely together on the issue of children who access free school meals during term time. We know very well that Christmas is coming and we understand that there will be winter pressures. I am not able to make any announcements today, but I am confident that the right work is being done to prepare for winter.
I do not expect the Minister to make an announcement late on a Thursday afternoon, but if local authorities are going to be in a position to help, they need to get funding fairly soon. May I also say that the Member I was referring to earlier was my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)?
On recommendation 12, food boxes contained a basic selection of food and other essential items for those who were unable to leave home. They were a standardised package, designed to be suitable for the majority of people. They had been reviewed by a nutritionist. I know there were complaints, but I am very proud of the fact that 4.5 million boxes were delivered at short notice to people who needed them. It was not a long-term solution—a box of ingredients delivered by the Government is not how we want people to be able to feed themselves in the long term. We are not planning currently to do it again for this lockdown because we have online delivery slots, the volunteer network—the GoodSAM volunteers who are prepared to go and shop for anybody—and the excellent local authority systems. We therefore think we have a good and robust system in place to deal with those who are shielding now. The message for those experiencing difficulties is: please do get in touch with the local authority.
On recommendations 13, 14 and 24, we remain committed to publishing a White Paper within six months of the publication of Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy, which we still expect next spring.
I think my hon. Friend is being rather impatient. He had the first part of the report in July, to which the Government are actively considering their response, and he will get the rest of it next year. Henry Dimbleby is in charge, and the Government will respond within six months of the final report. The report is a large piece of work, which was commissioned to help inform our food strategy and will include proper consideration of measures needed to tackle food insecurity. On the other report that we have promised to provide, the Agriculture Bill commits us to providing a food security report at least every three years. My hon. Friend and I discussed that matter at length in the Chamber and we came up with a sensible solution.
On recommendation 15, the work of the cross-Government taskforce was very valuable. I do see the value in working across Government. This matter continues to be under live consideration. I meet or communicate regularly on food issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). Whether or not we are a formal group meeting in person at the moment, we are very much in touch on these issues.
I turn to the food service sector and recommendation 16. We know how the closure of the hospitality and food service had a huge impact across the food supply chain. That was inevitable. That is why the Government stood up enormously our existing stakeholder forums with industry and developed new forums to facilitate close collaboration and know exactly what was going on. In DEFRA, we helped with specific funds for those sectors that were particularly struggling, such as dairy and fish. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced a wide-ranging package of measures available to businesses generally and across the food supply chain, including the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, which helped many businesses, and continues to do so, across the UK; the bounce back loan scheme, which has also been popular in the food sector; and the coronavirus job retention scheme, which provides for payments to be made from the Treasury to employers.
I turn to key workers in the food sector and recommendations 19 and 20. We are very grateful to all those whom we started to call food heroes during the course of the pandemic: people like Geoff Norris, the Asda delivery driver who shopped and delivered food to vulnerable customers in his own time to ensure that they had food, and Sharon McKendrick, the Morrisons store manager in Berwick who set up a food ordering phone line for local vulnerable people in her community as well as personally delivering a lot of it. There are many, many more. We have been able to honour some of them in various ways, but I would like to thank all of them—they know who they are.
In the evidence the Select Committee took, it was extremely comforting to see the link between industry and trade unions. We saw the benefits of talking to each other to get each other through this, using the expertise of the trade unions and industry. It was fantastic. One of the most heart-warming things was the link between them, not seeing each other as enemies but working collaboratively to get the nation through. Once we get past covid, hopefully we can build on those relationships and that collaboration. As we have touched on, we have many issues with sick pay and conditions, but the value of the workforce has now been seen by the entire country, and the Minister is right: they are heroes.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman, which brings us nicely to processing plants and recommendation 21. The hon. Member for Cambridge made important points about an unheard workforce. The issue is obviously a real and pressing concern. We are working closely with Public Health England, the Health and Safety Executive, the joint biosecurity centre, the Department of Health and Social Care, and, of course, the Food Standards Agency. It is a very active problem for all of us in DEFRA at the moment. Anything that the hon. Gentleman hears can be passed on to me. I also work closely with Health Ministers. Our current understanding is that outbreaks are probably linked to a combination of working conditions, working culture, living conditions and shared transport. We are also working with our devolved Administration colleagues to seek consistency of approach across the UK. Statutory sick pay is just one part of our wider offer to support people. During this challenging period, we are taking every opportunity to ensure that people are supported to do the right thing and stay at home where necessary.
On recommendation 22, we anticipated many things in Government, but not the coronavirus. As recognised by the Committee, we muddled through in the food sector and adapted as best we could, but of course there are lessons to learn.
On recommendation 25, we are not complacent. We know we have a highly resilient food supply chain and a food industry that is experienced in dealing with disruption, but there is a great deal more to do. We have extensive engagement with industry, which includes very regular—sometimes daily, sometimes twice weekly—meetings with industry and in particular the food resilience industry forum, which meets twice weekly at the moment. We will build on that approach as we plan for the end of the transition period, on which work is very much going on with 56 days to go.
Through engagement with industry for EU exit planning and, of course, the pandemic response, we have significantly improved our knowledge of the supply chain this year, but we will continue to adapt and, I hope, manage the nation’s food supply as best we can. I am quietly quite proud of what the team has managed to do this year. I sincerely thank everyone who has worked so hard to feed the nation during the pandemic—from farmers, to those involved in the food supply chain—and I thank the team in DEFRA. It has not been perfect, but I think it has been okay and we have managed it. We have had a good debate. I welcome the report and look forward to working further with all of the hon. Members present on this very important topic.
It is a pleasure to sum up this debate. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), speaking on behalf of the Opposition, has looked at the report and embraced it, He has criticised the Government, but in a constructive way. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) is a very constructive member of the Select Committee. He mentioned the 4,000 children in his constituency who need food because they are hungry. That point is relevant to us all. I thank the Minister, who has a genuine understanding of the need to supply food to everybody.
We are learning all the time. That is the point of the report. A great strength of Select Committees is that we have the chance to look at issues in great detail. I thank Xameerah Malik, our senior Clerk, who wrote and put together much of this excellent report, along with other members of the team. I would like that to go on the record.
The hon. Member for Cambridge talked about the food processing sector and the Minister summed it up well. It is not just about what happens in the factory; it is also about travel and the way people actually live and where.
Lots of languages are spoken on many of these sites. We visited some in the midlands and other places where that created a challenge in ensuring that people knew what they should be doing on food safety and other issues. I think there is probably more work to be done there with the industry.
The issue of having enough food is not just about the covid outbreak, although that has put huge pressure on it. Once we are out of covid—let us pray that one day we will have a vaccine and be able to move forward in our normal way—there will, unfortunately, be pressure on the economy, more people will be without jobs, and the most vulnerable will be in greater need of food.
I thank the Minister for the detailed way in which she went through the report and our recommendations. I suppose one benefit of not having many Members present for a debate is that both the shadow Minister and the Minister have enough time to sum up. My friend the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby also had enough time to make his points, and I have probably spoken more than at length.
We feel very strongly about this issue. Despite our differences—naturally, this is a political issue as well— today has shown that we can co-operate and work together. At the end of the day, the onus is on all of us, whatever our political party, to deliver food to those who most need it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the First Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, COVID-19 and food supply, HC 263, and the Government response, HC 841.