Tuesday 10 November 2020
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I remind Members of the changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Before they use them, Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided, and they should respect the one-way system around the room.
Members may speak only from the horseshoe and if they are on the call list. Even if debates are under-subscribed, Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. They are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, but I would not discourage anyone from doing so.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered obesity and the covid-19 outbreak.
This issue has come to my attention so many times over the past few months—I am highly aware of it. I applied for this debate in March, but because of the covid-19 restrictions I was able only to introduce a petition. I am glad to have reached this pinnacle of opportunity to speak on the matter.
I thank colleagues who supported my application for the debate and the Backbench Business Committee, which kindly found time for us to discuss this important issue. I also thank Members for attending the debate and for emailing me to register their interest in speaking in it. I look forward to hearing from the shadow spokespersons of the SNP and Labour party, and especially from our Minister, who is always courteous to everyone, with the answers we hope to hear from her on this topic of great importance.
For the first time in many a month this nation can smile, following the news this morning that it is hoped a vaccine will be available. I do not want to pre-empt the final trials, but for once the nation smiles with hope that better days lie ahead, which must good news for us all.
Obesity is one of the country’s greatest health challenges. The UK has, unfortunately, the highest obesity rates in western Europe, and they are rising faster than those of any other developed nation. We cannot ignore that, which is why we are debating it today and why the Minister is here to respond. We are a majority-overweight nation, with more than six in 10 UK adults being overweight or living with obesity. That has a significant effect on the nation’s health, on the NHS and on the quality of life of each and every one of us living with the condition.
Obesity increases the risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, and I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic. I was once a 17 stone, overweight person.
I was having Chinese takeaway five nights a week with two bottles of Coke. It was not the way to live life, but I had a very sweet tooth.
Until about a year before I realised I was a diabetic I did not know the symptoms. My vision was a wee bit blurred and I was drinking lots of liquids—two signs that should tell you right away that something is not right. I took a drastic decision to reduce weight and lost some 4 stone, which I have managed to keep off.
We need to look at our diet and our lifestyle. We all live under stress, and we all need a bit of stress because it keeps us sharp, but there is a point where we draw the line. I recall the day I went to the doctor and he told me, “We are going to put you on a wee blood pressure tablet.” I said: “If that is what you think, doctor, I will do what you say.” He added: “When you start it, you have to keep at it. You cannot take a blood pressure tablet today and then not take it next week, because your system will go askew.”
Obesity leads to high blood pressure and some types of cancer and is strongly associated with mental health and wellbeing, which is so important in the current crisis. There are strong links between the prevalence of obesity and social and economic deprivation. People living with obesity face extraordinary levels of stigma and abuse. We need to be careful and to be cognisant of other people’s circumstances, because they might have a genetic imbalance, which I will speak about later.
The outbreak of covid-19 makes the obesity epidemic more urgent. It is deeply concerning that obesity is a risk factor for hospitalisation, admission to intensive care and death from covid-19. The facts are real. People with a body mass index of 35 to 40 are 40% more likely to die from covid-19 than those of a healthy weight. In people with a BMI of 40-plus, it rises to 90%. That places the UK population in a very vulnerable position.
In the latest report from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, which audits intensive care units in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, almost half—47%—of patients in critical care with covid-19 since 1 September had a BMI of 30 or more. In other words, they were classified as obese. Those figures show that almost half the people in critical care had a lifestyle that they needed to address. That figure compares with the 29% of the adult population in England who have a BMI of 30 or more. People with obesity are much more likely to be admitted to critical care with coronavirus.
We also know that covid-19 has a greater impact among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Currently, 74% of black adults are either overweight or living with obesity. That is the highest percentage of all ethnic groups. That is a fact—an observation—not a statement against any group, but we have to look to where the problems are and see how we can reach out to help, because we need to reach those groups.
It is encouraging to see the Government setting out the steps that they will take to support people to live healthier lives and reduce obesity. Those steps will make a positive contribution to the environment we live in and will encourage people to make healthier choices, helping to prevent obesity. I will also speak about other groups, because it is sometimes those in a certain financial group who do not have the ability to buy the correct foods and are driven by the moneys that they have available.
The Government now have to implement their proposals and fund them adequately. Then they need to measure their success and to review what more can be done. Three childhood obesity strategies have been published since 2016, and the proposals have not yet been fully implemented. One reason we are here today is to see how those proposals can be implemented, and we need a timescale. I know we are on the cusp of finding a vaccine, but we also need to address the issue of obesity in the nation as a whole. Perhaps covid-19 is an opportunity to address it. We cannot afford a delay. It has to be an urgent priority for the Government and the Minister if we are to protect people from severe illness from covid-19.
Furthermore, we need to address the structural drivers of obesity. Inequality is a key element, as I mentioned a little earlier. Obesity prevalence in children is strongly linked to socioeconomic deprivation. Families with lower incomes are more likely to buy cheaper and unhealthier food because what drives them—let us be honest—is what is on offer this week and what budget is available to buy the food that is on the shelf. We do not always check the labels. Is it high in calories, sugar and salt? Those are things that we probably should check, but we do not, because the driver is money.
A report by the Food Foundation in 2018 found that the poorest 10% of households need to spend 74% of their income on food to meet its Eatwell guide costs. That is impossible for people on low incomes. When the Minister sums up, perhaps she will give us her thoughts on how we can address that issue directly.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to the support for schoolchildren and school meals. It is good news; it is good to know that the four nations in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are united in taking action on that issue. Scotland is doing it, Northern Ireland is doing it, Wales is doing it and now England is doing it. That is good news, because by reaching out and offering those school meals we will help to address some of the issues of deprivation and how the mums and dads spend the money for food in the shop. This is a way of doing that. We all know that school meals have a balance as well, so it is really important over the coming school breaks and other times that children have the opportunity to have them. In Northern Ireland, the Education Minister set aside £1.3 million to help to provide school meals over the coming period.
The Government need to work more closely with the food and drink industry as well, to make the healthy option the easiest option. However, while we need to support healthier choices and behaviours, there is no point in seeking to make individuals’ behaviours healthier if the environment in which they live is not suited to healthy behaviour. It is okay to say these things, but how do we make them happen? We need to look further at the social factors that lead to obesity, and we need to address them to make them more conducive to healthy living. To give just two examples, eating more fruit and vegetables and walking, which gives the opportunity to be out and about, are among the things that we need to look at.
There is a long-term process, which involves planning, housing, the workplace, the food supply, communities and even the culture of life in the places that we live in. It is about the groups of people we live with and the people we have everyday contact with. Earlier, I mentioned genetics, which is also an important factor in causing obesity. Again, it is a fact of life that there are people who may carry extra weight because of their genetics. Indeed, it is suggested that between 40% and 70% of variance in body weight is due to genetic factors, with many different genes contributing to obesity. Again, I am sure the Government have done some research on that issue, working with the bodies that would have an interest and even an involvement in it. It might be helpful to hear how those people who have a genetic imbalance, for want of a better description, can address it.
Without going into the motivations and challenges faced by people living with obesity, and particularly those living with severe obesity, it is clear that it is not always easy for them to lose weight. Let us be honest: it is not easy to lose weight. Some people say, “Well, what do you do? Do you stop eating? Do you cut back on your eating?” But if someone enjoys their food—I enjoy my food, although in smaller quantities, I have to say—and overeats, we have to address that issue as well.
We want to encourage people to improve their wellbeing and mental health and to have the willpower. There are a lot of factors that need to be part of that process. I was therefore pleased that the Government strategy sets out plans to work with the NHS to expand weight management services. Again, perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of what those services will be.
Support for people to manage their weight can range from diet and exercise advice to specialist multidisciplinary support, including on psychological and mental health aspects, and bariatric surgery. We have the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance on these treatment options, which sets out who should be eligible for them, yet they are not universally commissioned, which means that many patients cannot access support even if they want to. Given the urgent need for people to reduce weight to protect themselves against covid-19, we need to make these services more accessible by increasing their availability and the information provided about them to patients and the public.
Over the years, I have had occasion to help constituents who probably had a genetic imbalance and were severely overweight. The only way forward for those people—men and women—was to have bariatric surgery. On every occasion that I am aware of involving one of my constituents, bariatric surgery was successful. It helped them to achieve the weight loss that they needed and it reduced their appetite. That made sure that their future was going to be a healthy one.
We have strict acceptance criteria in the NHS for obesity treatment that are not found with other conditions. If a person has a BMI of 50, they must follow diet and exercise advice and receive a multidisciplinary specialist report. These services are otherwise known as tier 2 and tier 3 services. We are almost sick of hearing of tiers 1, 2 and 3, but they are a fact of life for obese people before they are even eligible for surgery.
If a patient does not complete those courses, they must start again, which can make some people lose motivation. The lower levels of support are absolutely necessary and effective for the appropriate patients, but it would be better to remove the loopholes and duplications. That would allow more people to achieve the appropriate support, even before additional resource is provided.
Currently, the United Kingdom performs 5,000 bariatric surgeries every year, which represents just 0.2% of eligible patients. If more people had the opportunity to have that bariatric surgery, they would probably take it. Can the Minister indicate what intention there is to increase the opportunities for surgery? We lag behind our European counterparts when it comes to surgery for obesity, despite it showing benefits in terms of cost, safety and the ability to reverse type 2 diabetes.
Many reports in the papers in the last few months have indicated how people can reverse their type 2 diabetes and the implications of that. Talking as a type 2 diabetic, I am ever mindful that if people do those things and reduce their weight, it helps, but it may not always be the method whereby type 2 diabetes can be reversed. When I lost that weight, I found that my sugar level was starting to rise again after four years, and I moved on to tablets and medication, which controls it now. Ultimately, the control will be insulin, if the level continues to go the wrong way.
The British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society has recommended that the number of surgeries should increase incrementally to 20,000 a year—a massive increase from 5,000, but we believe it will heal some of the physical issues for the nation. This is a small proportion of the total number of people with obesity, but they would also benefit the most. This debate is not about highlighting the issues, but about solutions. I always believe that we should look at solutions and try to be the “glass half-full” person rather than the “glass half-empty” person, because we have to be positive in our approach.
For people who require nutritional, exercise or psychological advice, face-to-face services were closed during the first wave of the pandemic. I understand the reasons for that. While digital and remote services can provide help to vulnerable people during lockdown, these new ways of working cannot reach everyone. How do we reach out to all the people who need help? That is vital as the country moves through future stages of the pandemic. We hope we have turned the corner, but time will tell in relation to the trialling for the new vaccine. Obesity continues to be a priority, and services should remain available.
Lastly, in future, obesity services should not be cut as part of difficult funding decisions. I understand very well the conditions in the country and the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the Health Ministers not just here in Westminster, but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is vital that the inequity in access to these services is corrected to ensure that people can access support, no matter where they are in the country. What discussions has the Minister had with the regional Administrations—with the Northern Ireland Assembly and particularly with the Minister, Robin Swann, and with our colleagues in Scotland and Wales? If we have a joint strategy, it will be an advantage for everyone. I would like to see the person in Belfast having the same opportunities as the person in Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and across the whole of this great nation.
I have three asks of the Minister, along with all the other questions I have asked throughout my speech—I apologise for that. Can she reassure us of the continued political prioritisation of the prevention and treatment of obesity? I call on the Government to implement, evaluate and build on strategies to reduce obesity. Can the Minister tell us how have discussions on that been undertaken with the regional Administrations across the UK? I also call on the Government to work with local NHS organisations and local authorities to ensure that services are available to our constituents who wish to manage their weight.
In summary, given the range of secondary conditions caused by obesity—this also applies to covid-19—would it not be more prudent to address their underlying cause before they occur? I always think that prevention, early diagnosis and early steps to engage are without doubt the best way forward, and it would be helpful for the nation as a whole if those things were in place. I believe that would help to reduce the impact of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnoea, many types of cancer and more. The problem with covid-19 is that although our focus should rightly be on covid-19, we must not forget about all the other, normal—if that is the right word—health problems that people have, because dealing with those is very important for our nation to move forward.
The NHS currently faces huge demands, but reducing obesity now would significantly reduce demand on wider NHS services. It is a question of spending now to save later, if we are looking at the financial end of it. It is not always fair to look at the financial end, but we cannot ignore it, because there is not an infinite budget available to do the things we want to do; we have to work within what our pocket indicates. And we have to do that while also protecting people who are vulnerable to coronavirus.
I commend the Minister and our Government for their focus on obesity. I very much wish their new obesity strategy success. How it will work across the four nations is important, but we need to do more, in both the short and long term, to prevent and treat obesity, and we must do so with adequate funding, which is crucial to enable the operations, strategies, early detection and early diagnosis to be in place.
I hope that our future strategies to reduce obesity will continue to focus on how people can also be supported to live healthily. When it comes to these things, we have to be aware that it is not just one person who is living with the obesity; the family also live with it. Sometimes we forget about the impact on children, partners, wives, husbands and so on. Whenever someone sits down for a meal, is their meal the same as what the rest of the family are having? It would be better if they were all eating the same food, in terms of diet and content. I believe that if we can achieve that, we will find a way forward.
May I thank in advance all right hon. and hon. Members for taking the time to come to this Chamber and participate in the debate? Like me, they are deeply concerned about how covid-19 is affecting those with obesity issues. Today is an opportunity to address this issue, and I very much look forward to hearing other contributions; I am leaving plenty of time for everybody to speak.
It might be helpful if I say that I intend to get to the Front Benchers no later than 10.30 am. There are currently five Members on the Back Benches who want to speak, so if people could take seven minutes or so each, that would be helpful to give everyone a fair crack of the whip.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I congratulate him on initiating today’s important debate and on his thoughtful introductory comments. It is great to see the cross-party representation here today on this matter.
As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity and a practising GP, I am only too aware of the significant health and financial implications of obesity. In the course of this year, a realisation of the link between obesity, its comorbidities and poor covid-19 outcomes has sparked renewed interest in tackling Britain’s obesity crisis. It is the case that 19.8% of critically ill covid patients are morbidly obese; that is almost three times the national average, which stands at 2.9%. And for those who are overweight or obese, the likelihood of dying from this virus is 37% higher than average.
There are of course numerous international league tables that rank covid’s impact on countries, and many people have suggested that the UK’s unenviable position in those tables is due at least in part to the fact that the number of overweight or obese individuals in the UK stands as high as 67%. Of course, obesity is frequently an outcome of poor life chances, but it can also perpetuate them. The economic impact of obesity cripples some of our communities, and tackling it is therefore a matter of social justice. Obesity rates among the most deprived 10% of the population are more than twice that for the least deprived 10%, and the gap in prevalence of obesity between rich and poor is, tragically, still growing.
My constituency in many ways epitomises the national picture. I can travel from one area, a coastal pocket of deprivation and the poorest ward in Wales, where obesity and poor health go hand in hand with economic inactivity and high premature death rates, to another area, just several miles away, where the average body mass index is markedly lower and life expectancy and income levels are significantly higher. To me, that inequality within a single constituency is unacceptable. Not only is reducing obesity levels vital as we seek to minimise the impact of the pandemic; as an issue that I fear will become even more important in the aftermath, it should also be considered a critical element of the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda.
The harsh truth is that obesity is strongly associated with a number of serious health conditions, including many leading causes of death. It is also associated with poorer mental health outcomes and reduced quality of life. Being overweight can exact a tough emotional toll, from bullying at school to the pain of lifelong judgmental attitudes and stigma.
The overall societal cost of obesity is estimated to be £27 billion a year, saddling the NHS with an annual bill of several billion. As a GP, any day’s work reinforces to me that we live in a society where the freedom to make the right choices is severely constrained for some. Supermarkets are packed with temptingly priced, high-fat, sugar and salt—HFSS—products. There are takeaways on every street corner, bountiful coffee shops serving syrup-laden flavoured drinks, and pubs and bars offering large, 200-plus calorie glasses of wine. We have a culture that normalises these things on a day-to-day basis. It is far too easy for all of us to consume more calories than our sedentary lifestyles can withstand.
While some may navigate this environment unscathed, making healthy choices has become increasingly difficult, even more so in poorer communities. Whether under enormous stresses and strains from other aspects of life or fighting to feed a family on a tight budget in limited time, the long-term health outcomes of what we eat and drink may not always be our top concern. The measures we need to implement are not about taking away choice, but about the Government helping to rebalance the playing field in favour of healthier options, for the benefit of all.
In July, the Government published a new strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”. This committed the Government to introducing a new campaign to encourage all those who are overweight to take action with evidence-based tools and apps. We should not forget the huge impact of exercise and dietary advice; in my experience we often have a very poor understanding of what is healthy.
The strategy also committed the Government to expand weight management services via the NHS; to consult over improving the traffic light system on food labelling; to legislate to require large, and potentially smaller, restaurants, cafés, and takeaways to add calorie labelling to the food they sell; to consult over calorie labelling on alcohol; to legislate to end the promotion of HFSS foods through product placement, online and at the end of supermarket aisles; to get rid of “buy one get one free” offers relating to unhealthy foods; and finally to ban the advertising of these same products online and before 9 pm on television.
These proposed measures follow on from apparent success through reformulation and the soft drinks industry levy, which has reduced the levels of sugar consumed from soft drinks. I have been pleased to join many others in pushing for such measures in my time on the Health and Social Care Committee, particularly as part of the childhood obesity strategy. Obesity in children at reception age currently stands at 9.9%, reaching 21% in year 6. We know that children with obesity are more likely to develop complications and disability later in life at a younger age, and there is a continuously worsening picture year on year.
With this in mind, we need to consider going beyond the measures in the Government strategy. If we look at the world through the eyes of children, I feel we need to attempt to tackle issues such as the location and quantity of fast food outlets on a cross-governmental basis. I would be pleased to hear the Minister’s perspective on this and also when a timeline might emerge for implementing the remainder of the Government’s obesity strategy. Further, how will the Government ensure that support is available across the country and includes those with severe and complex obesity, for whom diet and exercise alone are not sufficient? How and when will weight management services and bariatric surgery become more accessible?
In the immediate future, how do the Government intend to ensure that those living with obesity will be among the first to receive the covid-19 vaccines that we have heard so much about in the last day or so? Looking to the longer term, how do they intend to ensure that tackling health inequalities through the levelling up agenda will proceed despite the huge financial impact of the pandemic?
To conclude, the Prime Minister’s obesity strategy announcement in June created welcome attention and dialogue, which have been continued through an all-party parliamentary group inquiry, today’s debate and, it is now likely, Government action. However, it is vital that we keep up the momentum, especially given that the covid-19 pandemic is still, sadly, very much with us.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing this important debate before the House.
When the Prime Minister announced the improvements to the child obesity strategy a few weeks ago, he made the point that the UK is unfortunately an outlier, in that we are the most overweight nation in the whole of Europe, after Malta. Sometimes I think we do not quite realise how serious our national situation is or the implications it has for people’s lives. To me, this has always been a social justice issue, because it significantly adversely affects the poorest people up and down our country.
I was struck by some information in the House of Lords Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment report, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, which is a very good read, for any Members who want to take the issue further. It points out the reason we are the most overweight nation in Europe, after Malta. It is not difficult to see. On page 19 the report states:
“In the UK, more than half (50.7%) all total dietary energy from purchases came from highly processed foods”.
That compares with Italy, where the figure is only 13.4%, and Portugal, where it is only 10.2%. In other words, our diet is five times worse than that of the Portuguese. All the figures are going in the wrong direction. Despite all the strategies, it continues to get worse. The debate today needs to be a national wake-up call on this issue. Well done to all the Members who are here. I know the Minister gets it, and I know the Secretary of State gets it, but this is a combined national effort. It is not just up to the Government. It is up to food retailers, local authorities and schools—and, yes, it is up to us as families, parents and individuals to do the right thing. Everyone needs to pitch in and do the right thing.
Further into the report, on page 20, I found it completely shocking that 47% of primary schoolchildren’s dietary energy comes from products that are high in fat, sugar and salt. That is nearly half, and it just is not good enough. It does not have to be like that. There is healthy, nutritious food that will help our children to grow and develop as we all want them to. The figures show that a fifth—one in five—of children born today are on a trajectory to have type 2 diabetes by the time they are 65, with all the limiting implications that has for their lives and what they will be able to do, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.
At the really gruesome end of the statistics is the average number of diabetes-related amputations over the last three years, or from 2015-16 to 2017-18. The NHS undertook 9,155 amputations because of type 2 diabetes, with taxpayers’ money. Of those, 27%—more than a quarter—were major amputations, or above the ankle. People are losing their feet because of a lifetime of bad diet. It is a bit grim to spell it out this early on a Tuesday morning, but we cannot tiptoe around the issue. It really is that serious, and we need to do something about it. Yet a number of things are still going in the wrong direction.
I am a massive fan of the Food Foundation, which is run by our wonderful former colleague Laura Sandys CBE. Its “Broken Plate 2020” food report shows that 14% of local authorities in the last 18 months saw a more than 5% increase in the number of fast food takeaways. What were the directors of public health doing in those 14% of local authorities, where things were clearly going in the wrong direction? Indeed, fast food takeaways in the local authority areas with the highest number make up some 40% of all food outlets in those areas. We really can do better than that.
We need to hold the food industry to account, as the Obesity Health Alliance has said, to meet its targets to reduce sugar and overall calories from everyday food. Yes, there has been some progress in children’s breakfast cereals—so thank you for that; well done—but not nearly enough progress on a huge range of food.
I often quote the Dutch supermarket Marqt, which is a private business looking to make a profit, but its whole raison d’être is to sell healthy, nutritious food; it is not part of its philosophy to sell food that will be bad for its customers. If Marqt can do it, as a commercial business in the Netherlands, come on Sainsbury’s; come on Tesco; come on Asda; come on Morrisons: step up and show that you can do that too. Colour coding on front-of-pack labelling will be mandatory from next year. We can do more of that, which would make it easier for people to pick up the right, healthy things.
I find it surprising that the quality and outcomes framework for our GPs does not include a specific incentive for them to do anything about children being overweight or obese. That has to change. We pay our GPs to do lots of very good things. If this is a national priority—and I think everyone here thinks it should be—then for goodness’ sake let us align the financial incentives for GPs with what we are all trying to achieve and deal with this issue early on, in the right way.
Overall, if we want a strapline for what we are trying to do, we want healthy food to be the easiest option for people, and it also needs to be affordable. Amazingly, in Europe, healthier food is often cheaper than the less healthy food—this is according to the 2019 Food Foundation report. It does not have to be the case that unhealthy food is cheapest; in other parts of Europe, it is not the case. We could align the financial incentives to make it easy on people’s pockets, when money is tight, to put healthier things in their shopping baskets. We also need to stop the stigma in this area. Some of our press do not report this issue well, and that is not helpful. Further, we need to ensure enough bariatric surgery to help people who have become severely overweight or obese.
I have a few questions for the Minister. Can she give us an update on menu labelling? The Government say that they will use the powers in the Food Safety Act 1990 to lay the legislation before Parliament in 2020. There is not much of 2020 left, so can the Minister tell us when that will happen?
The consultation on the labelling of alcoholic drinks has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The consultation on promotions of products that are high in fat, sugar or salt has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The long awaited 9 pm watershed has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The “What Next?” proposals include eight additional policy proposals with limited information about who is responsible, so it would be good to have some more detail on that. I would like to see schools gripping this issue. They do a good job now in providing healthy and nutritious food, but they should have more of an emphasis on teaching children about the importance of healthy nutrition throughout their lives and about how to cook well, which is also extremely important.
All our healthcare professionals have a role. Every contact is supposed to matter, and this issue is supposed to be mentioned in every contact between a healthcare clinician and a patient. Dr Susan Jebb from Oxford has done lots of good work on how to do that well. We can copy the great work that has been done in Amsterdam to bring down child obesity in particular.
There are even little things that we can do. Dr Jebb said that when we fill up at the petrol station, we should sometimes pay at the pump because there is an array of temptation when we pay in the shop. It seems a trivial thing. Lots of us pay at the pump because of covid, so perhaps that will help a bit. There are lots of things that we can do. This strategy is very urgent, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to take it forward.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on introducing this important issue. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd is a GP and the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity, so he speaks with great authority on this subject.
I believe that we have to focus on the social inequalities that are at the very bottom of this issue. Let us tackle it from that perspective. Obesity is, of course, a major problem and can greatly increase a person’s risk of other health conditions. It is absolutely right that supporting people towards a healthier weight is a Government priority, and I fully support it. Any strategy aimed at tackling obesity must recognise that it is a complex condition with many underlying causes, including factors tied to socioeconomic issues. Managing weight is often not simply a matter of just eating less and exercising more. Unless that is recognised, this strategy will not be effective in the long term.
I want to say something about my experience as a councillor. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a councillor in one of our most deprived councils, and 10 years ago we tried to ensure that children learned how to eat healthily. If people cook their own food at least they know what is in it, so we tried to ensure that people knew how to cook. We then recognised, going even deeper into that, that a lot of families did not even have the means to cook. Some of the children had never seen water boil.
Those are the issues we face if we are talking about how to teach children early how to eat healthily, cook their own meals and know what is in their own food. Some families are at that level of deprivation: children have not learned to cook and have not seen their parents cook. That is how deeply we need to get into the issue. We need to understand that, without stigmatising families who live like that and without using language that shames people who are overweight. We must understand that, additionally, there are mental health problems and other deeper underlying problems that go with this issue. I urge the Minister to go deeply into that subject and recognise the social inequalities that lie at the bottom of it.
I want to talk about one particular aspect of the strategy that concerns me—calorie labelling in restaurants. There is limited evidence to suggest that that measure has a meaningful impact on tackling obesity. Worse still, it could be harmful for those at risk of living with or recovering from an eating disorder; that is, of course, at the other end of this problem. There is an epidemic of people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and being underweight. Approximately 1.25 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the UK. It is also true that many people living with an eating disorder also live with obesity. Treatment, therefore, is not as simple as consuming fewer calories. The eating disorder charity Beat is one of many voices sharing concerns about that aspect of the obesity strategy, and I ask the Minister to look carefully into that concern. Calorie counting is well recognised as an unhealthy behaviour: one sufferer described it as an “all-consuming obsession” that “took over my life”. Learning to disregard calorie counts is a large part of recovery from an eating disorder. Having the freedom to go to a restaurant with friends or family—something that many of us take for granted—can be a very big step.
I highlight a quote from one of Beat’s volunteers:
“One of the greatest joys of recovery is being able to go to a restaurant for a meal with friends, and I enjoy going out now with my friends and family, but I really struggle to eat in public once I have noticed the calories. Once I have seen the number, I can’t stop my brain telling me I can only have the food with the lowest amount of calories.”
Research shows that individuals with anorexia or bulimia are more likely to order significantly fewer calories when that information is provided.
Eating disorders and obesity can in many ways be part of our somewhat strange relationship with food. People can go from obesity into bulimia—these things are connected—and it is important that we recognise that. I was extremely grateful to the mental health Minister for meeting me and representatives from Beat a few weeks ago. I appreciate the time she spent listening to our concerns about this element of the strategy, and I know she is committed to supporting those with an eating disorder. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eating disorders, I would welcome the opportunity to have another meeting with her and representatives of Beat to talk about that particular, very concerning aspect of the obesity strategy.
Yes, we absolutely need to recognise that obesity is a massive public health issue. We need to tackle it, and I welcome the fact that the Government have made it a priority. But it is important that we make sure that the strategy does not hit people with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, in an adverse way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for having secured this incredibly important and timely debate. The contributions we have heard so far show how broad a subject this is, and how vital it is that we discuss it in full. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, I am very much aware that this issue should be top of our agenda as we come out of covid and look at public health. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in congratulating the Food Foundation on the excellent work it has been doing on this issue.
The global pandemic has made us all aware of our vulnerability. It has forced us to question how our underlying health might impact our personal level of risk from the virus. Although current evidence does not show that excess weight increases a person’s chances of contracting covid-19, it does indicate that obese people are far more likely to become seriously ill and to need intensive care. Over the past 12 months, we have seen a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards measures for tackling obesity, as a result of many people seeing only too clearly the health consequences and risk factors of being overweight. Reducing the risk of serious illnesses and the raised risk of suffering badly with covid-19 is reason enough to prioritise tackling obesity; other reasons include the estimated cost of £6.1 billion to the NHS every year, and three times that cost to the economy through absences for sickness, as well as the increased risks associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Tackling obesity is central to our commitment to levelling up. Statistics tell us that excess weight is more likely among those living in deprived areas, those with disabilities, and those without qualifications. That means that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, my own constituency, have higher than average levels of obesity. Levelling up is not just about the left-behind areas catching up with other parts of the country: it is about tackling the entrenched economic and social inequalities of our society—the social inequalities that hold people and communities back right across the country.
In my own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, a number of socioeconomic inequalities are known to have direct links to higher rates of obesity and poor nutrition, which in turn can lead to malnutrition. A recent analysis conducted by the Health Foundation charity found that people living in post-industrial towns and cities across the midlands, the north-east and parts of Wales have unequal exposure to the potential causes of obesity. That means that, on average, residents living in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent live much closer to fast food and junk food outlets compared with the rest of the UK—on average, they have 114 fast food outlets per 100,000 people, compared with 77 per 100,000 in the south-east. That matters, because evidence shows that an individual’s ability to be active or eat healthily is strongly influenced by the circumstances in which they live.
The hon. Lady is focusing on the number of takeaways in those communities. They are there because people cannot cook for themselves. It is important that the Government look at how many families have the ability to cook for themselves. I recognise the temptation to order a takeaway, but it is the result of the problem of people not being able to cook.
I thank the hon. Lady and absolutely agree. There are other factors as well, including income, housing, access to green space and exposure to junk food advertising.
On the extra factors, I discussed the issues around exercise with Stephanie Moran, the executive principal of the Esprit Multi Academy Trust, and visited the Grove Academy in Hanley to see first hand the challenges of organising outdoor exercise in a covid-safe way. This Victorian-built junior school, which was built for 100 people in a busy, dense residential area, has no green space and an inadequate playground area for what are now up to 480 pupils to exercise daily. We must include the right to exercise as a vital element of tackling obesity as well as looking at nutrition, and ensure that schools such as Grove Academy have access to green space.
Recently, I spoke to consultants at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, who shared their concerns about the increasing number of children with type 2 diabetes whom they had to refer as a consequence of poor diets and unhealthy lifestyles.
The Government started to address the challenge of poor diet in 2018 with the soft drinks industry levy, which has led to a significant reduction in the sugar content of drinks. This July, I wholeheartedly welcomed the Government’s Better Health campaign, which looked to address some of the issues through measures such as a ban on the TV and online advertising of fatty foods before 9 pm, and an end to all “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy foods.
However, successive Governments have adopted different approaches to tackling obesity and, until now, they have neglected to address the structural inequalities that are so strongly linked to levels of obesity. The national food strategy and the Government’s obesity strategy are intended to be long-term approaches with comprehensive and holistic solutions.
I was delighted with the announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions earlier this week. It confirmed that, as of April next year, the Government will increase the amount of financial support made available to pregnant women or those with children under the age of four, to help them buy fruit and vegetables. The recommendation is to increase the rate of the Healthy Start payments from £3.10 to £4.25—just one of the core recommendations in part 1 of the national food strategy. It is a decisive step in the right direction, and I look forward to working with the Government, through my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, to see future recommendations implemented as part of their strategy for tackling obesity and malnutrition in the UK.
I say this to the Minister: although obesity is perceived as a health issue, for the reasons we have discussed today, it very much also goes to the heart of levelling up, so I believe that the solution can only be found in a cross-departmental way.
As we slowly but surely emerge from this pandemic, it is important we do everything in our power to capitalise on the momentum and shifting public perception within our attitudes towards tackling adult and childhood obesity. By addressing the structural, economic and social inequalities that exist in parts of the UK and by implementing the long-term and holistic solutions that will emerge from a national food strategy, we will be in the unique position to turn the tide on obesity once and for all, and ensure that everyone has access to healthy food and opportunities to exercise in every community across our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
We have had an important and interesting debate. I would like to follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) said by stating that we need to look at the issue holistically. This is not just a health problem; it is also an education problem and a Department for Work and Pensions problem.
I was particularly struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford: we cannot use fat shaming and stigma to force people to lose weight. Over the summer, we learned from the Prime Minister’s brave words about his own battle with covid, his own unwellness and how that had been exacerbated by his weight. It might be easy from Downing Street to recruit the services of a personal trainer, but that is not open to everybody; we have to find routes to enable individuals to empower themselves to take control of their own wellbeing—whether that be through exercise and diet, or through receiving the emotional and mental support they need.
We all know that weight is not just a physical issue—there is an inextricable link between food and the way people feel about themselves. It is critically important that the support services are there to dig into that and to find the best routes, because we all know it will be an individual journey for each and every person.
I have to admit that the Prime Minister inspired me throughout lockdown; I made sure my “covid stone” was in the right direction, but for many that was not the case. It has been demonstrated that people have put on weight, and as we go into another lockdown there is real anxiety about the impact on people’s wellbeing.
I keep banging on about wellbeing—people think that I have gone all airy-fairy and am about to break out the crystals and the twinkly music—but the reality is that mental, physical and emotional wellbeing are all linked. Just yesterday, I was at Focus Fitness in Southampton talking to the personal trainers, who are all operating over Zoom in a covid-secure way. They made the point that there has to be a wellbeing approach that reaches across all generations and socioeconomic groups, and that we must find routes to help the poorest in our society embrace these initiatives as well.
Many people have mentioned cooking. During half-term, I was at the community pantry based at Romsey Community School, where we were talking about the Connect4Summer courses that were run over the summer and the half-term courses. They bring families together and give them ingredients, recipes and those basic cooking skills, which are so important. What really struck me was that the pantry gives away fruit and veg—there is a free bag of fruit and veg that people can take. I asked, “Why are people not taking it unless it is free?” I was told that it was because people did not know how to cook with it.
The point is absolutely crucial. I was blessed, in that my mother taught me how to cook reasonably well, but I know that I am lazy and do not have the time to cook properly from scratch. Lockdown enabled me to hone some of my cooking skills, but we have to make sure that those who are time-pressured—who in some cases are working two or three jobs—also have the ability to pick up that bag of vegetables and know they can cook something nutritious, quick and, mostly importantly, tasty.
I turn to the comments from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). I have a lot of sympathy with what she said about calorie counting. Some of the major chains such as Costa Coffee and McDonald’s have been advertising calorific values for years, yet the trajectory has been in the wrong direction: we are still getting fatter. In many instances, the battle has already been lost the minute a person walks through the door. Regardless of what the indication of calories on a menu is, people are in the wrong place to be making healthy choices.
It is important that we make labelling really straightforward. There is less than two seconds between someone picking up something in a supermarket and putting it in their trolley. That is no time to be inspecting the calorific fat and salt levels, so traffic lights or whatever mechanism makes things quick and easy have to be the way forward. People also have to have the skills to cook the healthier choices.
We have seen a rush over the last few days: the national media have been talking about how to lose a stone before Christmas and how to drop a dress size. Yet again, this is appearance-based, with little understanding that the issue is about people’s long-term wellbeing. I recognise that in some instances diets do not work and people will engage in yo-yo dieting, but in other instances they do. We have to find a way to empower people to make the lifestyle choices to bring about sustainable long-term differences to their way of life.
I think I have covered everything that I wanted to in a very limited time, but I look forward to the Minister’s coming up with some practical solutions as to how we can make a real difference to the people in our constituencies who need the most help, the most encouragement and the most support.
I want to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his comprehensive exposition of the issue, setting out the scale of the challenges in tackling obesity and how the Governments across the United Kingdom must do all they can to tackle obesity across the UK in a holistic way. I am glad to be able to participate in this debate on obesity and covid-19 because it is very important, as many have said. There is huge consensus across this Chamber today: we have a real public health challenge and we need to tackle it with all the influence and tools that we have.
The pervasiveness of obesity in our society coupled with the health and economic consequences and the additional associated risk between obesity and covid-19 shows that supporting adults and children to be a healthy weight is, must be and must continue to be a public health priority. The recent report from Public Health England provided evidence-based insights into the relationship between excess weight and covid-19. We have heard today that the higher a person’s body mass index, the more likely they are to test positive for covid-19, they are more likely they are to be admitted to intensive care and, potentially, more likely to die a covid-related death. We heard from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) that if someone is obese, they are 37% higher than average more likely to die of covid-19. Those facts persist when studies are adjusted for confounding factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and comorbidities.
Over the years, since 2015 when I was first elected, I have spoken in a number of debates on issues such as healthy eating, junk foods, healthy lifestyles and so on. One thing I always think is important, and it has been noted today, is that we must always try hard not to sound as if we are telling people off for the food they eat and stigmatising them for the food they give to their children. If we sound as if that is what we are doing, we will not get our message across, as the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said. The message we want to get across is that we understand that obesity is one of the most complex and biggest public health challenges of our time. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) reminded us, the UK is the most obese country in Europe, with the exception of Malta.
I believe this is a matter that has to be treated with a bit of sensitivity. We know that it is easy to eat healthily the better off you are financially. By way of illustration, it costs £3 in Tesco for 250g of blueberries. Blueberries are very healthy; they are a superfood. However, in Iceland supermarket, we can buy 10 chicken burgers for £2, which are not so healthy. If someone is on a budget, as a parent, their priority is to feed their children and keep them safe from hunger if at all possible. No one has the right to tell those parents that their choices are bad. The fact is they are doing the best they can with the income they have. Using another example, in Tesco, four oranges cost £1.50, but a multipack of 10 packets of crisps cost 99p. Although we know the blueberries and oranges are the healthy choice and the burgers and the crisps are not, if someone is on a very limited income, healthy choices are not always on the menu, as others have pointed out.
It is clear that the key to tackling obesity is tackling poverty and inequality. We also know that the poorer people are, the poorer their health and lifestyle outcomes. I know that because I grew up in poverty. My parents both died in their early 50s: the same age that I am now. Their poverty and early deaths are not coincidental—not at all. It is the same story up and down our constituencies wherever poverty thrives and preys on our constituents.
Obesity does not just make people more prone to covid and its serious consequences, although it certainly does that. Obesity prevents people from living fulfilled and active lives. It is the second-biggest preventable cause of cancer and is linked to around 2,200 cases of cancer every year in Scotland. Living with extra weight or obesity is the most significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and can result in increased risk of other conditions, including cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
The annual cost in Scotland of treating conditions associated with being overweight and obese is estimated to range from £363 million to £600 million. The total annual cost to the economy in Scotland of people being overweight and obese, including labour market costs such as lost productivity, is between £1 billion and £4.6 billion, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) set out the overall UK costs. Studies last year showed that 66% of adults in Scotland over the age of 16 were overweight, with 29% being obese. Men are more likely to be affected, but obesity rates are consistently higher in our most deprived communities. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd reminded us that tackling obesity must ultimately be about tackling social injustice—a sentiment that everyone in this Chamber can accept.
What covid has exposed with crystal clarity, if it were needed, and what it has exacerbated are the shocking health inequalities in our nation. I want to see a Scotland—a United Kingdom—in which people eat well, have a healthy weight and are physically active: who would not want that? The Scottish Government have committed to supporting a targeted approach to improving healthier eating for those on low incomes, expanding and improving access to weight management services for those with or at risk of type 2 diabetes, and extending access to weight management services to everyone living with obesity. They seek to build on and consolidate the positive physical activity behaviour changes that we have seen during covid-19, such as walking, cycling and a range of measures that I do not have time to go into.
I am keen to see the Minister today set out similar actions across the UK and how Scotland and the rest of the UK can learn from each other and share good practice in doing more to tackle obesity. Fundamentally and ultimately, however, the scourge of poverty is at the heart of tackling all inequalities. As in other ways, the covid crisis has thrown inequalities in our society into stark relief, and this debate has been worth while in underlining that.
When the covid crisis is behind us, as one day it will be—the sooner the better—I hope that across the UK we all, citizens and Governments alike, do not forget the lessons it has taught us about our society and the terrible and ongoing impact of poverty on our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on introducing the debate and on the tone he set in doing so. The disparities between our nation and similar nations show that something different is going on in the UK, and that should, we hope, act as a call to action for all of us in seeking to do something about it.
The hon. Gentleman’s references to income and ethnicity equalities were important and well made. He was a little bashful in talking about the financial impact, but it is worth recalling that obesity is terrible for the individual and for the collective in its impact on our health service and economy. We have not only a moral but a vested interest in this.
Colleagues made excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) picked on the disparities in the impact of covid and outcomes for obese people, and in raising them the Prime Minister did a public service. The hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned social justice issues—a theme that the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) developed with characteristic force. We will all take away the statistic on processed food as it brought into sharp relief the difference between the UK and other countries. That should act as a wake-up call, and I hope this will be a kick-off for parliamentary debates on it.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) referenced eating disorders. When we discuss obesity I prefer to refer to a range of healthy weight interventions. The obesity strategy might be better as a healthy weight strategy because it is only part of the picture. The hon. Lady made important points about how the different disorders are linked.
The phrase that I underlined from the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) was that the public mood has changed in recent months. It has, and we must take this opportunity, but a delicate balance must be struck. You, Mr Davies, have spoken publicly about the need not to moralise, and you and I have had that conversation in the context of gambling. People switch off if we wag our finger and say that they should be as virtuous as we are. We do not, however, do our people a service if we are blind to the challenges that our environments and our lifestyles are creating for us. We must find the balance between not wagging our fingers and being assertive enough to say when things are not working and are not right. The time when the public mood is changing is a good moment to do so.
I liked the emphasis that the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) gave to wellbeing. I do not think that is too new age for us to latch on to. It would be a really good outcome of the covid settlement, as people have made this extraordinary national sacrifice, to have public services, an economy and a general environment that points towards wellbeing for all of us. We should all be interested in that.
In my community, in 1920, poverty manifested itself in malnutrition. We have all seen the pictures of rake-thin children. In 2020, it is the opposite. A third of our children leave school overweight or living with obesity. In the adult population, two thirds of us are above a healthy weight and half of those are living with obesity. That is a challenge of exceptional scale. It is a population-level public health challenge. That behoves us to act. We know that obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and covid-19, as hon. Members have said. This is a good moment to tackle a national crisis.
My party has had interest in this matter for some time. Members may recall that our former deputy leader, Tom Watson, who is no longer of this parish, took on this issue personally during the last Parliament. His journey was incredible and I know people have taken great interest in it. He is a great ambassador.
We are glad to see the obesity strategy. I am happy to say publicly, as I have said in the media, that we support the Government in their efforts. We want to see the strategy actually implemented, so we do not get bogged down in consultations for ever and things do not actually happen. Rather than pushing the Minister on the substance of the strategy, I will push her on making it happen. There are arguments to broaden it out to a healthy-weight strategy and bring in greater emphasis on mental health, but at the moment I will take what we have.
Yesterday, the Minister replied to my written parliamentary question on this issue. It is clear that there is no new money for this and it is within the public envelope. I will talk about public health cuts shortly. The reality is that there have been diminished resources for this over the past few years. The impact of covid-19 on public finances means that resources are likely to diminish further. We should question whether we are geared up to meet such a significant challenge.
One reason why it is expensive and hard to tackle obesity centres on the complexity of the issue. It is about not just food, but childhood experiences, education, income and mental health, as well as poverty, in which I have a direct interest as the representative of one of the poorest communities in the country. We know that in communities such as mine, children are twice as likely to be obese as children who live in better-off places. Those children are no different. It is not because our burgers are any bigger or our sugary drinks any more sugary in Nottingham. There is nothing in the waters. Those environmental factors in our community push children and young people towards obesity. It is fine and right to talk about personal choice, but we have to understand that there are structural, social and economic inequalities in our country that close down choices, limit opportunities and push very difficult life outcomes on to our young people.
This is a challenge for the Government. This Administration and previous Governments in the past decade have not taken a long view on this—an investment view, rather than a finances view. Short-term decision making will cause greater problems. Public health cuts are a shining example of that. The migration of public health to local authorities is a good thing and one of the few aspects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that is likely to remain much longer. However, cuts to local authorities have meant a diminution or repurposing of those services.
I know from three years of leading in Nottingham on our public health grant that once we have paid for drug and alcohol services and sexual health services, which are demand-led services, there is not a lot left for smoking cessation, which really works, or for early life-course interventions, which are spectacularly effective. Unhealthy weight barely gets a look in. Across the country, we have seen the complete loss of any supported cooking programmes or those sorts of things that pull down the myth that cooking and eating healthily is hard or time-consuming.
That is thing that frustrates me. If I could get one message across to my neighbours, it would be that with a little bit of planning, it could be cheaper for them to eat healthily and it could be better for them, too. We have lost that, because we have lost the support through the public health grant. Covid makes everything harder because all of our local authorities—I am talking about England specifically; I apologise to Scottish colleagues—are looking at their finances. The “don’t worry, we’ll meet all your covid expenses” promise will not be honoured—that is clear by now—so there will be in-year cuts, and they will come from the places that they came from in the past, because they cannot come from children’s or adult’s social care, but from things that are seen as discretionary That is bad for individuals and our communities, and it is dreadful for all of us collectively because it will create much greater expense further down the line.
I will reference briefly free school meals. When I wrote this speech at the weekend, events had not moved on. Again, that was a prime example of understanding the cost but not the value of something really significant. Research by the Nuffield Foundation found that the provision of free school meals leads to a fall in obesity rates. I have gone public on this: I have no more interest than you, Mr Davies, in moving to a point where the Government feed children routinely. However, we need to understand that it is partly a good thing. When we have children at school, it is good because we educate them, but we can do many other good things around health and exercise, and we should not miss those opportunities.
Before I finish I want to make a quick point about Public Health England. I still think it is a very odd thing—one of the oddest things that has happened in an exceptionally odd year—that during this pandemic the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care would want to abolish Public Health England. It is an important ring-holder body for our obesity efforts as a country. I understand the disease and infection control points, but the Secretary of State wants his organisation, so he will have it. To an extent, I will not contest that space but, for the remaining functions of Public Health England, which are vital whether it is around obesity, smoking or drugs and alcohol, I really hope the Minister will give us a sense of what the plan is. I have asked parliamentary questions, so I know the consultation is coming soon, but we do not have long if it is to be up and running by April. I hope we have a soft landing. I will commit publicly to making no political capital out of it. We will all be relieved and will move on and never mention it again. That would be in all of our interests.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said the real theme to take away from this is a combined national effort. I really like that. We can find a high level of political consensus on this really easily. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said, there is a public interest. Industry is falling over itself at the moment to tell us about the good things that it is doing. That is great. We should welcome that and encourage it. If we come together, resource it properly and see the long-term benefits of it, we can make a significant difference. It will make the country much healthier, more robust in many ways, and we will all be better for it.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My first very pleasant duty is to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. It has been an hour and a half of people coming together. We know that we have a problem and we have tried to come up with solutions. As has come out from across the Chamber, we know it has taken us some time to get here, and we know that it will take more than one individual silver bullet to get to the place that we want to be. Although one is often pleased to be at the top of a list, being at the top of the list or second to Malta on the obesity statistics is nothing to be proud about. As many hon. Members have outlined, the concomitant of that results in links to poor outcomes from covid-19, whether it is the links to heart disease, diabetes, cancer or any one in a plethora of things. It is really about an individual’s ability to have a good quality of life for as long as possible, because we know that obesity affects it quite dramatically.
I thank all hon. Members for their considered and thoughtful contributions in what has become very much a theme of the moment. Much of the work that has been done—the House of Lords report and the national food strategy—has led to this debate and highlights much of the work that needs to be done. The obesity strategy is the pathway of the marathon that is needed to help change those behaviours, and to help drive us in a direction where we see results and—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said—see them for a long time, because we want this work to produce results.
We have known for decades that living with obesity reduces life expectancy and increases the chances of disease, as I have said. The life of the hon. Member for Strangford, from being 17 stone and consuming Coke and Chinese food, has obviously now been totally turned around. However, as he said—indeed, it is the one thing that I want everyone to keep in mind—losing weight is not easy. It can be depicted in a Sunday magazine as something that can be achieved in four weeks, but actually it is incredibly hard. It is really, really hard to sustain weight loss. Given the way that we talk about this issue, I was really grateful that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and others spoke about the tone in which we talk about it, because it is really important.
Over the past few months, evidence has consistently shown that people who contract covid-19 who are overweight are—as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) spoke about, both from the perspective of a doctor and as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity—will have poorer outcomes. We know that those outcomes get substantially poorer with age and with weight. We know that the one thing we cannot do in life is change our age, but we can modify our weight. Weight is the one modifiable factor that we have.
We have also heard from many hon. Members that the problem is more prevalent in black, Asian and minority ethnic populations and in those living in deprived areas, which was articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). People in those populations and in those areas are at greater risk of experiencing poorer health outcomes, not only from covid-19 but right across the health spectrum. And they have an elevated risk of being overweight or suffering from obesity.
Across all Departments, we are actively tackling obesity, because many different factors are involved and we need to make sure that we target them. Covid-19 has provided a laser focus on obesity, so it is crucial to support people in achieving a healthier weight, and to help families, because we know that there is also a common link between mothers and fathers who are overweight and their children’s weight; the likelihood is that their children will also be overweight, or obese.
So, in July we published the new strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”, which sets out the overarching campaign to reduce obesity, including taking measures to get the nation fitter and healthier. I will look at some of those messages. This process is about building blocks and not about hectoring. As we all know, it is about helping people and having holistic policies. We know the statistics and we have heard them several times, so I will not repeat them. But it is right that our policy focuses on improving diet and reducing obesity.
Since we published the first chapter of the plan in 2016, we have seen important steps forward, and we have spoken to other nations. Just recently, I spoke to Joe FitzPatrick about calorie labelling on alcohol. I have also reached out to the other devolved nations, because, as has been said, it is important that we have such conversations.
We have also looked internationally. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned Amsterdam and the good work being done there, but I also had a very insightful conversation with Dr Jebb on Singapore, because it has done a great deal of work on how best to incentivise people on the journey to weight loss.
The soft drinks industry levy has been a huge success; the latest statistics show that the sugar content of soft drinks has dropped by 44%, which is a remarkable reduction. We know that sugar content in breakfast cereals, yoghurt and fromage frais has also dropped. However, we also know that calories have gone up in out-of-home desserts. So, we have a really mixed picture and that it is likely that further measures will be needed.
During the pandemic, we have seen people snacking more, with more snacks being purchased, as well as a reduction in levels of physical activity. The cessation of weight management and obesity services, as the NHS focused on covid-19, has not helped the situation, but we very much welcome local authorities’ efforts in adapting weight management, so that we have much greater results; there are many more remote and digital options available to us now.
I will now move on to consider the tangible things. First, the current advertising restrictions for products that are high in fat, salt or sugar are not protecting children. We are seeing significant levels of such advertising on TV and online, and we know that children are now viewing much more of their content online. The advertised diet in the UK does not reflect the healthy diet that so many hon. Members have spoken about. We have set out in the strategy that we want to ban those adverts on television before 9 pm, but we want to go further. This is a very auspicious day for the hon. Member for Strangford—it is almost as if he knew—as we launch the six-week consultation restricting advertising online. We have made it six weeks because we want it to be short and pithy and we want to get to a result, which is what so many hon. Members are keen for us to do.
We are taking decisive action on promotions. We spend more money on buy one, get one free promotions in this country than any other European country. We know they influence preferences and we want to shift the balance to help shoppers. As a further strand, we will legislate to stop the promotion of high fat, salt and sugar products by volume and prominent location— removing them from the gondola end. Those restrictions will apply online and in store and we will publish that result very shortly.
Food eaten out of the home—on-the-go food—which was mentioned by several Members, forms a growing part of people’s diet. That is part of the bigger narrative and bigger conversation about children’s learning to prepare food, eating as a family and all those other things that, if we had had more time, we would probably have discussed at more length. We are introducing legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees to calorie label the food they sell. We will also encourage voluntary calorie labelling by smaller businesses, and we will look at the scope.
Many people mentioned weight management services, and the hon. Member for Strangford asked how we can evaluate them. We can see success through the child measurement programme, but we are very much aware that our bariatric referrals are much lower than across Europe, as is people’s ability to access weight loss programmes. There is some brilliant work going on in pockets and in some of the more deprived areas across the country, and there are great cook schemes. There is a brilliant weight loss project in Sheffield, and I met the people who run it. There is also a “dads and lads” project, helping dads and lads to cook, because it is not always a woman who needs to prepare the meal—says a mother of four, married to a man who does not cook very often. I will leave that there.
Our progress in work includes the NHS 12-week weight loss plan app, as we advertised in the summer, helping people with different levels of intervention to live better with obesity and hypertension and to get the support they need. We have accelerated the expansion of the NHS diabetes prevention programme and we hope to start to target some of the loss of limbs that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire spoke about. That programme has already helped half a million people. The better health campaign aims to reach millions of people who need to lose weight and encourage them in that behaviour change. The app also provides direction to weight loss programmes at discounted prices from Slimming World and WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers.
I am aware that I have not had time to canter through everything. To respond to the hon. Member for Bath, we are very aware that we ensure that messages are attenuated in the right way for those people who are struggling with eating disorders. They are a serious disease, and we work hard to ensure that the language and policy efforts do not have an adverse effect; we do impact assessments and put those on gov.uk. I also talk to my colleague the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), who holds the portfolio for mental health, so we are very much attuned to ensuring that these policies are aligned. However, we know we have to do more. It is not our intention that anyone should be harmed in our raising awareness of obesity, but we do need to tackle this matter and we need to tackle it full-on.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central and for Vale of Clwyd spoke about levelling up. I am going to stop, although I have plenty more that I wish to say. It is a combined national effort—I could not have put it better—and I think we are all united in knowing that we must work hard to meet it.
I thank all hon. Members for their contribution. I thank the shadow spokesperson and I thank the Minister in particular. I love the statement of a combined national effort; I think we have all captured that as the message we want to send out. I very much support what the Minister has said in relation to advertising and further reductions, the consultation programme that is going on, preparing and cooking meals and child weight loss programmes. All those things are important, so I thank the Minister and I thank hon. Members.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Probate Registry Service
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Probate Registry Service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; I think it is the first time I have done so. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the effectiveness of the Probate Registry. I put on record my declaration of interest, in that I am a practising solicitor and I am familiar with this area of practice.
This debate may appear rather niche—a minority interest in many respects—but probate and the administration of estates affect thousands of individuals and families up and down the country every year. This is not just something that is of interest to people such as myself, lawyers and accountants; as I say, it is of interest to families. We should also remember that there are around 500,000 deaths every year. I accept that not all estates will go to probate, but many of those 500,000 do, and therefore an awful lot of individuals and families get involved in the probate process and the administration of estates, whether directly themselves or through professionals such as lawyers and accountants.
There has been, I think, a degree of frustration and anger over the process in the last couple of years, and I am fortunate that I am in a position to bring this issue to a debate. I have been a solicitor for 30 years. For 28 of those years, I found the Probate Registry to be an excellent service. That is why today, in many respects, is such a great disappointment to me and why this is a debate that I would prefer not to be having.
Over those 28 years, the Probate Registry was always an efficient service. Probates were returned in a timely manner, consistent with the application timescale, and often within two to three weeks. Just as importantly, as practising lawyers, we had confidence that that would be the case—that the probates would be delivered in that timescale and therefore that we would be in a position to advise clients accordingly. If there was a problem, we always knew that it would be dealt with in a suitable timescale. If people had queries, the responses to those queries would always be dealt with constructively and efficiently by very helpful staff. Phone calls were answered and always in a reasonable timescale.
I would like today to give great praise to the Newcastle upon Tyne district probate registry, which has provided an excellent service to my firm and many others in the north of England over many years. I suspect that if other professionals were standing here today, they would cite similar experiences with other district probate registries up and down the country.
I have had contacts from solicitors in my constituency and I think it is important to illustrate how the current situation affects families. One family I heard of made an application in June, but probate was not received until late September—a wait of almost four months. During that time, they were required to spend £30,000 on repairs in relation to the deceased’s estate, and of course that was at a time when they did not have the funds to be able to afford that. That is not an isolated case. What I have been told by solicitors in my constituency is that when they made applications directly to Cardiff probate registry, they found that far more effective; they were very satisfied with that service. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that an unsatisfactory service is not good enough and needs to be addressed.
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s intervention. I agree with what she said and will come to the point that she was making about the sale of properties and how it is very important to get probate. It is interesting that she has heard from her local professionals and constituents about this very issue, which does affect a lot of families up and down the country and certainly in her constituency.
To go back to my point about the experience that I had in those 28 years, I would have rated the probate service overall as first class—something that a public service organisation should be proud of. Sadly, that is not the case now. I say to the Minister that unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, you are the fourth Minister with responsibility for this service whom I have been dealing with in a little over two years. I am sure Members would agree that we could have a debate just about the movement, the appointment, of Ministers and the timescales for which they are in office. That does not allow them always to get control or get on top of the issues that there are.
I have therefore experienced frustration on this matter over the last two years. I do appreciate that this Minister has inherited these issues, but at the end of the day it is still his responsibility to try to resolve them and improve the service. Sadly, two of his predecessors, in my view, did not really want to know, had not really grasped the issue and in many respects may not have been that interested. One at least had the honesty to confirm that there were problems and that he and the Department were trying to resolve them—I emphasise that that was pre-covid. At that time, I was aware that pressure was being applied by the Minister to try to improve the service and remove the backlog of applications. Sadly, that has not been achieved, and I emphasise that covid is not and should not be in any way an excuse, as the problems predate covid-19.
I can give real examples of what I am talking about. A member of staff can spend 40 to 50 minutes on the telephone waiting for a response to a query—I emphasise “40 to 50 minutes”. Even when an issue is raised, it is quite often not dealt with as quickly as it should be. As for updates, I will read directly from the response that we get on the website from the Probate Registry:
“Due to COVID-19, we are currently experiencing an increased demand on our service.”
I emphasise that actually it was pre-covid-19 that this was happening. The response continues:
“We will take longer to answer your call and to respond to your e-mail. Unfortunately, we cannot provide updates on case progression over the phone, e-mail and webchat.”
That is such a transformation from what used to happen, when people could do such things. For any service, one would expect to have the ability to get an update on the progression of one’s case.
Another example concerns an actual application for probate, which was submitted on 22 June. Probate was finally issued only on 10 September. That is 12 weeks later. In relation to another two applications, one submitted on 16 June and one on 29 June, probate was received only at the end of October. That is 17 weeks later. I repeat that it was 17 weeks—over four months—before probate was granted.
As for the quality of probate, errors are now creeping in in a way that would have been unimaginable previously. For example, a probate came back with the solicitor as the executor, rather than the person who should have been named on the probate. I accept that mistakes happen, but traditionally, people always received a perfect probate from the probate registry. That can cause serious problems, because people then have to go back and get the probate changed, which takes forever. Overall, we are experiencing a poor level of service compared with previously. If there was an alternative service, I am sure everyone would be using it by now. Sadly, we are not in that position; we have a monopoly service.
Such experiences are real. I am aware that other law firms are having similar experiences, as indeed are individuals. The obvious question is why there has been such a deterioration. The Government must take some responsibility for it. In their wisdom, they wanted to put up the charges for probate applications by a significant margin without giving it serious and sensible thought. In many respects, it was seen by many people as a tax rather than a payment for a service, because it was aligned to the size of the estate rather than the service that was being provided. Not surprisingly, that created a surge in applications, and not unexpectedly, the service was unable to respond adequately. Of course, the Government then realised that the increase in charges was inappropriate and did not proceed with it. They created a problem unnecessarily; they could easily have continued with the service as it was.
There was then rationalisation, which was an attempt to streamline the service by centralising it. It could be argued that that was a sensible use of resources, but clearly it has not worked out. As I have already mentioned, the performance of the district probate registries has been very effective in the past. We are now centralising the service, but it is not necessarily bringing about an improvement.
Finally, we have digitalisation. Again, there is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but does it actually improve the service? The Minister has written to me suggesting that there has been an improvement, which is true to a certain extent: it has improved the service from a poor position to a better one, but it is still not as good as it once was. From 2 November, the Government made it compulsory for professionals to use the digital service. The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners suggested that the roll-out of digital aspects should be delayed, but that advice was ignored. Yesterday, my law firm found that the portal did not work—I could not make that evidence up. The Government should have taken the advice of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.
There are consequences to all this, such as family distress, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned. The administration of an estate can be a stressful and difficult time for families, especially when they have just lost loved ones. Gaining access to funds quickly is important, as not all families have money readily available, and they may need the probate to gain access to those funds. Then of course there is the sale of property and other assets, which can be lost or delayed. The sale or purchase of a property, as everybody knows, is already a very stressful experience. It may not be front-page news, but we must remember that this affects thousands of people and their families up and down the country in a real and meaningful way.
As I said, I have raised the matter with the Minister’s predecessors, and I wrote to the Minister on 23 September. I received a letter from his Department dated 27 October, which came by email on 5 November—nine days later. I suggest that he has a word with his Department about how to communicate with a Member of Parliament in a timely fashion. What is happening in the probate registry may be happening in the Minister’s Department as well.
In the letter, the Minister acknowledges that the service has a problem. He mentions that the timescale for digital cases has improved to between two and five weeks on average, which I accept is an improvement. I point out, however, that in the past paper applications were dealt more quickly. I am encouraged by his indication that additional resources are being allocated to reduce the backlog, but why was that not done a year and a half or two years ago? We were aware that there was an issue at that time. The Minister mentions the centralisation of the system, but to a certain extent I question the wisdom of that. I have also asked written questions.
The evidence is this: in 2018, it took an average of three weeks for a probate to be granted; it is now seven to eight weeks. In 2018, the probate registry had 156 staff; it now has 215. In 2018, the cost of the service was £5.7 million; it is now £7.5 million. Will the Minister explain how a service that now employs more people and costs more is delivering a poorer service? Will he explain how introducing new technology, which is meant to improve the service, has resulted in probates being issued in seven-plus weeks, rather than about three weeks under the old system? Does the Minister agree that that poor level of service is having an adverse effect on many individuals and families up and down the country, and that that is unacceptable?
Does the Minister accept that this is not a political issue—far from it—but an administrative issue, and that it is therefore incumbent on the Government to ensure that the service is provided properly for the people of this country? Will he confirm that he will seek the opinion of service users, either individuals or professionals, to get their views on the service and what improvements and changes can be made? Will he let the House know how he and his Department intend to improve the performance of the probate registry, and will he let Members know what he has done and what the expected improvements and the timescale are?
I was going to ask the Minister to take the Rory Stewart route—when he was Prisons Minister he made a commitment that if the service had not improved in the next 12 months, he would resign his office—but I think that would be grossly unfair to the Minister, because I appreciate that he has not been in office long. However, I ask him to make a commitment to the House that he will seek to improve the service significantly and quickly, because it affects an far more people up and down the country than we may think.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for securing this debate on a topic that is extremely important for all the reasons that he has eloquently laid out. When families suffer bereavement, they expect the state to support them and act quickly as a matter of compassion. It is also a matter of practicality: as my hon. Friend said, there are often property matters that need to be dealt with quickly, and delays with probate make them more difficult.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend because, as he says, he has three decades’ experience of working in this area. Parliament is at its best when Members who have relevant direct experience—particularly current experience, as in his case—bring it to the House for the benefit of other Members and the whole country. I am grateful to him for bringing his experience to the House.
It is fair to say, as my hon. Friend laid out, that over the past two years there has been a significant change in the probate service, and there have been significant challenges and problems. This goes back to 2019, when two things happened that somewhat upset the probate applecart. The first was the very substantial fee increase, which was proposed and subsequently withdrawn. It caused a very substantial increase in the number of probate applications—I think they went up by 50%—as people tried to get them in quickly ahead of what they feared would be a very large fee increase. A year ago, the Government made it clear that that very large increase was not going to happen. None the less, it had a destabilising effect on the system when it was initially announced. Secondly, a new computer system was introduced a year and a half ago, and as is often the case, there were teething problems with it that led, particularly in 2019, to some very significant delays, which my hon. Friend referred to.
By the beginning of 2020, before the onset of the coronavirus, we had begun to recover and were offering better service. For example, in January and February this year, 44,113 grants were made, which was back to the 2018 level, before the various problems that I just described. Come January and February this year, we had got the probate system back to where it was before. Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic then struck and that disrupted operations, particularly in March, April and May. By July and August, we had got the output of the probate service back up—for example, in July, the average number of grants made each week, which is the key number we look at, was 5,400, which was around 9% above the five-year average. In August, we got it up to 5,700 a week, so we had gone up a little again to about 16% above the long-term five-year average. By the summer, therefore, the number of probate grants being issued had gone back up above the long-term average, which is an important milestone to reach. Consequently, waiting times have been getting better—not as good as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle or I would like, but they have got better.
For digital cases, the average waiting time was generally between two and five weeks and for paper applications it was between five and seven weeks. Paper applications take longer because they are harder to handle with social distancing. Solicitors must now make applications online, but I strongly urge individuals making their own probate applications to use the online service because it is much faster—a two-to-five-week turnaround time—and it is less error-prone, both by the user and by the probate service on handling the application, because everybody is using a common format and typing in material directly to the system. I strongly urge people to use the online system.
I have heard some examples of much longer waiting times than two to five weeks for digital or five to seven weeks for paper, and I am happy to look into the specifics of those cases if the hon. Member would like me to. I get a number of probate delay cases coming up in correspondence from constituency MPs. In more than half of the cases, where there are long lead times of 10 or 12 weeks, often there has been a mistake in making the application in the first place, or there is an outstanding tax matter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or something like that. Using the digital system reduces those errors, so I repeat my previous plea to use that where possible.
In the last year or two, the system has been in transition to the new computer system and the new service centres that are supposed to provide a centre of excellence where things can be processed more quickly and efficiently. We are midway through that transition. Those have been established, but there is still some activity going on in the local registries, and the process of completing the transition has been effectively paused due to the pandemic. My hon. Friend asked about resources and observed that the number of people employed in the probate service has gone up from 156 at the end of 2018 to 215 in March this year, and the amount of money being spent has gone up from £5.7 million to £7.5 million. He asked, quite reasonably, why there are issues if extra money is being spent. The answer is that it is still a service in transition. My objective is to get through that transition as quickly as possible, first, to realise the savings that were originally promised but have not yet been realised because the transition has not been completed, and secondly, to deliver the faster and better service that was promised at the outset. I think we can all agree with those aims.
My hon. Friend asked for a commitment from me to work tirelessly to make the necessary improvements, and I am happy to give that categorical commitment this morning. I am grateful to him for not pressing me to make the Rory Stewart kamikaze pledge, but I do commit to doing everything possible to make the improvements. In that spirit, I was going to suggest, before my hon. Friend called the debate, that we meet officials to go through some of the points that he has raised and the work currently going on in the service. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) has a similar professional interest in this area, as an accountant, so I suggest that he join us to go through the issues in a little more detail. I would like to hear from Members with particular professional expertise, to make sure that I as the Minister, and the Ministry of Justice more generally, learn from the observations and experience of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.
One concern that has been raised with me relates to Welsh language wills. Will the Minister assure me that the new provision will be able to deal appropriately, according to the Welsh Language Act 1993, with people’s right to present wills in the medium of Welsh, and that that will be dealt with effectively?
I believe that that is the case, but in the interest of absolute clarity it would be safest if I were to write to the right hon. Lady confirming it. I believe it is, but I will double check and write to her formally giving her the confirmation that she has quite reasonably requested.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about consulting other MPs and what he is trying to achieve for the probate registry. I just want to make a couple of points. First, I think people are quite happy to pay the probate registry fee if they get a good service. I and many other people thought the increase proposed in the past was like an increase in taxation, but if there were an increase in the fee so that effectively the service could just wash its face, I do not think anybody would have an issue with that—certainly professionals would not. The other thing I would say to the Minister is please listen to other bodies such as STEP. It suggested that there should have been a delay in the compulsory digitalisation and it proved correct on that score. I think sometimes that Governments should listen in a positive way to what is suggested to them.
My hon. Friend is right on the question of the fee. The very large fee increase contemplated a year or two ago went far beyond cost recovery. The current fees, I believe, cover approximately two thirds, or perhaps three quarters—probably more like two thirds —of the cost of running the service. I am grateful for his observation that practitioners, the public and parliamentarians would consider modest fee increases that cover the cost of the service, but no more, to be justifiable.
As for the digital service, after my hon. Friend made the point about the problems yesterday, I checked with the Department about whether there was a general digital service outage, and I was told that there was not, so I would like to hear a bit more—perhaps when we meet—about the digital issue that his firm experienced yesterday, so that we can get to the bottom of exactly what happened there. However, the reason we have made digital applications compulsory is that they are faster—two to five weeks—which benefits the user. Also, the evidence we have gathered indicates that they are far less prone to error, both by the applicant, whether that is an individual, a solicitor’s firm or an accountant, and by the probate service itself. Those are considerable benefits that flow from the use of the digital service, but if there are teething problems or if my hon. Friend’s firm has experienced issues, I would definitely like to investigate the precise nature of those.
I hope that this morning I have acknowledged the problems that have certainly existed in the past. There have been considerable improvements over the course of this year, but there is more work to do to realise both the savings that were promised by the centralisation process and the service improvements that were promised. I will make achieving that a priority, but in doing so I will work with Members with expertise such as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, to make sure that we deliver on the promise, and deliver to constituents and their families, at a time of bereavement, the service that they are entitled to expect.
Question put and agreed to.
Support for SMEs: Covid-19
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for SMEs during the covid-19 pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. At the request of the Petitions Committee, I would like to mention e-petition 305024, entitled “Extend grants immediately to small businesses outside of SBRR”, and e-petition 307959, entitled “Business Rate Relief to be extended to all small businesses in healthcare”.
Small and medium-sized enterprises account for the overwhelming majority of businesses in the UK. In Carshalton and Wallington, for example, nearly 90% of businesses are microbusinesses, having only zero to nine employees, and SMEs make up 99.8% of all businesses in my constituency. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, at the start of 2020 there were 5.94 million small businesses with zero to 49 employees, making up 99.9% of the business population overall. They account for three fifths of employment, employing 16.8 million people and with an annual turnover of £2.3 trillion, which is 52% of the annual turnover of the UK private sector. SMEs are the lifeblood of our local communities and are at the very heart of those communities. Not only are our local retailers loved by the communities we represent, and not only do they provide jobs for local people, but they are active and engaging members of our local communities.
That, I think, is why the impact of coronavirus on our SMEs has been so tragic and upsetting in many cases. We have been unable to visit our favourite local retailers and have watched many of them wrestle with the agonising choice of whether or not they have a future in our local communities at all. I think it demonstrates the strength of feeling in those communities that while preparing for this afternoon’s debate, my inbox has been inundated—I am sure the same is true of the inboxes of many colleagues present—with briefings and requests for meetings.
I am incredibly grateful to industry representatives for their help in preparing for this debate, and am glad to see so many right hon. and hon. Members present to take part in it. It is fair to say that during the pandemic, the Government have stepped up to provide an extensive package of support to business, which is very welcome and has helped to save millions of jobs that would otherwise have been lost. However, there are still concerns, which I will address throughout my speech, and I am sure other hon. Members will have concerns as well.
I am not going to go on for very long, because I know that the speaking list is quite full, but I would first like to turn to the coronavirus job retention scheme. The news that the Government have extended that scheme to March is very welcome, and I extend my thanks to the Government for doing so. By midnight on 18 October, approximately £41.5 billion had been claimed under that scheme. There are 1.2 million employers who have taken part in it, and nearly 10 million jobs have been furloughed since the scheme began, including 5,200 in my own constituency. Again, that extension is welcome, but the key question from the CBI is about the exit strategy from 2 December. Most businesses are assuming that we are going to go back into the tiered system, but the CBI and the industry are looking for further clarity from Government regarding the road map out of this second national lockdown, so that businesses have ample opportunity to prepare financially for what lies ahead.
May I also raise the issue of the cut-off date for the furlough scheme? A local business in my constituency, Energie Fitness in Wallington, recently took on a new staff member. However, due to the cut-off date for the furlough scheme, that person is not eligible to be furloughed, and sadly it now looks as if their job may be in jeopardy, so I would be grateful if the Government could take another look at this issue.
The job retention scheme has been backed up by a series of loan schemes, with four in total. Overall, as of 18 October, £62.7 billion worth of loans has been approved across those four schemes. In my own constituency, for example, £13.42 million worth of loans has been approved under the business interruption loan scheme, and £65 million worth has been approved under the bounce back loan scheme. Again, the top-up and extension of those schemes are very welcome, but the industry still has some concerns that I would like to put to Government.
Approximately 250,000 SMEs are believed to be locked out of the bounce back loan scheme simply because they do not bank with one of the 28 accredited lenders, according to estimates made by the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking. The APPG chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), is here, so I will leave it to him to go into more detail later. I appreciate that the Treasury has been pushing back in recent weeks but, while stopping short of forcing banks to act differently, there really needs to be a greater focus on this issue, to ensure that businesses do not get locked out of that potential financial support.
The two key areas I want to focus on are the self-employed and grant funding. The first tranche of the self-employed income support scheme closed on 13 July. It received 2.7 million applications, and a total of £7.8 billion has been claimed, including £11.6 million in Carshalton and Wallington. The second tranche opened on 17 August and, as of 18 October, 2.3 million claims had been made, worth a total of £5.9 billion, £13 million of which was claimed in Carshalton and Wallington.
Once again, I welcome and greatly appreciate the Government extending that package, as well as the pledge of a £7.3 billion refresh package of support for the self-employed. However, there are still some real concerns. A study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics found that, in August—a month that saw the economy beginning to recover from the first lockdown—58% of the UK’s 5 million self-employed people had worked less than normal, and that one fifth of them anticipated quitting altogether, rising to 58% for those under the age of 25. Apparently, 1 million people in the UK are planning to give up being self-employed after seeing their earnings decimated by the covid-19 pandemic.
That situation was highlighted just this morning by the Federation of Small Businesses, which noted that 500,000 fewer people than last year—that figure was released today—are now registered as self-employed. I am sure that we will hear many examples of what has happened to the self-employed, especially freelancers and company directors, who have not been able to access financial support. I should declare an interest at this point as a participant in the all-party parliamentary group on ExcludedUK. The group emerged back in March, off the back of the first round of announcements of financial support, and it argues that much more needs to be done to help the recently self-employed, limited company directors and other groups that did not benefit from the self-employment income support scheme. That call was echoed by the FSB this morning, so I ask the Government to look at the eligibility criteria, to ensure that the self-employed can once again be the engine of economic recovery when we come out of lockdown.
I will also touch on business rates relief and grant funding. Again, I want to draw attention to the good work that has been done. Retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in England are receiving a 100% business rates holiday through the expanded retail relief. They will not pay business rates in 2021 and English local authorities estimate that just over 373,000 business premises were eligible for the expanded relief as of 5 July this year, and that those businesses will receive around £10.7 billion of relief. In my own constituency, 384 businesses have benefited from this support, at an estimated cost of £8.6 million.
However, there are still concerns. I will start with wholesalers, such as Bestway Wholesale in my constituency. Wholesalers play a really vital role in the supply chain, especially in the hospitality sector, but they have lost between 80% and 90% of their trade with the closure of the hospitality industry, and several are on the verge of collapse. These SMEs provide employment and skills, and are often the lifeblood of the local communities that they are part of. However, they are worried that without urgent financial support in the form of business rate relief, there will be significant job losses up and down the country.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the small business grants fund, the retail, hospitality and leisure grant fund, and the local authority discretionary grants fund. In total, the first two of those funds were worth more than £12 billion, which was obviously expected to be distributed. As of 16 August, £11 billion had been paid out to nearly 900,000 business properties. I particularly thank the Government for the local authority discretionary grants fund. So far, grants of more than £239 million have been paid out to over 37,500 businesses. In Carshalton and Wallington, £6.6 million has been paid in small business grants, £4.4 million in retail, hospitality and leisure grants, and £510,000 in local authority discretionary grants.
I pay particular tribute to the Government for introducing the local authority discretionary grants. There were real concerns earlier this year from businesses that fell outside the original grant scheme, particularly those that did not pay business rates, predominantly due to a rental agreement—if they were a council tenant, for example—or because they were in shared offices. Park cafes are an example, including the Pavilion Café at Beddington park, Mellows Pavilion Café at Mellows park, Sassis in the Grove, Cheam Park Café, as well as the Sutton business park in Hackbridge. They are all, by every stretch of the imagination, a small business and would fit that description if they had a property of their own, but they were not eligible for the grants simply because of their rental agreements. I therefore thank the Government for making the move on that.
There are lingering concerns, however, when it comes to grants. This morning, the Federation of Small Businesses expressed concerns that the grants were not at the same level as grants in March 2020. It has asked what the difference is this time. Grants need to be greater than the £3,000 put forward, because SMEs are struggling with cashflow and that would really help. In addition, some businesses still fall outside the scope of the grants. An example from my own constituency is the Windsor Castle pub, which is having difficult conversations about the possibility of closing altogether. Its rateable value means that it is not eligible for financial support, and it has real concerns about coming out on the other side of the crisis.
One of the e-petitions I mentioned focuses on the grants, and its prayer states that cash grants are
“only for businesses in receipt of the Small Business Rates Relief or Rural Relief, or for particular sectors.”
“Small businesses are dying by the day and jobs are being lost. We need fast, easy access to cash grants for small businesses enabling them to survive COVID-19.”
I hope, therefore, that the Government will review the scope and reach of each of these grants.
Given the time constraints, I will not go on to list everything the Government have provided or the sector’s concerns. I am sure we will hear a lot about those from other hon. Members present. I will just pick up on one anomaly and ask the Minister to take a look at it—namely, the 5% VAT cut on admissions. I hope the Minister will take a look at what seems to be a problem in the system: bowling alleys are not eligible for the 5% cut, even though trampolining and mini-golf businesses are eligible, as are cinemas. That seems to be a strange anomaly in the system. I would be grateful if the Minister could take a look at that.
I shall bring my remarks to a close and allow other Members to get in. I am grateful to the Government for the support they have provided to SMEs so far, but what businesses—and, indeed, all of us—need is a clear road map to reopening. The Government have been clear, and I agree, that repeated lockdowns are not the answer. We had some good news about a potential vaccine yesterday, but we know that the roll-out will not happen overnight and that going back to some semblance of normality is not going to happen any time soon. That is why, essentially, we need a plan for living with the virus in the longer term—one that does not shut down huge swathes of our economy and put jobs at further risk. On top of the financial support that I have already outlined and the need to address the sector’s concerns, I hope that we can get that road map and plan for what operating a business will look like after we get out of this second lockdown. Uncertainty is one of the worst things for a business, and it can be just as damaging to SMEs as poor cashflow. I hope that we can look at the SME support that the sector is calling for, get that road map to reopening, and give SMEs the confidence to start planning for the future.
We have quite a few speakers, but if everybody keeps to under five minutes, everybody can get in. Before speaking, can you look at the clock and make sure that you sit down within five minutes, however interesting your comments may be? Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and thank him for securing this important debate. He made a series of important and detailed points that will certainly be welcome in Westminster Hall.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, SMEs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. As we have already heard, they really are the powerhouses of industry in our regional economies. Prior to becoming an MP, I worked for an SME in export, trade and marketing, and it was seeing things like Business Link—for anyone who remembers that—axed in the so-called bonfire of the quangos back in 2011 that made me feel that, for all the talk of trading our way out of the recession, the Government at the time did not really understand the type of support that SMEs truly valued. I was keen to bring those experiences with me to Parliament. We will need to trade our way out of this again, so what do we need to do to lay the groundwork to build back better?
I want to focus my remarks on those businesses in my constituency that have faced particular hardships over the course of the crisis. Halifax has been in the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions since July. We entered restrictions over three months ago, when our infection rate was in the 30s per 100,000. At one stage, we got it down to around 14 or 15 per 100,000, but the restrictions were not lifted before the second wave we are currently seeing sweep across the country brought about another spike. My SMEs have been living with restrictions far longer than most, and it is really starting to take a toll.
Children’s soft play centres have been among those hardest hit, and I commend places such as the Mill Playcafé and Play Palace in Halifax for doing all they can to diversify and keep their doors open. However, they are the types of leisure facilities, much like bowling alleys, which were the last to be able to reopen under the national restrictions. They then faced further tier 2 delays. When they finally got the go-ahead, they had additional restrictions on how many children could use the play areas safely, meaning that takings have been down by around 80%, completely undermining their viability and business models.
The packages of support for SMEs do not reflect those differences and the fact that some businesses have inevitably faced more hardship than others under the restrictions. I am not here to suggest that it would be easy to tailor the support to the exact requirements, but I say to the Minister that it is necessary to take that approach. My colleagues on the Labour Front Bench have been asking for sector-specific support, so I hope the Minister can reflect on soft play centres specifically in his response.
One recurring message from local businesses is that November and December are usually their best months. Whether it is Saks salon or Carter’s market stall selling nightwear for the winter months, turnover across the year factors in an expectation that the business will do well in the run-up to Christmas, especially given the year that these businesses have had. The hope that the best months of the year were still to come was keeping lots of businesses going, but it will take a great deal to recover from the reality of missing out on trade at this key time.
I have spoken to lots of the market stall traders at the impressive Halifax borough market, one of the last indoor Victorian markets, and which first opened in 1896. The council is staring into a massive black hole in its finances for this year and did what it could to give stallholders a rent break at the start of the crisis, but its position is such that it needs to continue to charge rent, even when the footfall has been so low that takings for traders have been a fraction of what they would normally be.
Due to a variety of different business models and employment practices within the market, not all of those working in it have been able to access the various different schemes. With this in mind, I wrote to the Government to ask the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if the money already announced for the recovery of culture and heritage could be used to support the borough market as a cultural destination and heritage building, as a means of supporting the businesses in it. I received a response on 1 October from the Minister, saying that it could not but that he urges market business owners to continue exploring all options and monitor any existing funding streams for further development. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us if there are any further funds my market stallholders could apply for, or, alternatively, what else we can do to support councils and the traders in our historic markets.
There is a great deal more I could add, but I will say in closing that Halifax had been punching well above its weight as a northern Pennine town before the virus, and I know that we will get there again. We have a real strength in depth across our SMEs, but we have faced a perfect storm of restrictions. I also add that we were recovering from the devastating floods of February before we almost immediately had to turn to face the virus, so we need to know that the Government are responsive to and understanding of our almost unique circumstances in Halifax.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your delightful chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate at a critical moment in our national story. It is also a great pleasure to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). Her concern about having had to deal with Storm Ciara immediately prior to the pandemic is shared across west Yorkshire.
In the 2019 general election campaign, the Conservative party pledged to support SMEs across the country, whether that be seizing the opportunities that Brexit brings or helping support those who want to start their own company and realise their ambitions. Our manifesto pledge could not have foreseen the pandemic we presently endure. However, the support that Her Majesty’s Government continue to provide to SMEs is a continuation of the policies and values Conservatives stand for. The numerous support schemes, whether the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, the coronavirus bounce back loan, retail hospitality and leisure grants or the furlough scheme, illustrate how great a priority the protection of SMEs and the livelihoods of all those who depend on their success is to this Government.
Through these interventions, businesses and livelihoods have been shielded as much as possible from the economic fallout of covid-19. Between the announcement of the schemes in March and August, 5,640 businesses in the Wakefield district eligible for the business grant received funds to support them—92% of all eligible businesses.
As we entered the second set of national restrictions, Her Majesty’s Government once again introduced support measures for businesses to shield them as best as possible. These measures cannot protect every business, or every job, but they are the right measures. The support that SMEs have received during this national emergency has been unprecedented, yet necessary to protect our economy.
A thriving economy requires a diverse private sector that is not shackled by regulation or high taxes. The Conservative party recognises the vitality of a dynamic free market, as well as a free economy, as the only route to economic growth and prosperity for all who live within it. While these measures intervene in the economy in a manner never seen before, and freedoms we cherish are curtailed to help to slow the spread of the virus, all these actions are temporary. Even so, I know the Prime Minister and the Chancellor did not take any of these decisions lightly or easily. Once we emerge from this crisis, as we shall, it is vital that we shift our approach from not only supporting SMEs where necessary, but unshackling them from the burdens of excessive regulations that limit their ability to operate effectively in the market.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate. I want to focus my remarks on the coach industry, because its members feel badly let down. They tell me that that is partly because politicians do not understand their industry.
I will start by quoting Kevin Mayne, from Maynes Coaches, a family firm in Scotland, who says:
“We take children to school, grieving individuals to funerals, vulnerable people to disabled care facilities and turn up in high risk situations with shiny shoes to keep the nation moving. We are waiting at the station when the train stops and a rail replacement is called upon, we are behind the NHS when the country stops moving and we are truly at the heart of national transport.
The Coach Industry has always been there for the nation. When the train stops, you get a coach to take you where you need to go—whether it be a job interview, school play or a hospital appointment. When planes are grounded, it’s a coach and a driver who are sent out to keep the people moving forward to their next destination. If everything in the city grinds to a halt and there needs to be an evacuation—we help. Trust me, I have been there personally.”
The situation for coach companies is deeply worrying. They are all SMEs, the majority family-run businesses. Last week, I met Alan Acklam from Acklams Coaches, who spelt out the crisis the industry faces. These were all viable businesses, and they will be again, because after this pandemic people will want to go to concerts and on holiday and start enjoying life again. But right now, tens of thousands of jobs are at stake as a result of coach operators struggling to secure business as the coronavirus pandemic goes on. They have seen a 90% drop in income for 2020. In 2019, there were 23 million visits made by coach, but that number has fallen to virtually nothing.
There has been no sector-specific support for coach companies, unlike bus, rail and light rail operators. For some companies, the furlough scheme has been the only source of support until this point. The industry experts estimate that four companies in 10 could go bust and 27,000 jobs could be lost if no support is made available. Furlough has helped, but many coaches have fixed costs. One owner told me that
“fixed costs will kill the industry prior to the furlough ending”.
That is partly because coach companies have tried to do the right thing. Many have upgraded their fleets to improve air quality and reduce emissions, and have taken out finance agreements to do that. Now the coaches sit idle and the repayments are due.
One coach operator told me that the cost per day for his coaches was £220. The coaches are now in negative equity because the market is flooded as businesses try to sell them. Some firms have been able to negotiate finance payment holidays, but those are coming to an end and there is no sign of them being renewed. Only 20% of companies have been able to access coronavirus business interruption loans, and only 15% have been able to access small business support.
I was contacted by the owner of a family company in Dorset, who sent me a heartbreaking email about the problems he faces. I will quote from that, because it is better than anything I could say to the Minister. It says that the company was
“told yesterday that we’ve been refused a CBIL loan from our own business bank (Lloyds Bank). We have a BBL and it was going to be paid as part of the CBIL funds. We weren’t refused due to bad credit or not being a profitable company. It was because the banks don’t know when our industry will return to any form of normality, they’re classing us as maximum risk for any form of lending. They can’t see the industry recovering over the next 12 months, so won’t lend us any money. This is what I was told by them over the phone, and to be honest, I can’t believe it, I really can’t!
I felt very ill last night when my bank said they can’t see us returning soon. I didn’t realise they were experts in when things will return to some form of normality. Lloyds have also put a 5-year payment plan on the application. Rishi Sunak MP said he was extending payments up to 10 years to help us out. Lloyds said they hadn’t had that information and have to base it on 5 years. If it was for 10 years, the application may have gone through?
The coach operators appreciate the furlough, but as I said before that is for the employees’ benefit, not for the business itself. Furlough till March is great but the finance houses will not extend holidays for the coach payments. Once January comes I will need to find over £12,000 a month for coach finance payments with an income of absolutely nothing. My staff will be made redundant just after Christmas if funding does not arrive soon. Coach operators are completely left on their own at the moment and have been for 8 months.
I have £26,700 left to get me through to March. I’m applying to Iwoca loans, but the rates are higher than Lloyds and they are saying it is only over 5 years and not 10 years. I have a wife, a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old to support. Come early next year, we will be forced out of our home as the money will run out and the coach finance, like others, is secured against our family home. I haven’t been scared up until now, but I’m scared now.”
The only business that coaches have is school transport, but most companies subsidise that with other jobs. At the moment, that service is being operated at a loss. The industry needs help. I am grateful that the Chancellor told me that the relevant Minister will meet me and representatives from the industry, but I will be even more grateful when the relevant Minister actually puts a date in the diary for that meeting.
Will the Minister please comment on what sector-specific support coaches will get? Will the Department look at classifying coach operators as either tourism or essential travel so that they can access some of the grants that are already available? What conversations are being had by the Department with the high street banks about their criteria for lending coronavirus interruption loans to the industry? What support can the Government give the industry in securing extended finance payment holidays? Have the Government considered retrospective low-emission-based grants for coach companies that have made a large investment in greener travel? Has any consideration been given to topping up the costs of school transport during this time?
Coaches are not just for displaying dubious political slogans during referendums and elections. Our country needs them, and now the industry needs us. I look forward to working with the Government to get it the support it needs.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who gave a fantastic opening speech and really set the scene. So many of us agree with him. I pay tribute to the three Members who spoke before me, all from various parts of Yorkshire—God’s own county. When we hear representatives from Yorkshire calling for more money to be spent, we know that we are indeed in unusual times.
I will focus on my concerns for small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency, what we can do to urge our constituents and residents from across the country to support them before Christmas, and what the Government can do to support them. It is fantastic to see the Minister in his place. I worked with him before my political fortunes changed. It is great that he is in post, which means we have continuity for him to help in the Treasury.
My concerns with small business lie in the demographics of my constituency. We do not have large business in Bexhill and Battle. Small businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, are the lifeblood at the heart of our local communities. They certainly are in my Bexhill and Battle constituency. I also have one of the highest proportions of workers on the living wage. Without the small businesses, we would not have the jobs that are there, but even the jobs that we do have are very low paid indeed. I am very concerned that those small businesses will not survive. That is why, with regret, I have been unable to support the Government’s November restrictions. Those businesses had done their best and survived during the first lockdown, but I was concerned they were going to really struggle to survive through the second. On a more optimistic note, it is fantastic news that it looks as though the vaccine is within reach. Ultimately, what our small businesses need is the consumers who will drive business, and I hope this will bring optimism back to them.
Despite the restrictions, the bigger operatives such as supermarkets are able to open up to all while smaller businesses complain that they are unable to open, which is regrettable. Having said that, we saw what happened in Wales when supermarkets tried to close certain aisles—it simply does not work. I want to focus instead on what we can all do before Christmas, because all retail businesses are able to open online. I would like to see a national campaign focused on November, a crucial month for many small and medium-sized enterprises, so that we buy local. Ultimately, we need to discourage people from doing their Christmas shopping on Amazon. A good example is a bookshop in Battle, Rother Books. We can buy its books through an online organisation called Bookshop.org, whereby the local bookstore gets the profits that it would receive if someone had purchased in the shop. I urge hon. Members to look at that for their constituents. I am also really encouraged by my Alliance of Chambers in East Sussex, the chambers of commerce, which is appealing for people to buy local, buy later and buy local online. I very much hope that constituents will do that. Again, it is important that we all take the lead and show our residents and constituents how they can find those businesses, and it is important that businesses innovate so that they are able to open during what will be a difficult month.
What more can the Government do before Christmas? I should align myself with some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington. When I visited businesses in my constituency over the summer, they could not have been clearer that without the Government’s furlough and the discretionary grant process, they would have gone under, so the Government really have stood by smaller businesses. I know that the Government’s target of 33% of total procurement spend each year by 2022 should be on SMEs. Given that we have nationalised large parts of the economy, I challenge the Minister to see whether we can make that target perhaps a little earlier.
In the remaining 30 seconds, I want to point out three areas to the Government. On house building, we have lost our small builders, but we will need them if we want to build back. We lost them during the recession of 2008, and it is vital that we let small builders start building so that we get the homes we need. Secondly, wearing my Transport Committee Chair hat, travel agents have been particularly impacted, and I would like to see a suspension of the package travel regulations so that insurers pay out for cancelled holidays, rather than the travel agent. We should better align our regulations so that when airlines are still flying but passengers cannot realistically go to destinations, it is not the travel agents that pay out, but the airlines.
Lastly, on aviation—the Treasury has an interest here—it is vital that we get people flying again. There are so many small and medium-sized enterprises that rely on aviation either indirectly or through the number of passengers who come through. Can we please find a way to reduce the number of quarantine days so that there is an incentive to pay to have the test? People will then end their quarantine early and start flying again. That is all I have to say, Sir Edward. I hope I have not gone too far beyond your limit. I warmly welcome the motion and hope that the Government will continue to support small and medium-sized enterprises.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for calling this debate.
My constituency is home to more than 6,000 small and medium-sized businesses, ranging from independent shops around the ever-busy Clapham Common, including Minnow, Charlotte Cave and Clapham Books, to the row of street stalls and quirky businesses along the Lower Marsh in Waterloo, including Greensmiths and River Remedies, the numerous small pubs, cafes and restaurants along what many people refer to as Little Portugal—South Lambeth Road—and our vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and venues, which draw so many people to Vauxhall from across the world, adding immeasurable culture to our part of south London.
The covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on all those businesses, and I have personally visited them over the past few months to see at first hand the impact on the ground and how they have been adapting and coping with what we call the new normal.
I met one constituent in March who planned to open a new grocery store after three years of sheer dedication, hard work and money to get that off the ground. He was devastated just before the national lockdown not to be able to open as planned. He now faces unaffordable rents and his costs have to be paid even though he is not receiving any income.
Another small business owner I met told me about her 13-year-old daughter. She is worried about how the business will be kept running. If she is forced to self-isolate because one of her children catches the virus, the business will struggle and that will be the end of the business for her and her husband.
My constituent who runs the Prince of Wales in Clapham Old Town highlighted the dire consequences for the hospitality sector, with many landlords continuing to demand rent for closed premises. He also highlighted the fact that a number of his staff come from EU nations—I am proud to boast that I represent the top-voting Remain constituency in the country—but there are real consequences here for small and medium-sized businesses. It is important that we get a firm deal so that these businesses can continue to thrive.
At the beginning of the lockdown in March, the Government provided the coronavirus hospitality and leisure grant for properties with a rateable value of £51,000, but Vauxhall is a central London constituency with higher than average rateable values, so many of the businesses that I represent did not qualify for any support, yet saw an immediate drop in footfall.
As the lockdown lifted over the summer, many of the small and medium-sized businesses that support the vibrant cultural sector that I represent along the South Bank were not able to open their doors again. Those businesses rely on tourism, but—guess what—the tourists have not come back, and they will not be coming back for a while.
How do we help those small businesses? The Government’s one-size-fits-all approach is not helping small and medium-sized businesses, which in places such as Vauxhall are struggling. When we come out of lockdown, it is important that we do not look at any more business closures, because without those businesses our communities will not thrive. Will the Minister therefore reassure my constituents that the Government will not try to implement their one-size-fits-all approach, but will listen to small and medium-sized businesses and provide tailored support so that all of them can get back on their feet post-covid 19?
And proudly so, Sir Edward.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) made a great speech and set the scene well for subsequent speeches.
I draw the attention of Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This is my third recession as a businessman—once under a Conservative Government in 1992 and once under a Labour Government in 2008—but I have never seen the amount of support that we have received through this recession. That support has been on a different scale altogether. Having said that, the recession has been on a different scale altogether too. Previously, there was no job retention scheme, no business rate grant and no VAT discount. There were no free school meals in 2008, when millions of people lost their jobs. My business alone had to make two thirds of our workforce redundant. It is among the hardest moments of your life when you have to do that to 130 people you worked with for a long time. I had very little support during that time, but the Government are now doing a tremendous job in providing support for many SMEs.
The No.1 support that can be given to any business is to allow it to trade. The Government have tried to do that throughout, despite the calls—on many occasions from the Opposition—to close the economy, which would have meant more businesses destroyed or a greater burden on the taxpayer. I think the Government have done all they can to spread the benefits they have provided evenly, but that is almost impossible—in fact, it is impossible. If the economy is closed down, whatever the Government throw at it, some businesses will lose out, and some will be hit harder than others. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) was absolutely right in her plea for the coach sector, but it is so difficult for the Government to design a scheme that will suit all people equally. That is why we must try to keep the economy open at all costs; that is what we should be doing.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said, when large swathes of the economy are shut down but some parts are left open, existing trends are accelerated. Amazon, of course, is doing very well through this recession and has eaten further into the market share of SMEs. The fact that supermarkets are allowed to open again chips away at the market share of SMEs and accelerates long-term trends. As a result, some businesses that might have got through this had it been done in a more progressive and gradual way will be destroyed forever.
Although we have done a lot already, the Minister will be familiar with the kind of asks I will make for the future. There has been a fair bit of support—a lot, in fact—in the form of business rates grants, the job retention scheme and the VAT discount. The hon. Member for Vauxhall said that her businesses have seen no support, but it is very rare that hospitality sector businesses have got no support.
There has been a lot of grant support, but inevitably the Government have also had to say to businesses that they have to take some of it as a loan. Bounce back loans have been a huge success, and what the Minister has done now in terms of top-ups to those loans is absolutely right, but he knows one of the problems we have is with non-bank lenders and their customers. We have persuaded businesses to try new competition, new fintechs, for their bank accounts, but, having done that, those businesses are now locked out of the Bank of England’s term funding scheme, which provides the funding for bounce back loans. Customers of non-bank lenders such as Tide are locked out of the bounce back loan scheme.
There is a number of ways to solve this: give non-bank lenders access to the term funding scheme—I know the Minister cannot do that himself—ask banks to lend to non-bank lenders, or ask banks to lend to the customers of non-bank lenders. The difficulty with the latter is that customers then migrate back to the big banks; also, they have a finite amount of money to lend, so it is flawed. We need a solution to this problem. What the Treasury could do is provide funding directly to non-bank lenders through the ENABLE guarantee scheme. That would solve the problem pretty much overnight, if the Government were willing to do that.
I have used up the time allocated to me, so although I have a few more things to say I will leave it there. I hope the Minister will respond to some of these points in his reply to the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate.
As we all know too well, the coronavirus pandemic has hit our economy hard, and continues to do so. After the last lockdown, the Government economic guidelines were marked by last-minute scrambles to keep pace with steadily worsening events. This pattern culminated with last week’s announcement of the Government’s guidelines for small businesses mere days before the lockdown was to take effect. The uncertainty and the haste with which small businesses have been forced to adjust is a cause of honest concern.
In the last few months we have seen hundreds of companies going to the wall, tens of thousands of businesses shuttered, hundreds of thousands of redundancy notices handed out and millions more workers worried about whether they will still have a job in the future. None of this was inevitable. The failures of the Government to act early on the circuit breaker means that the economic pain of this lockdown will be greater, more far-reaching and indiscriminate. Now, with an estimated 23,000-plus weekly infections, 800 of which are in Coventry, we have abruptly found ourselves needing to go into a lockdown that was both foreseeable and preventable. Once again, the Government have waited until the last possible minute to act, causing huge anxiety for the people in my constituency and jobs to be lost across the country.
Although it is good that the Government have extended the job retention scheme and furlough scheme—we welcome that—and opened up a timeframe to apply for an emergency bounce back loan, more must be done to adequately address the practical issues this pandemic and lockdown present.
I fear that beyond those measures, the face and feel of our high streets are undergoing long-term change at a more rapid pace. When we leave lockdown for the second time, businesses will have to follow different norms of operation, such as being open at reduced capacity and altering their opening hours. The current financial discussions do not do enough to answer the question: what is the future of the British high street? The people in my constituency want to know the future of Burnaby Road and Holbrook Lane, as well as other centres of local shopping and community life. What will we tell my constituents in Coventry North West who have spent decades building family businesses and who are unable to plan against the uncertainty and seemingly short-sighted post-lockdown guidance? Equally, what will we tell the estimated 250,000 businesses without access to bounce back loans?
I call on the Minister to look beyond the current measures and consider what the Government must do to preserve high street businesses in the face of rapidly changing consumer culture. I recently spoke to the owner of The Loft dance studio in my constituency, who meticulously followed the Government’s social distance guidelines, spending hundreds of pounds to subsidise the presence of safety measures such as hand sanitisers and signage, often at the expense of money earmarked for his rent. This studio has been successful in providing a safe venue for students to train, but the owner feels that his business is suffering as a result of the latest lockdown. Importantly, the students who relied on the dance studio as a mental health resource, a place where they could engage in an activity from which they learned teambuilding and perseverance or gained a path to a career or higher education, are suffering as well.
My constituents have done everything asked of them, but many of them fear that the Government have not done their part. Small businesses and their patrons should not have to spend one single day more in lockdown than is -absolutely necessary. We cannot repeat the reactive, clumsy and confused approach to post-lockdown guidance. At the end of the day, those who suffer will be the hard-working, decent business people, who have spent years of their lives and their life savings on building up businesses that could go bust through no fault of theirs.
We have not only an economic obligation but a moral obligation to guide and support the people behind those businesses them. That is why I call on the Government to develop and publicise a flexible, long-term recovery plan for small businesses on our high streets. Small businesses rely on the certainty of advance Government guidelines to plan for their future. We must not let them down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on opening the debate so well. I echo all the concerns hon. Members have brought forward, particularly about those excluded from the self-employed income support scheme.
I had a discussion with a Treasury Minister about the exclusion of people who are sole directors of companies. My understanding from his comments was that there is a shortage of staff at HMRC to process information at Companies House, together with returns that can be produced to demonstrate that they are the sole shareholder. That case was brought back in the spring and several months have gone by, so I do not understand why the Government have not put more staff into HMRC to address that problem. It would be transformative for all those people who have yet to receive support. I ask the Minister to look at that.
I also echo the concerns raised around bounce back loans and the fact that the underwriting is by the Government, not the supply of resources for that. That is one reason why there are such challenges. I also want to raise a concern about the additional restriction grants. City of York Council is looking at £25,000 a month. That will not address the demand and we want to know how that gap will be closed. Although York is doing incredibly well at addressing the pandemic and getting on top of the virus, our economy is seriously struggling and we urgently need help. The claimant count has more than doubled in the city, the high street has been highlighted as having had the most closures anywhere in the country—55 retail outlets to date—and economically the future is looking even bleaker, so we need urgent support.
One concern my constituents have is about the behaviour of leaseholders, particularly during the pandemic. For them, the property they hold is a capital investment and a secure asset, and their interest is clearly in their wider financial investment portfolios born of high rental payments. The rentals are not necessarily the issue, but continuing to demand high rental payments from small businesses is having a huge effect, not least because, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the high rateable value of property in York means that many businesses cannot keep pace with average payments of £6,000 a month—some reach £1350,00 a year—despite Government support, so there is a significant shortfall in that provision.
Leaseholders are collecting their money, which in a sense goes directly into their pockets from the Government in the form of grants. The support that those large leasehold companies are getting almost seems like a way of getting around the state aid issue. Many of those properties are held in offshore portfolios, so this is not about reinvesting in the local economy; the money goes from the Government into offshore bank accounts, and no benefit is brought to small businesses. Will the Minister look at that, because we see it not only in retail and small businesses, but in the pub sector? A lot of pubs are failing, yet the pub companies are drawing on that money. An inequality is being built into the system and taxpayers’ money is supporting it, so it is really important that the issue is addressed.
Needless to say, another big issue in York—again, driven by leaseholders—is high rateable value: many businesses missed out on support because their rateable value was above £51,000. A false economy is being built up because leaseholders are pushing up their prices. We need to get on top of that issue as we come out of the lockdown, to help secure those businesses after the pandemic.
Finally, another subject that is important to us in York is that although a lot of work has gone into supporting the future growth of businesses, particularly for the green new deal and the BioYorkshire project, that work is currently being held up by the devolution deal. The Government support the deal, but it means waiting two and a half years before we can crack on with upskilling 25,000 people and creating 4,000 new jobs in our city. In the light of our economic circumstances, and because of the support that the Government are giving to that project, will the Minister look at bringing it forward so that we can get on with rebuilding our economy while we are in crisis as opposed to waiting another two and a half years, which really does not make sense for the people of my city, or for the economy and the economic benefit that that the project will bring.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)? She is a friend and we have been involved in many debates similar to this one. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting it.
As we have heard, SMEs are truly the backbone of our economy. During the initial lockdown, my office was inundated with more than 1,000 emails from SMEs that were at a loss as to how to deal with that dreadful scenario. It was an incredibly difficult times to be an elected representative: I had never felt so much pressure as I did at that time, with the number of people who came to see me and the real tragedies that they faced. The burden became quite onerous, but we were able to help those people, and I thank goodness for that. My promise to them then—as it is now—was that I would do all that I could to get them information and press for the help that they needed.
I could not attend Westminster Hall yesterday, when the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington led another debate—he is here almost as much as I am! I just want to let him know that I read Hansard—maybe it is just me—and I read what he says. The hon. Gentleman referred yesterday to the UK and that
“Northern Ireland operated socially distanced weddings since June”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 272WH.]
I have that marked in Hansard. However, I want to refer to one wedding venue in the short time I have, as one industry I feel needs to be focused on is that of a wedding.
Within a wedding are so many SMEs. The industry mirrors exactly what is happening across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Venues for weddings, entertainment providers, the photographers, the make-up artists, the hairdressers, horse-drawn carriage providers, bridal boutiques and evening-entertainment providers, from florists to the small online businesses that make party favours—all have been precluded from working. Many are self-employed and none is looking optimistically at the future without massive changes and help.
As the Member for Strangford, I make this statement, which I know to be true although other Members may disagree. I represent Strangford, probably one of the most beautiful areas in the whole of the UK. I shall outline why shortly. I know that you, Sir Edward, might have a different opinion and others might as well, but that is just by the way. The wedding industry and the demand are strong in my constituency, and so too has been the adverse impact on the industry.
Just a mile or two from my home—I live on the edge of Strangford Lough on a farm—is one of the most beautiful venues you can imagine: the Orange Tree House. Since it opened, it has been a virtual hub for events, from weddings to birthdays to celebrations and business events. It is owned by Jan Hollinger and Simon Shaw—I name them because I am going to send them a copy of Hansard—and they have built that place up. I remember when it was just an old, abandoned building, and I have followed the whole process all the way. With just one look at this beautiful wee gem, we can see what the appeal is. Rain or shine, the views of the lough are incredible. However, one look today will show closed gates, closed doors and uncertainty.
As an SME, at one stage the owner had 37 staff on retention. When news of the new furlough scheme was released, she contacted me to say she was unable to pay the amounts that were the responsibility of the employer and was having to let 31 staff go—crippling news. I have watched this small business go from strength to strength, becoming not simply a viable but a thriving business. To put that into perspective, let me highlight the cancellations. I have the permission of the owner to say this, Sir Edward, because I asked her beforehand whether it would be okay. I want to give hon. Members the opportunity to hear what this means to one venue. There were 130 bookings 115 of them in the diary already by March: 75 of them were cancelled. The owner has kindly worked out the net loss to the local economy. The bed nights for the weddings, which are the main staple of local Airbnbs, have disappeared. The restaurants are not getting the usual visitors the days before and after the weddings. The suppliers of flowers and food and so on are getting no business. The effect of those cancellations from one business is £753,900 removed from the economy.
I know that every Member here could do the same thing for their businesses and the cost of the bed nights and food tabs. That is just one wedding venue and the owners need help. They need assurance they can take bookings, and the fact that there is so much uncertainty has led to people not feeling confident to rebook this year or in the year ahead. Venues and the local economy are losing income from that intricate web of service provision. I have wedding photographers whose business has been decimated, who cannot even do baby photos or other staples such as school photos. They need to get people in, but no one is allowed in at present. They need help and they need it now. Those who provide evening entertainment at weddings, whose job is their music and their art, are also finding that they have no hope for the future. To lose a sector of those artists is worrying for our future as a nation. We have asked the question many times, and we ask the Minister again to look at that.
Time has beaten me, but worse still, time is beating the wedding industry. We need to think out a better way of keeping people safe; this perpetual lockdown is not sustainable. I hope, as others have said, that when we look to the potential vaccine that the Health Minister referred to this morning on the news—I watched it in the hotel before I left this morning and it is good although it is early days—we can look at safety measures that allow people to celebrate a wedding and even safely allow people to gather after a funeral, which is another issue. I attended a personal funeral this last week and I understand what it means for the family not to be able to get together after a funeral, never mind a funeral service when we can only have 35 people there as well.
We have to offer support in the interim, but more than that, we have to futureproof the industry. Part of our task, as Members and Ministers, is to learn from what has happened and then look forward to the future, where we can make it better, and allow it to continue in any circumstance, in a safe and meaningful way. I am sorry if I have gone over my time, Sir Edward.
Sir Edward, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this debate, and also pay tribute to those petitioners who have contributed towards the petitions included in this.
After enduring so many months of hardship, it is good to be able to rise having heard some positive news yesterday about the possibility of a breakthrough in finding a vaccine. It is very early days, of course. If it meets its promises, it will still be a long time before the impact gives a much-needed shot in the arm to the beleaguered high streets around the country; to the shops, hotels, pubs, restaurants, warehouses, theatres, stadiums, offices and businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK. The crisis drags on,and battle-weary SMEs that would normally be driving our economy have been almost driven into the ground, but at least we have this glimmer of light in the winter gloom; that there may be a solution on the horizon that will keep many of them from giving up the ghost altogether.
There are plenty of reasons for the Government not to give up on those businesses: the skilled and dedicated SMEs will turbocharge the UK’s recovery if we can get them through to the other side of the crisis. The first, crucial step was in extending the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme for five months—albeit belatedly. That was certainly welcome. It would have been helpful if that announcement had not been made so late in the day, as it might have prevented some of the job losses that we have seen but, as with the Brexit negotiations, we have seen that the Government has a habit of sometimes leaving these things to last-minute chaos.
Prior to the announcement, the devolved Governments, and the local administrations in the north of England, had been crying out for the expansion of the levels of support that were so desperately needed to protect jobs. I still cannot understand why those calls fell on deaf ears, yet, when a lockdown was announced for the south of England, a far more generous 80% furlough package was suddenly made available again. I am sure that that was just a coincidence—I am absolutely sure of that—but while it is definitely better late than never, the Scottish Government’s public health policies should not have to be hindered in this way. While furlough extension is essential, the second wave will hit far harder than the first, and it is only a part of the solution. Many SMEs are so heavily reliant on this golden quarter to balance the books that lockdown is crippling cash flow, and that will be felt well into next year.
The need for tough pandemic restrictions is particularly devastating to the hospitality sector and its employers, as was so well outlined by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is necessary, but that does not make it any easier for those businesses. Prior to the second lockdown, Q2 GDP data showed a 20% decline in the UK economy; for the hospitality sector, this was around 85%. In September, only 7% of businesses surveyed by UKHospitality were feeling in any way confident about the next 12 months.
Many SMEs have had very few good trading days over the last eight months. In events, some businesses are operating at only 5% of turnover or less. SMEs have already used up their rainy-day resources and have built up debt from the Government-backed loans, where they could get one—and we have already heard some of the issues around that this afternoon. They are now worried about how to pay non-staff costs, and how much of the big-ticket grants announcements will actually reach them once they are spread out across all other businesses.
It was good to see the live events sector get a specific mention in the £1.1 billion additional support package allocated to councils in England to support businesses, and the Barnett consequentials associated with that for devolved Governments. However, it is a widely-shared pot, allocated at £20 per head, and the devil will be in the detail of its distribution.
I also welcome the £2.38 billion provided by the Scottish Government to support businesses, including the £48 million fund for employers and businesses impacted by recent restrictions; a monthly grant support coming back, with the ongoing five-level tier framework; and the £11 million contingency fund recently announced for businesses, including nightclubs and soft play areas, which had missed out on other supports. I realise that this will not make up for lost revenue at this time, but the Scottish Government lack the big economic levers and borrowing powers that they need, and are making the best of the resources at their disposal.
I look forward to the day when we do not need to have this debate any more—when bad karaoke is back in the pubs and live gatherings can get going again with all the disparate jobs that they support, from lighting technicians, musicians and planners to caterers and technology manufacturers. Events support about 1 million jobs. When able to run, they contribute billions of pounds to the economy every year. Perhaps because those jobs do not fit neatly into the existing characterisations, the sector has missed out on so much targeted support so far.
The #WeMakeEvents campaign has very helpfully suggested sector-specific measures to help the industry survive, such as a government-backed insurance scheme to ensure organisers can recover costs if lockdowns happen. During a previous debate I led on this topic, the Minister agreed that the UK Government were willing to engage with the campaign, although no meeting has yet been arranged. I invite the Minister again today to see what can be done to move that forward.
We also need to look at the replacements for the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. We had a lengthy debate on that in the main Chamber last week. To avoid going over old ground again, I will not repeat too many of those points, but I think it is very clear that Members from all sides of the Chamber recognise the need to look in a level of detail at a number of issues associated with those loans. From my point of view, we would far rather see these as grants. Again, I suggest it would be far more sensible to write off these debts for struggling SMEs and look at more innovative grant and equity-based solutions to stimulate the economy as we go forward.
We agree on a lot, but we differ on this point. How would it be fair to write off that kind of debt and make grants when some businesses have not taken a loan and other businesses will pay back those loans? How fair would it be to those businesses and to the taxpayers who have funded those loans?
I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. We had an exchange on this on Thursday. We are in a situation where the current system is not fair for millions of people who get no support whatever. We need to do whatever we can to make sure that our high streets are not utterly decimated when we get to the end of this pandemic. I suggest that is one measure that could be taken that would absolutely guarantee the future of those businesses.
I turn to consider those running small businesses from their homes—swimming instructors or travel agents whose activities are not currently available to the extent that they were before, or those who rely on large gatherings. Here, I draw attention to the Showmen’s Guild, which has effectively been closed down for a year, but because their members operate from home, they have not qualified for any support so far. Vast numbers of individuals in households and businesses have seen their income falling perhaps by 100% in some situations. They are at risk of losing their homes and cannot get the support they need. Why are the Government not wrapping their arms around them? Why is their plight still ignored? It is an unedifying consequence of this virus that the privileged members of our Government can determine which businesses are viable, what cultural events are important to save, and who gets support through a crisis or who should simply retrain in cyber.
This is an emergency, and we need to make sure that a lifeline is available to all those who need it, not just those who fit the mould of support schemes that were created hastily. I look forward to the day when SMEs can just get on with it again and think of their business, rather than what support is available, but that is a long way off. As we focus our collective efforts on following guidance to drive down the virus, the Government must make sure the measures are in place to protect jobs and businesses while we all seek to save lives.
Thank you for your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on tabling this debate and thank all Members who have contributed to a thoughtful and varied debate. I will not mention everyone, but I was particularly struck by some of the points made, for example, by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) who raised the difficult issue of local markets; my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) who talked about family owned coach companies; the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) who talked about local shops; and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on the issue of high rateable value properties in central London. The indefatigable hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) quite rightly described this period as a great acceleration; we do not have time today to explore that idea fully, but it is a crucial feature of the experience that we are going through. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about leaseholders and self-employed people. And of course our great friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the crucial wedding industry. I can tell him that in my part of the country—the Black Country—we have an enormous wedding industry, including an Asian wedding industry that is a huge business, and it has suffered all the knock-on effects that he talked about.
The covid pandemic has forced Governments around the world to make major and unprecedented interventions in the economy. In this country, those interventions have included some of the measures that we have heard about this afternoon: the furlough scheme; the grants to small businesses; state-guaranteed lending schemes; tax deferrals; and a lot more. These interventions have been large-scale; indeed, they have been on a larger scale than in previous recessions, because the experience is different to that of a normal recession. They have been necessary, although some people have been missed out by them, as we have heard.
To have stood back and simply let business and workers take the full hit from this pandemic would have caused economic carnage and long-term damage on a scale unseen in living memory: it simply would not have been a feasible option for the Government to choose. In many cases, the grants and other support for small businesses that have been provided have been the difference between survival and going under—there is no doubt about that. They have provided vital revenue to businesses when there has been none from normal trading, because there has simply been no possibility of conducting business.
Of course the interventions are costly, but stepping up in a once-in-a-century situation such as this is what government is for. I am old enough to remember the last time that we had real mass unemployment in this country, when I was growing up in the 1980s, and the social and economic consequences of that were felt for many years afterwards, in terms of the impact both on individual families and on areas such as the Black Country, part of which I represent, and many other parts of the country, too.
A lot of the interventions this time have enjoyed cross-party support. We called for the furlough scheme and we supported it. That was particularly true in the early days of the pandemic. But after that period, things have become both more disjointed and more contested, and there is a reason for that.
I think that we have had four different versions of an economic plan in the last six weeks, with different levels of business support, various percentages of support for self-employed people, and at one point the withdrawal and then the reinstatement of furlough over one weekend. Trying to keep track of all those changes reminded me of what was said about the legendary Celtic winger, Jimmy Johnstone, and his effect on defenders; it was said that he gave them “twisted blood”. It would give any small business person twisted blood trying to follow all the twists and turns of what has been announced in recent weeks, only for us to end up pretty much back where we started in March.
I make that point not to engage in a bit of political knockabout or to take a partisan swing; it is to make a more serious and deeper point, because I think the story of recent weeks betrays a deeper problem within the Government. We are led to believe that there has been a debate or a disagreement in Government between those who have championed public health on the one hand and those who have championed the opening up of the economy on the other. We might say it is a debate between hawks and doves, with the Chancellor portrayed in this debate as a hawk.
Any Chancellor will rightly be concerned with the state of the economy—that is their job—but the mistake in this situation, and the real point that I want to make today, is to regard it as a choice between getting the virus under control and getting the economy moving again. We should have learned by now that any economic plan that does not have at its forefront getting the virus under control will not work, because when infections, hospitalisations and death rates are increasing, by definition the economy cannot be opened up and cannot operate properly. It cannot simply be decided that we open up the economy, because it would by definition mean—when people cannot see their relatives and weddings and all sorts of gatherings cannot take place without resulting in a new outbreak of the virus after a few weeks—going into a period of opening up and lockdown, and opening up and lockdown, particularly when the testing and tracking system is not working properly.
With the time constraints, I apologise but I am going to keep going.
Yesterday’s announcement about a vaccine is potentially exciting news and an amazing triumph for science, if it works in the timescale, but of course we are not certain and we have to wait to see what happens. For the moment, we must manage the situation as it is. My point is that good virus control is good economics. They are not in competition with one another, and I believe that the view that they are has led to some of the missteps of recent weeks.
Now that we are many months in, questions have been raised about some of the schemes, in the light of experience. I will end by putting some of those questions to the Minister. The bounce back loans were meant for genuine small businesses—the people that we all want to help to stay on their feet. The issue of fraud in the process has been raised. What does the Minister estimate the degree of fraud in bounce back loans has been, and how will he work with lenders and regulators to combat that? Nothing will annoy genuine small business people more than people setting up fake companies, or whatever scams have been done to try to get the loans.
It is inevitable, even with the best efforts, that a proportion of the loans will falter, and it will not be possible to pay them back. I appreciate that the Government have extended the repayment period from six to 10 years, but that postpones the problem, it does not fully eliminate it. Of the various options that have been canvassed for dealing with the problem of default, what has been ruled in and what has been ruled out? Have the Government ruled out writing off a proportion of the loans? Have they ruled out turning any of that into longer-term tax liability for firms, or into equity stakes in firms, if it cannot be paid back?
As for payment or leasing holidays for coach companies and similar businesses that we heard about in the debate, can the Government do anything to extend the six-month grace period that, for many small businesses, has either been used up or is coming to an end soon?
I have talked about the light of experience, and my final question to the Minister is what the Government can do for those who have so far been excluded from any kind of support. A large number of people have for one reason or another fallen between the cracks of the different support schemes that have been announced. As the pandemic goes on—and, while we are hopeful about the vaccine, we know it will continue into next year—those people’s situation becomes ever more difficult. Is there anything that the Government can do at this stage to help them?
May I say what pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward? I join the other Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate. I have listened extremely carefully to every speech, and we have had a wide-ranging discussion of a range of industries that have, obviously, been adversely affected by the experience of covid up and down the country, including the wedding industry and the retail sector in particular, with the impact on the high street. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) said about the coach industry. I will seek to address as many points as I can. I thank colleagues for their insightful and constructive contributions.
Like everyone in the Chamber this afternoon I share the concerns that hon. Members have expressed for the financial wellbeing of the UK’s SMEs. It is difficult to overstate their place in and contribution to the UK economy. In 2019, the number of SMEs in the UK reached 1.4 million—a 31% increase in five years. As constituency MPs, we all know the contribution that SMEs make to our communities, and they now employ over half of the UK workforce. Given that, it is no wonder that helping them endure and adapt to these trying times has been a cornerstone of the Government’s response to the pandemic. They are at the front and centre of our thinking and, as hon. Members know, our strategy has been to protect jobs, crucially including those in small and medium-sized businesses. Much of the support we have provided has been with them in mind, including our generous wage support schemes; access to finance through millions of Government-backed loans and billions of pounds of grant funding; and targeted measures to help with fixed costs, such as statutory sick pay rebates and tax deferrals.
We have already helped keep millions of people in employment through the coronavirus job retention scheme. As of 18 October, we had helped 1.2 million employers furlough 9.6 million jobs, and paid £41.4 billion in grants. However, importantly, we understand that the economic effects of restrictions to tackle the pandemic outlast the restrictions themselves. That is why, last week, the Chancellor announced that he was extending the coronavirus job retention scheme until the end of March 2021. I respect the point that some have made about the changing nature of the support, but I suggest that is because of the changing nature of covid, which has driven the response of this Government. The Chancellor has moved very quickly when new health interventions have been made. This scheme will help protect millions of jobs in the coming months, and will allow smaller businesses to get back on their feet quicker when the time comes.
We have also supported workers through the self-employment income support scheme, one of the most comprehensive and generous support packages for self-employed people anywhere in the world. On top of the £13.7 billion already claimed by 2.7 million self-employed people through that scheme, a third grant will be available until January, covering 80% of trading profits. A fourth grant will be available from February to April next year, with further details to be provided in due course.
However, the practical issues that prevented us from including company owner-managers—namely, not being able to verify the source of their dividend income—without introducing unacceptable fraud risks still remain. Further, the issues around the newly self-employed in 2019-20—namely, that HMRC will not have access to their self-assessment returns in time to verify their eligible income—also remain. The latest year for which HMRC has tax returns is 2018-19, and the 2019-20 returns are not due until 31 January 2021. Of course, Government and the Treasury continue to look carefully at all the representations made on these matters to seek a way forward, but we have to be cognisant of those facts and how we would meaningfully deal with them. However, we have pulled out the stops to provide businesses with the credit they need at this difficult time.
I will now address some of the points that have been made about the bounce back loans and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. As of 20 September, SMEs and other businesses had applied for and received over £50 billion worth of CBILs and bounce back loans. As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is very well informed on these matters, and made a number of suggestions about the challenges that some businesses face when securing loans. We have 28 providers that are accredited for bounce back loans, and 100 that are accredited for CBILs, but in this situation, we have non-bank lenders who are seeking to be part of that scheme and are struggling to access the finance. As he well knows, access to the term funding from the Bank of England is a matter for the Bank of England, and we have tried to look at those matters and see if more can be done.
The bigger issue that we have to learn from during this experience is that we have differentiated regulation between different banks and different entities that are providing finance. It is a challenge both to provide consumer protection universally and to have the right level of capital requirements for different entities, and in extreme times, these are very challenging things to come up with a neat intervention on. However, I will continue to work with my hon. Friend and others across the House to seek ways forward.
The Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), asked about the fraud risk. There is a big distinction to be made between fraud in applications and default risk. When we designed those schemes, and the bounce back loans in particular, that self-certification form—where businesses were obliged to make estimates of their turnover and could access a percentage of that—was designed to be as accessible as possible. However, businesses also had to state clearly what the facts were around their situation. The Cabinet Office is leading a piece of work across Whitehall to look at fraud risk and even more collaboration between the banks, sharing data about duplicate applications, and we will continue to work very carefully on that. We are also allowing businesses who have borrowed less than their maximum to top up their bounce back loans and extend their repayment period.
I appreciate that it must sometimes feel as if Government statements in our response to the pandemic are just a long list of measures we have taken or are taking, but this is a consequence of the range of things we are doing. Forgive me, Sir Edward, but I will list a few more ways we are helping businesses, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington is right to be concerned about. They include £11.5 billion of grant funding to more than 900,000 business premises, with new grants to come through the winter months, and an additional £1.1 billion of discretionary grant funding for English councils—that is cash grants of up to £3,000 for every four weeks of closure for English businesses forced to close. Backdated grants provide up to £2,100 per month of support in arrears for eligible businesses that have suffered from reduced demand in recent months. Those schemes are available nationwide. As the Chancellor announced last week, the up-front guarantee of funding for the devolved Administrations is increasing from £14 billion to £16 billion.
In the interests of time, I will not. It is for the devolved Administrations to decide how to use that guaranteed funding, irrespective of how the UK Government provide support. However, this uplift will support businesses across the United Kingdom. We are also protecting businesses with extensive tax breaks, deferrals, and repayment flexibility through the time-to-pay scheme. Further Government support mechanisms enjoyed by SMEs include the statutory sick pay rebates and eviction protection for commercial tenants until the end of this year.
I hope I have illustrated that SMEs are at the forefront of our minds through this crisis. Support measures available to those businesses represent a significant part of the £200 billion package of support that the Government have put forward. The IMF recently described the UK’s economic plan as “aggressive”, successful in “holding down unemployment” and business failures, and
“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.
However, I accept that it is never going to save every business and every job, and we will continue to engage with colleagues across the House. To the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), I will look into the meeting that has not happened yet and ensure that it does. [Interruption.] I will also engage with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, but I must give my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington a few minutes to respond.
We will continue to listen carefully and we will maintain a flexible approach. As the Chancellor said in the House last week, things need to change when circumstances change. What that means for SME business owners up and down the country is simply this: where and when necessary, we will take swift action to provide the support they need. We will continue to do so as we work through this awful crisis that has befallen our country.
In the interests of time, I sadly cannot go through every Member’s contribution. However, I thank all hon. Members and right hon. Members for attending this debate. We have done well to highlight the concerns of the sector and the two petitions that were brought forward to be debated today, so I reiterate my thanks to all colleagues. I also thank the SMEs and sectors that made representations to us all, which allowed us to come here and express their views. I thank the Minister for his reply. I absolutely welcome the Government’s support, and the extended Government support for SMEs through to the new year. I hope we can go away and look at the sector-specific support we have heard about because we need that road map to allow our SMEs not just to survive the pandemic, but be the engine of our recovery as we come out the other side.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for SMEs during the covid-19 pandemic.
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of protecting people from online scams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. We all know that access to the internet, whether for shopping, work or leisure, has absolutely been a boon for millions of people, but it has brought its own problems, not least in providing greater opportunities for fraudsters and scammers in an area where there is too little protection or redress for consumers who have been cheated out of their money.
Scams and fraud are the most prevalent types of crime in the UK. According to Action Fraud, 85% of that is what it describes as cyber-enabled—for technophobes like me, that means committed on the internet. The figure of 85% is for the year up to June 2020; it is bound to have grown since then because of the constraints imposed by covid-19, which have encouraged people to spend a lot more time online. The more time they spend online accessing websites and social media platforms, the more susceptible they are to becoming the victim of a scam. That is not because they are stupid or even naive, but because they underestimate how difficult it is to spot the online fakery and fraud and they often overestimate the vetting process undertaken by the established online marketplaces. The frauds are ever more sophisticated. The Association of British Insurers briefing says that even their staff struggle to spot the sites that are fake. If the staff of insurance companies themselves struggle, what hope is there for us as customers?
There are many money scams: investment scams, banking scams, insurance scams, pension scams, conveyancing scams, purchase scams, often involving non-existent products—the Cats Protection League has told me that non-existent cats are being sold online—romance scams, involving fake partners, and even scams targeting those seeking debt help. They all have one thing in common: they dupe people out of money, and it is often big money. Action Fraud shows that the value of losses from reported incidents—many people keep quiet about incidents because they feel stupid, but they are not—is £2.3 billion. Individual amounts are absolutely eye-watering: tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds—someone’s whole life savings gone or the proceeds of a house sale gone.
There are lots of ways in which scammers operate; they use different tricks. These include fake websites or adverts, particularly involving established brands; they sometimes feature fake celebrity endorsements. Fake reviews are a big problem on many of the biggest websites. Which? has consistently shown that. The consumer body has had evidence of fake and suspicious review activity on eBay, Facebook and Tripadvisor. And new research suggests that Amazon is struggling to spot and prevent sellers from using unscrupulous tactics. There is blatant evidence of sellers using free gifts and vouchers to incentivise shoppers to write positive reviews. Many are done in a suspiciously short time, with a suspiciously high number of review images. There was a more than 30% rise in the proportion of suspicious reviews on Amazon between March and August, following the first coronavirus lockdown. Black Friday is coming shortly, and this is particularly worrying for that.
That is important because everyone takes notice of online reviews. I look at the reviews to decide when I buy something. The Competition and Markets Authority estimates that consumer transactions worth £23 billion a year are influenced by online reviews. Many people think, “Well, they’re a good guide—they must be; this has a five-star review.” Amazon says it has clear policies that prohibit sellers from engaging in such activity, but Which? is concerned that the approach is not effective and that firmer action is needed to address the problems. I agree and I hope the Minister will, too.
The losses that people suffer from responding to fake or impersonator adverts are substantial. A Which? investigation highlighted one visitor who lost almost £100,000 after they clicked on an online investment featuring fake celebrity endorsement from Martin Lewis and Deborah Meaden. Another lost £160,000 by clicking on an Aviva ad. Criminals are now using social engineering and grooming techniques that target vulnerable consumers. Sometimes it is a follow-on from an initial contact made from accessing fake sites’ online adverts. The Association of British Insurers has told us about an increasing number of fake websites operating the authorised push payment scams. Some of its members are dealing with 32 fake websites at the same time. An APP scam occurs when somebody is tricked into authorising a transfer of money to an account that they think is a legitimate payee, but is in fact controlled by a scammer. They can be made online, on the phone or in person, and most take place instantly.
UK Finance said that £208 million was lost to APP scams in the first half of 2020. Most fraud took place on personal accounts with £164 million lost, and the non-personal and business loss was £44 million. Some victims have lost their entire life savings. They are often groomed into handing money over by staff at fake call centres. They do not do it instantly; they build a relationship with people now and often use the names of genuine financial services staff.
There have been advances. The contingent reimbursement model code is designed to give people the confidence that if they act appropriately they will be reimbursed, but, even between May 2019 and September 2020, only 40% to 45% of losses were repaid by the victim’s bank or repatriated—the money was recovered and credited—so people are still being left out of pocket. I have to give credit to the TSB, which is going further than the code, and it believes that it has not had more fraudulent claims because it is going further. Fraud is still taking place. Serious amounts of money are being lost. What solutions does the Minister propose for the APP scams?
I have mentioned grooming, and that word is appropriate here. We used to hear about paedophiles grooming. It is about building up trust over time, and that is what happens in many cases of scams.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to speak on this timely subject. In the past few weeks in my constituency, I have had two cases of online scams brought to me. One gentleman thought he had purchased a car. He paid £9,000 and it was not there when he went to collect it. It was a Northern Ireland to Scotland transaction. Another gentleman has lost £260,000 in three separate investments in what he thought was a legitimate investment site. More needs to be done. We need to educate people and hold the platforms to account. We also need to ensure that the police have the legislative powers to deal with such cases, because in both of those instances, the police would not even investigate them. Through the hon. Lady today, I ask the Minister to really take this matter in hand and start to give the police the legislative powers to tackle the problem.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. We find that people build up a relationship with their scammers. Trust is key for push payments, as we have heard. I also want to talk quickly about romance scams, in which lonely victims are lured into pretend relationships over many months. They are tempted with fake photographs and back stories, and the scam is revealed only after thousands of pounds have been handed over, probably for non-existent medical treatment for a relation. I have a constituent who handed over thousands of pounds of Amazon vouchers to a fake USA army major. The photograph on his Facebook page had been used more than 50 times with different names to scam people. Surely Facebook should have an algorithm that spots that type of suspicious activity.
It is all too easy to say that people need to be more careful. Yes, they do need to be careful, but scams are ever more sophisticated, and even the most experienced people cannot always spot them. Scammers prey on vulnerable and lonely people, and under covid-19 people are becoming more isolated. They are possibly not able to discuss it with their friends and neighbours and say, “Is this real? Is it not?”.
What is more, people think at the outset that they are protected from this double-dealing. After all, they assume that adverts placed on a well-known platform are legitimate and that the product has been vetted or checked. That is the sort of protection that people are used to on the high street, but online platforms do not have a legal obligation to protect users against scams on their site. Surely that is wrong, given that they are taking revenue from the sellers. Why should the consumer have to shoulder the burden if things go wrong? Does the Minister agree that the burden of responsibly should be on the platforms and sites, which have the data and tools, and not on the consumer, who is at a clear disadvantage in this business?
The voluntary initiatives are not working; they are not sufficient to tackle the online scams. Only 30% of Facebook users are aware of the social media site’s scam advert reporting tool, and only 10% of people have used it. That is really not good enough. I am pleased that the Financial Conduct Authority is producing literature warning customers of possible online scams, but is it not ironic that the regulator is paying for an advert on Google, which is taking similar revenue for the fake adverts on its site? It is a bit of a double-whammy for the search engine—it is getting it twice.
I am obviously not against measures to raise public awareness of scams, and some very good work is being done. The Pension Wise guidance has had a real impact on people’s awareness of pension scams. Many organisations, including regulators, charities and advice agencies, have helpful advice about how to avoid scams, but scammers are extremely agile and good at what they do, and it is not enough to prevent serious fraud.
We need a strong regulatory framework. Online platforms should be given the responsibility for preventing scam content from appearing on their sites and more responsibility for removing it when it is reported. That would perhaps bring them a bit more into line with consumers’ expectations.
The online harms Bill seems the perfect opportunity to deliver that. By including financial harms, there is a greater responsibility on the search engines and social media platforms to identify and remove harmful content. I understand why the White Paper is limited in scope. Platforms and sites will be required to take reasonable steps to identify and prevent user-generated child sexual exploitation and abuse, and terrorist content. However, the tools that the scammers use to target their victims—social engineering and grooming—are similar to those used by criminals in financial fraud. The same requirement should be extended to cover the scam content defrauding people of their money and causing immense mental anguish and harm, let alone financial anguish.
There is also a strong case for ensuring that the Bill covers both paid-for advertising and user-generated content, because the scammers use both. As Which? points out, if we do not tackle the user-generated scam content, scammers will adapt. They will use that loophole and move from posting scam ads to organic user-generated scam content. There is support for that approach from Which?, UK Finance and the FCA.
I hope the Minister will commit to widening the scope of the online harms Bill. If he will not, will he introduce proposals for further legislative action to protect people from online scams effectively? The Government have said that their objective is for the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online. We have a chance now to make that a reality.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd? I thank the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for securing a debate on this important topic. I pay tribute to her general competence and knowledge on consumer issues. I have engaged with her a number of times as a Minister, and I always appreciate the constructive way she approaches this topic. She has demonstrated again this afternoon her comprehensive awareness of the complexity of this subject, and how it impacts so many of our constituents.
I know very well how this issue matters to many colleagues across the House, because it has impacted so many across our constituencies. As a constituency MP, I have encountered the financial and mental impact, and the anguish it causes individuals in my surgery.
I assure Members that the Government are committed to tackling this complex problem. I will set out the context. There have been rapid changes to modern payments, which bring great benefits and opportunities to many, but with new opportunities come new risks, such as the type of scams the hon. Lady set out. More people and businesses are buying and selling online. People are using a range of innovative ways to make payments via card, mobile and electronic wallets. In 2019, over two-thirds of UK adults used online banking, half used mobile banking, and for the first time cards accounted for more than half of UK payments. Those new technologies and products have helped to make payments faster and cheaper, and provided exciting opportunities for UK businesses and consumers.
Alongside those innovations, as the hon. Lady rightly said, criminals are becoming increasingly devious and sophisticated, and are ruthlessly exploiting these new technologies and the digitisation of commerce to perpetrate scams. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. I wish there was. Success in the matter depends on quite sophisticated collaboration between Government, the regulators, banks and online platforms, and between customers and the services they use. The Government are committed to playing their part to facilitate that better collaboration.
Turning to the current situation and what is already being done, authorised push payment scams—APP scams—have become a major problem in recent years. Fraudsters use sophisticated techniques to trick people, often, as the hon. Lady said, by forming phony relationships and defrauding people into authorising payments to criminal-controlled accounts. According to UK Finance, £456 million was lost to these scams in 2019, up from £354 million the year before.
Last week, I met with the managing director of the Payment Systems Regulator and raised concerns like those we have heard today. We agreed that more needs to be done to ensure victims are protected. To that end, the Payment Systems Regulator and industry are working together to improve the level of protection provided to consumers through the existing voluntary code, known as the contingent reimbursement model code, which the hon. Lady referenced.
Banks that have signed up to that code have agreed to reimburse victims of APP scams, so long as they took a reasonable level of care when making the relevant payment. As the hon. Lady will know, the code has been operating since May 2019, and its effectiveness is currently being reviewed by the lending standards board, the body responsible for governing it. I look forward to the conclusions of that review. The hon. Lady cited statistics, which I recognise require thorough examination.
When it comes to fraud, prevention is just as important as any cure. That is why the authorities are taking steps to ensure that fewer people fall foul of the scams in the first place, notwithstanding the sophisticated nature of the interactions that lead to them. At the request of the Payment Systems Regulator, the six biggest UK banking groups have introduced a process known as confirmation of payee. Under that process, the bank account and sort code numbers are checked against account names, to ensure that payments are going to the intended recipients. It is early days, but we are confident that this innovation is an important step forward in preventing scams from succeeding in the first place.
The challenge is that for a number of those measures—we are probably all familiar with them from doing payments ourselves—it comes down to where culpability lies. The hon. Lady made observations about the sophisticated relationship and the conditioning that has sometimes taken place. That is what we are dealing with and what we have to get to grips with.
The financial services sector is just one part of the equation in combatting fraud. Other industries, including online platforms, which have been mentioned, have a role to play. The National Cyber Security Centre has been leading the way in ensuring that online scams are taken down as quickly as possible, and this year it launched a new suspicious email reporting service, making it easier for the public to highlight suspicious emails and websites. The service has already led to more than 3.6 million reports and more than 18,000 scams being removed, but I recognise that more needs to be done.
The Financial Conduct Authority’s ScamSmart website, which is not limited to online scams, also aims to help consumers protect themselves against investment scams. It does that by allowing users to search a warning list to check an investment opportunity and report scams or unauthorised firms. Anybody who falls victim to such scams should contact Action Fraud UK to help us catch the criminals. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) mentioned in her contribution, this is a universal problem, and I recognise her anxiety about the sufficiency of the measures. As I say, I am happy to continue the discussion about what more can be done.
The private sector has its own responsibility to protect customers online. We have been working with online platforms and industry to take down fraudulent materials and websites. The specialist Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit is a great example of that partnership at work: it is a proactive police unit and involves UK Finance, the City of London police, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office. It continues to develop new partnerships with social media companies to take down accounts being used for various fraudulent ends and to stop the recruitment of people as money mules.
As well as working to prevent scams, we need to look after those who fall victim to them. We need to consider the emotional, as well as financial, harm that victims experience. That is why we are working with national and local policing, including police and crime commissioners, to support the victims of these terrible crimes. Even where it is not possible to investigate a case further, the Action Fraud economic crime victim care unit supports victims by helping them to recover and better protect themselves in future. What about the next steps? A lot of good work is being done, but we cannot rest on our laurels. This is a sophisticated problem: just as the wider banking, online and commercial landscapes continue to evolve, so the methods used by criminals to defraud customers evolve. In June 2019, the Treasury announced a review of the payments landscape, and we recently held a call for evidence as the first stage. That call for evidence reflected on the success of the Faster Payments Service as a 24/7 real-time payments system, but it also noted that Faster Payments currently lacks scheme rules to resolve disputes and assign liability when payments go wrong, including—crucially—in the case of APP scams. The Government have concluded that a set of comprehensive rules in the Faster Payments Service could make a real difference to tackling that problem. We have sought views on the issue and will outline our next steps in due course.
Will the Minister also look into the fact that many criminals, particularly in romance-type frauds, have moved on to asking for Amazon vouchers? What can be done in cases such as that of my constituent, who bought thousands of pounds-worth of Amazon vouchers and sent them abroad?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Although I have not personally experienced that, through either my constituency or ministerial work, she makes a sensible point about the evolving nature of those frauds. In that particular example, it would be reasonable to expect the platform to observe the obvious unusual nature of such a purchase. This is not territory with which I am directly familiar, but I will take it back to my colleagues in Government, including at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
More of us are transacting online than ever before, opting for the speed and convenience of new forms of banking and payments, but sadly fraudsters are taking advantage and developing ever more sophisticated ways of scamming people. We cannot row back on digital innovation and, given the immense benefits, nor should we, but it is crucial that people have confidence in how they transact online.
The Minister mentioned Action Fraud and the police. The problem is that Action Fraud does not seem to have the capacity to deal with the volume. It then passes cases to the London police, who cannot investigate them. Action Fraud needs to be bolstered—it needs support to investigate what is going on beneath the surface.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The challenge is that there are multiple streams of activity because of the sophisticated nature of this problem. I certainly understand the risk of confusion about who to go to, but Action Fraud is the first port of call. I accept that there needs to be clarity over what happens subsequently.
Government regulators in a wide range of industries are already taking action to ensure that there is progress. For our part in the Treasury, along with other Whitehall partners, we will continue to actively explore what more can be done. I feel very uncomfortable with this situation not being resolved and I am not complacent in the least about it. I will continue to engage with industry partners on this and I am very grateful—sincerely—to the hon. Member for Makerfield for raising this matter.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered covid-19 vaccine.
Is locking down the nation the only way of combatting covid-19? Whatever suggestions emerge from this debate, we must continue to protect the vulnerable and at-risk individuals. I was briefed by three leading vaccine manufacturers to discuss their work in the fight against this disease. Following those calls, I wanted to have this debate to see what can be done to accelerate the licensing and deployment of vaccines, and the immediate extension of vaccine and therapeutic trials, and how we can ensure that people can take up these vaccines when they are approved.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care website, the Government’s preferred route to enable deployment of the vaccine remains through the usual licensing routes available. It goes on to say that temporary licensing can occur only in “exceptional circumstances.” The recent report of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has been helpful in bringing further attention to this issue. It highlights four ways to avoid further lockdowns, of which two are of interest: expanding the trial of therapeutic drugs and shortening the process for approving vaccines. The report is helpful, although it has its limits, and I believe that we can go further and do better, first, by seeking volunteers to extend trials on a larger scale and to those who are most at risk.
We do not really know what scientists and the pharmaceutical industry can accomplish, and there are ethical and responsibility issues that we need to address, but at the moment the risk/reward ratio is out of kilter and we need to do far more to address the possibilities. There are 258 candidate vaccines worldwide, around 50 of which are in clinical testing and 11 in the final regulatory approvals process. Between the three candidates that I mentioned, the Government have forward purchased a total of 190 million doses. The most publicised of these are the joint enterprises between, first, AstraZeneca and Oxford University, widely seen as the most advanced in the world, and secondly, Pfizer and BioNTech, also much publicised after their promising announcement yesterday. The third is Valneva. All three companies emphasise the support and help that the Government have given them. Let us not make another massive communications error by failing to remind the people that these decisions by the Government have helped provide stability and confidence, which have accelerated the whole testing process.
None of the vaccines is the same and all three are unique in their approach. AstraZeneca and Oxford are pursuing an active vaccine. That type of vaccine uses a weaker and smaller amount of the virus to create immunity in the body. Examples of active vaccines are those for MMR––measles, mumps and rubella––and yellow fever. The former provides immunity for the rest of an individual’s life, but it is not known whether that would be the case with covid-19. Valneva is pursuing an inactive vaccine, using a killed version of the germ that causes the disease. Such vaccines are less able than active vaccines to provide immunity for life; typical examples are the flu jab and the rabies injection. Pfizer and BioNTech are pioneering an mRNA vaccine. This is a relatively new type of vaccine that uses a short segment of genetic material to make a harmless version of a target protein or immunogen. This activates an immune response and generates antibodies that fight off the virus.
The development of vaccines is typically a long and drawn-out process, but in response to the pandemic, the Government have helped to speed it up. There are usually three phases. The first involves producing a small amount of vaccine for use in a controlled study with a small number of healthy adults. Tests are performed on participants, half of whom are given the vaccine, the other half a placebo. This ascertains whether the vaccine generates the expected immune response and if it is safe. This stage usually takes only one or two years, yet all that has been passed by all three vaccine candidates already. Scientists at this time will work to provide the data, and a deal will be made with manufacturers to produce whatever amount is required.
Phase 2 sees the data from phase 1 scrutinised to determine whether those who received the vaccine had any adverse reactions. Again, this phase can take up to two years, yet it has already been completed by all three candidates. A larger group of people—several hundred—will then be given the vaccine to broaden the data set. Until that phase is over, scientists and patients will not know who has received the vaccine and who has had the placebo. That prevents the data being deliberately altered and manipulated. At the same time, work will continue to define the manufacturing methods and ensure consistency in the process.
Phase 3, the final phase, will include tens of thousands of study participants who represent a similar demographic to the population, including important factors such as age and ethnicity. As is the case with other phases, the scientists, the patients and those collecting the samples or checking the results do not know who has received the vaccine and who has received the placebo. Getting to phase 3 demonstrates a confidence in the safety, efficiency and efficacy of the vaccine candidate.
During this accelerated process, independent regulators have continued to monitor the trials, as they would with any other vaccine. Safety and accountability have not been compromised or relaxed in any way. As I call for a further acceleration of this process, I do not wish to see those standards dropped. Instead, we need better and faster collaboration between Governments and regulators internationally, because at the end of phase 3 the regulator will investigate the data and decide whether the vaccine candidate is effective enough for mass production.
Several factors affect the effectiveness of a vaccine. For example, the higher the number of patients in the trial who test positive and require medical assistance, the more data manufacturers and regulators have to use. This is referred to as “an event” and it allows scientists and regulators to determine and prove the efficiency or efficacy of the vaccine—in other words, how likely it is to be effective. The more events that occur within the placebo patients, the more it helps scientists come to their final conclusions on how well the vaccine is working. In statistical figures, one hopes to achieve a p-value or confidence quantifier lower than 0.5. That would mean there is a lower than 5% chance that the figures in the test are wrong, giving the scientists 95% assuredness that the test results are reliable and the vaccine is effective. I hope that in a matter of weeks it will be announced that the phase 3 trials have been completed, and then the regulators will study the data before pronouncing whether the vaccine is fit for the public.
The problem is that different regulators around the world have different demands and requirements. This is plainly an area where we can assist the manufacturers, by ensuring that the process is accepted as safe globally and that the different demands, which delay the final outcome, can be agreed by the experts and the approvals process can become smoother.
The pandemic reminds us that we are all people with the same biological make-up, and to defeat the virus we need to unite rather than specialise. Of course, the sooner we can vaccinate those most at risk—the elderly, care workers and frontline staff—the sooner we can begin to rebuild the country and the economy. When the common flu or influenza arrived, it was very likely to result in death. Nowadays, we give those most vulnerable in our society a flu jab to ensure that they remain safe, and we can beat covid-19 in the same way. By reaching phase 3, these vaccines are deemed to be safe.
The question of how effective the vaccine is remains unanswered, but that should not deter us from getting on with vaccinating more people. For example, yesterday’s announcement by Pfizer was a promising step forward on this front. Normally, scientists strive for 70% to 80% efficiency, meaning the vaccine is 70% to 80% effective in reducing the likelihood of contracting the virus. Therefore, even if it was lower, say 40%, we should still look at beginning the roll-out, because 40% could be the difference between life and death for thousands of people. That is why the existing Human Medicines Regulations 2012 contain a provision, regulation 174, that enables the temporary authorisation of the supply of an unlicensed medicine in response to a public health emergency.
With over 200 vaccines in development worldwide and 50 clinical trials, 11 of which are in final phase 3 trials, the Government could look at incorporating as many of those candidates as possible into further trials. We could also have more of the public participating in trials, and not only healthy people but volunteers—they must be volunteers—who are vulnerable and at risk. The Pfizer and BioNTech candidate is already incredibly close to completion, with footage of its full-flowing production line shown in the media only a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday we had the announcement that the safety monitors had found no problems and that it was 90% effective. Now we have to wait for the final data, but the Government could apply the same parameters for therapeutics and their wider use.
Therapeutics are medicines that help people who already have the disease, treatments that are improving to help reduce the fatalities from covid-19, and we have learned a lot about them since March. They are typically used when someone has a disease for which they have been hospitalised. They can both relieve pain and fight back against the virus, reducing its effect on patients. For disease treatment, therapeutics are generally in the form of a drug, and there is substantial evidence to suggest that the use of therapeutics when administered can alter and halt the spread of the virus. Vaccines help prevent people from catching the virus, but therapeutics work for those who already have it. The fear of overwhelming the NHS with covid cases prompted our Prime Minister to lock us down again, but therapeutics can prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed and keep people off ventilators.
Therapeutics come in a variety of forms, and the type being trialled for covid-19 is antibody treatment, of which there are three types: single monoclonals; cocktails of monoclonals, which most covid-19 trials are using; and polyclonals, such as plasma. Only four have so far been approved worldwide, and the only one currently approved in the UK is dexamethasone. Eli Lilly, an American company, is proving to be close with two separate antibody treatments, LY-CoV016 and LY-CoV555, the latter of which is being tested in America as a preventative therapy for residents in care homes.
Another therapeutic is Regeneron, which President Trump famously claimed cured him of his own bout of covid-19, and AstraZeneca is in phase 3 trials for its candidate, AZD7442. The UK Government have agreed to an unspecified amount of the AZ candidate. Pfizer also has advanced therapeutic trials under way, being developed in Sandwich in Kent, and 50 of these trials are going on worldwide. I think the Government could reach out to manufacturers currently in trials and look to extend the trial in this country as soon as possible. Therapeutics could significantly reduce the number of deaths, and these trials could be extended to those who are on ventilators or on oxygen, working not only with regulators but with medical bodies to agree on the ethical stance of compassionate use.
Therapeutics have another huge advantage: their cost. A treatment course of dexamethasone can cost as little as £5. Those courses are largely available and work well with the rapid testing trials that are going on in Liverpool, bridging the gap until the vaccine is approved. I have written to the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, urging them to extent trials of vaccines for those people who are at risk. During my call with AstraZeneca, I asked, “What more could we do to test safe medicines for people who fear for their lives, who at the moment can do nothing but hope?” I expected to be told that nothing more could be done, but instead AstraZeneca’s team suggested that we ask them for suggestions on what they think they could do. I have faithfully passed on that request, because I think that, for all of us, this stems from the need to save lives.
Of course, I understand that people are concerned about the new vaccines. However, despite the social media opportunities, less time should be spent on the anti-vaxxers and more on those who want to protect their parents and grandparents. Given the guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the current advice is that vaccines will be administered not to children but to adults, starting with the most elderly and working down to the over-50s.
Detractors and anti-vaxxers believe that vaccines can be unsafe, and it is true that vaccines can run the risk of causing side effects in some people, just like driving a car or riding a bike can pose risks—nothing in life comes without a degree of risk. Those people want to wait for the one-in-a-million or even the one-in-10-million event to occur before we deploy. Those arguing against rushing the vaccine cite examples such as the H1N1 swine flu vaccine. Those shots reportedly caused Guillain-Barre syndrome paralysis in 6.2 people per 10 million who received the vaccine. If we cast our minds back to that pandemic, 284,000 people died of swine flu globally. Undoubtedly, the vaccine did more to halt the spread of the virus as opposed to the damage it caused. Indeed, as outlined in a 2010 article in Neurology Reviews, GBS was associated with the seasonal flu shot at a rate of 10.6 cases per 10 million doses. That did not stop more than 14 million people from receiving a flu vaccine last year alone without incident.
There must be a balance in this argument between covid-19 and the risk to the 194 people who were killed by it in the UK yesterday—eight people every hour. This virus has killed over 49,000 people in this country alone. There is untold damage to people’s wellbeing, mental health, livelihoods and the economy. Unemployment is rising and small businesses are closing. Social isolation inflicts vast damage, particularly on the old and the poor, but if someone is vaccinated, the likelihood of their dying from this disease is significantly reduced. Vaccination could also prevent people from passing the disease on, often unknowingly, to those they love, such as parents or grandparents. The Government and the World Health Organisation should address not just how we vaccinate, and the therapeutic trials and approvals; in addition, lessons need to be learned and procedures changed.
The suffering and death of so many people can be reduced, with collaboration and a reduction in bureaucracy. There must be a balance, weighing up the positives against the risks. The World Economic Forum gauges that coronavirus has cost at least $8 trillion globally, and possibly as much as $16 trillion, and the cost is only increasing. There is a way out and I hope that the Government in this country and Governments abroad, the manufacturers, scientists, medical professionals and regulators will all work together to strive for a final resolution and a better way of addressing the threat of viruses in the future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) on setting the scene so well. I am very supportive of his comments and recognise the need to get a covid vaccine in place.
The Health Secretary announced on TV this morning that, as was rumoured last night, a vaccine has been found, but at the same time he was cautious in his assessment, stating that we should welcome what is happening but remain ever mindful of the need for medical trials, which the hon. Gentleman also referred to. We watched that unfold and then later in the day we had an opportunity in the main Chamber to ask the Health Secretary questions—I think 60 right hon. and hon. Members did just that.
I welcome the fact that there might be 10 million doses of the vaccine available by the end of this year. I am particularly happy because it is a bit of good news at long last. I am always a “glass half full” person, but in the last six months it has been very difficult to try to be positive about where we are going, because the uncertainty was unreal. So today we have some good news. I know that we are not there yet, but we are moving in the right direction.
I am very pleased that Pfizer has achieved this breakthrough. However, I have some concerns at this stage that the vaccine will only be for adults—I will comment on children in a few minutes. The fact that AstraZeneca is also involved, as are many other companies around the world, shows the need to work together. I think that the Health Secretary said, in reply to one of the questions put to him today, that we need to work on an international basis, and he is right. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire also referred to that. It is really important that we realise that we are all in this together, the world over, so it is important that we get ourselves organised.
I am a diabetic—a type 2 diabetic. It is one of those chronic diseases that means I have to get the flu vaccine every year. I was fortunate enough to get the flu vaccine way back in September, I think, when I had occasion to be in the doctor’s surgery. I am not there very often, but I was down getting a check-up and they said, “Take your flu vaccine now.” I am glad that I did, because the fact of the matter is that they have run short of flu vaccines in my constituency, and in many other parts of the United Kingdom.
My question to the Health Secretary this afternoon was about the shortage of flu vaccines, and the importance of ensuring that the covid-19 vaccine, once trials are completed, is available to those who need it, so that we do not find ourselves in the same situation as many of my constituents—of a certain age, vulnerable, and who have come to me for assistance because they cannot get the vaccine. We also want to ensure that the flu vaccine that many are waiting for is available.
School teachers and care professionals—nurses, doctors and frontline workers—must be considered priorities for the vaccine once we know it is safe. If the vaccine is offered, I intend to take it, but some of my constituents have contacted me to say that they do not wish to do so. The Minister has previously said that there will be no compulsion, but my health is not just about me: it is about you, Mr Dowd, about the shadow Minister, about hon. Members and about every one of my constituents. My duty is to everyone else.
I am conscious of the time and I will not take much longer, but I want to make a plea for something that will be possible only with the support of the pharmaceutical companies and those who understand the science. I, like you, Mr Dowd, and other Members, regularly see children at my constituency surgeries with chronic asthma and other respiratory complaints. Their parents send them to school daily in fear. The young girl who drafts my speeches and does my research has a four-year-old with chronic asthma. She had to self-isolate at home from March until the beginning of August. Members might ask whether that is possible, but it is what the doctor told her to do with her child. I hope that the trials will come up with a covid-19 vaccine that children can access to.
I support the Education Minister and my own Education Minister back home in saying that children need to be at school, but they need to be safe at school. Only yesterday my grandchild was sent home because some of the pupils and teachers in the form above her showed covid-19 symptoms. They are all self-isolating for two weeks, but the fact is that we just do not know where we are with the virus. Ever mindful of the shortage with the flu vaccine, I hope we will ensure that the covid vaccine is available.
In this morning’s debate, which was also attended by the Minister, there was mention of the black, Asian and minority ethnic community and people with obesity, who are more liable, according to the stats, to have a covid-19 diagnosis. Again, when it comes to prioritising, I hope that we may include that issue.
I want to make a plea for ethnic groups across the world, as I did in the Chamber last Thursday in a debate about vaccines across the world opened by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). I have a personal interest in religious minorities and different ethnic groups, and I want them to have the opportunity to have the vaccine. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire mentioned that issue, and he was right. When it comes to handing out vaccines or covid-19 help and assistance, the people at the end of the queue every time are the Christians and small minority groups in countries across the world. The Health Secretary also mentioned that in passing today in the Chamber—I am referring to him quite often, and that is because I am taking note of the points that he made in the Chamber. I want to make sure that the vaccine is available not only for us, here, but for every person in the world. That comes back to the point about needing to deal with the matter internationally, and I hope that that is where we will be going.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
Yesterday the news was announced that Pfizer had a potential vaccine that was quite advanced. I do not know how it affected other hon. Members in the Chamber, but my heart skipped a beat. It was brilliant news, and it is not surprising that the attitude in the rest of the country has been exactly the same. It is also not surprising that the stock exchange has effectively gone wild in some areas. People are utterly depressed by the lockdown they are living in, and the news gave them hope that there is a real light at the end of the tunnel, towards which they could drive. Unlike the lights in most tunnels, it is not an oncoming train, but a real opportunity to get out of the situation we are in.
However, it was quite right of the Prime Minister to pull back a bit on that in his broadcast last night. A number of things need to be looked at and studied before we can really rejoice in what Pfizer has done. Most scientists, for example, anticipate that a vaccine will not be 100% effective. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) said, it is only—I use the term lightly—90% effective. However, no vaccine will be 100% effective. We need to ensure that any approved vaccines are as effective as possible, so that they can have the greatest impact on the pandemic.
We have also heard that there is a robust pipeline of potential vaccines in development and that some have already advanced to phase 3. However, we cannot be certain when a vaccine will become available. That is why we cannot rely on a future vaccine to fight the pandemic. We must use all the tools we already have at our disposal, such as testing, contact tracing, physical distancing and masks. I also recommend co-trimoxazole, a drug that is being trialled in Bangladesh and India and that has also been trialled to a certain extent in the UK, which stops the inflammation of the lungs that comes with this terrible virus.
It is too early to know whether covid-19 vaccines will provide long-term protection. Additional research is needed to answer that question. However, the thing that encourages me from the data on people who recover from covid-19—I believe my hon. Friend has recovered from it—is that they develop an immune response that provides at least some protection against reinfection, although we do not know how strong that protection is and how long it lasts. However, that data gives me encouragement that a vaccine can duplicate and pick up on that—if it was not there, I would be very worried that a vaccine was not going to work.
A number of people have mentioned the need to do things on an international basis, and that is a great concern of mine. I happened to meet and have discussions with Dr David Nabarro, who is the special envoy on covid for the World Health Organisation. The Council of Europe—this is one of the great things that comes out of the Council of Europe made a discussion available to members of the social affairs committee. We had a virtual session with Dr Nabarro, who is an engaging, absolutely brilliant man who answers questions forthrightly—he will never make a good politician, but what I got out of the session was absolutely brilliant. To think that, in 2017, we put him forward to be the director general of the World Health Organisation, a proposal that was lost in the politics of the WHO. What a shame. What a difference that man would have made to the World Health Organisation.
The World Health Organisation has a number of programmes. It has a value framework for the allocation and prioritisation of covid-19 vaccinations. It has a road map for prioritising population groups for vaccines foe covid-19. The fair allocation framework aims to ensure that successful vaccines and treatments are shared equitably across all countries. The framework advises that once a covid-19 vaccine is shown to be safe and effective and is authorised for use—there is an argument, which I fully accept, that we could do more to make sure that different regulatory authorities are brought into line on this—all countries should receive doses in proportion to their population size to immunise the highest priority groups. That is just the first phase, after which the vaccine will roll out. If the World Health Organisation can continue in its role—I hope the United States backs off from deserting it and allows it to continue—it will be one of the things that helps to get the vaccine to all countries.
I am sorry for intervening, but I am concerned that those who are in good health but who happen to have a fairly deep pocket financially may think they can access this vaccine. It is really important that the people who access the vaccine for covid-19 are those who need it right now and who perhaps do not have the finance to buy it, as others might. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The World Health Organisation’s group of experts has already provided recommendations to countries about which populations should be prioritised. They include frontline health and care workers at high risk of infection, older adults and those at high risk throughout the population—people who are suffering from conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. As the second phase rolls forward and more doses are produced, the vaccine should go to groups at less risk of being infected or suffering badly.
I will finish there. This is an exciting opportunity, which we should not let go of. We should keep on top of this. Let us all hope that maybe in a few months’ time we can all be here celebrating the distribution of at least one—and perhaps more than one—vaccine that will help us out of this situation.
I thank the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for securing this important and highly relevant debate. It is understandable that we may share a feeling of cautious optimism with the news that the candidate vaccines are showing not only promise but a high degree of efficacy based on the phase 1 and 2 data. I pay tribute to the scientists who have led this encouraging development, and I wish them every success as they move to take the vaccine through the necessary steps to ensure that it is clinically safe and as we begin to prepare for widespread deployment.
Those steps and others, such as continuing to manage the current outbreak through test, trace and isolate methods and protecting our frontline staff with the necessary personal protective equipment, are absolutely vital if we are to rebuild each nation’s economy and return to as normal a way of life as possible. While I may have some sympathy with those who desire less rigorous controls on our freedoms, the economy and clinical trials, the consequences of relaxing too soon are clear to see given the second wave we are living through and a second nationwide lockdown in England. While some have argued that that is a risk worth taking to protect the economy, the consequences will ultimately be further damage to that which they argue they are trying to protect.
That is, similarly, the situation regarding drug licensing, and I want to pick up on some of the points the hon. Member for North Herefordshire referred to. The desire to suspend usual licensing rules would have consequences. They have been developed for important reasons, and those consequences matter. Just as with the caution over announcing a lockdown, I would urge caution over taking any liberties with the phasing of clinical trials. That phasing really matters. It is exactly what is required, particularly if we want to give a clear, confident message to the population that any vaccine has been tested to ensure it is safe.
I would pick up on one example. This vaccine uses an angiotensin-converting enzyme II molecule as its entry receptor, and in situ and in vitro it has been demonstrated to have had a paradoxical effect, so it is not well understood. It has a key role to play in blood pressure and other cardiac regulation, so it is important that we pay attention to the short-term and particularly the late effects of any such treatment.
I also urge caution over the temptation to rush forward, in that we have serious issues to consider ahead of the deployment of any vaccine in a meaningful way across the nations of the UK.
I hoped I had been clearer that I was not calling for a curtailment of any of the safety steps. However, with eight people dying every hour, delay has consequences too. What is not acceptable is that the standards for safety in the UK may be slightly different from the standards around the rest of the world. I was asking for a coming together so that we can have that agreed consensus on safety.
I thank the hon. Member for that helpful clarification. I certainly hope that there would be a concordance of agreement to ensure not only that similar standards are followed, but that research can be worked on across all countries that have the capacity to do so.
I will make some progress. In our collective hope that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel, the darkness of our shared journey through this pandemic must not be allowed to obscure our important public duty to act in good faith and with financial probity. That responsibility is not only of value in and of itself; we must do that out of respect for the many who did not make it through and who succumbed to covid-19, and in memory of those key workers who did so for the most selfless of reasons.
I want to refer to comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I agree with him that this has been a long, dark six months; it has been incredibly difficult. There is a need to feel optimistic, but it almost feels too good to be true. We hope that we will see this through, but again, I urge patience so that we can move forward collectively.
We must not emerge from this dark period with an “at any cost” attitude. We must ensure that the burden was shared equally and we acted together. In the spirit of co-operation alluded to by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), during Prime Minister’s questions on 18 March I asked a question about scientific support and I concluded:
“Does he agree that the prize on this occasion must be the victory and not patents and profits?”
In response the Prime Minister stated:
“I endorse completely the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed about the need to do this collectively.”
And he concluded that
“everybody is working together on the very issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 1001.]
With regard to the spirit of togetherness, it is deeply concerning that we repeatedly hear of cronyism at the heart of this Government, particularly in relation to their less than rigorous approach to appointments and procurement. This morning on the BBC’s “Today” programme, the Secretary of State was challenged about the costs surrounding the vaccine taskforce’s work and its processes. Rightly or wrongly, the appointment of Kate Bingham has proven controversial, and there are no doubt questions to be asked about the absence of any clear recruitment process. However, when she appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee last week, I was very impressed by her performance. She has a very real command of the work that she has been leading, and the relevance and depth of her skillset were clearly in tune with the demands of such a position. However, that does not negate the Government’s or, indeed, any appointee’s responsibility to act ethically and in good faith and, most importantly, to transparently account for their actions.
Concerns about passing on company names that the Government favoured in the pursuit of a vaccine is not a matter for me to pass any judgment on, but they do need to be scrutinised fully. The most recent concerns, set out in The Guardian this morning, are also significant. In simple terms, how can a job be considered unpaid when the postholder holds a position of influence or control in the process of awarding a £49 million investment in a company that they remain a managing partner of? That Ms Bingham is married to a Treasury Minister should have set off the ethical alarm bells well in advance of the matter appearing in the media.
I am just about to finish, Mr Dowd; sorry.
Whether the sign-off of the £49 million award came from Nick Elliott or, as the Secretary of State claimed this morning, some civil servant, this matters. These allegations of cronyism, if investigated and found to be true, are sure to make the expenses scandal, the cash-for-honours scandal or the cash-for-influence scandal seem like child’s play. This is a day for cautious optimism indeed, but not at any price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for initiating today’s debate on this topic. Timing is everything in politics, and his is clearly spot-on. Similarly, a rare political skill is the ability to make the complex comprehendible, and he really did that in his setting out of the debate. I do not know who is watching, but I did plug this debate when I was on Sky News at lunchtime, so I hope a few people are, because that was the best explanation that I have heard, and certainly the best one that can be distilled into about 15 minutes, of just how rigorous the process is. I hope people will take from that explanation the reassurance that although we are keen for the vaccine to succeed, there is a rigorous process. It has not been retrofitted to fit the vaccination’s journey, so we should have some confidence in that.
To reflect on the two Back-Bench contributions, when the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to it being bit of good news, = he was speaking for all of us. He mentioned the groups that will be prioritised, and I think there will be a high level of consensus on that. Hopefully, it is something that we will settle on very quickly. I was cheered by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who talked about the Council of Europe and the World Health Organisation, because those are exactly the sorts of fora that we need to engage with to get an equitable distribution around the world. It is hard for all of us; this is why political consensus is so important. It is hard for us to tell our constituents why we feel there needs to be a global distribution when people are so desperate to get their lives back to normal, but we know there is both a moral and a pragmatic obligation to do that. The organisations that the hon. Gentleman talked about are exactly the places for those conversations.
On the politics of this, it is really important that we do not mess around or be mischievous with the idea of the vaccine. There is a big public conversation about this. Any look of doubt from us would be magnified significantly. As community leaders, we have a responsibility to say that we trust the process. The outcome is whatever the outcome is, but the process itself is a proper one that we trust. That is certainly what hon. Members will see from the Opposition.
Yesterday’s news on the progress and the efficacy of the vaccine will have cheered all of us. I know that the Government are on record with regard to doses from that particular provider, but when we add in the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford one and the Moderna one, might the Minister be able to tell us how many pre-orders have been put in place for the vaccinations? That would help us to gauge the scale. I know the Government have laid the pitch for the roll-out through the changes to the human medicines regulations, and significant changes were made, including giving the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency the powers to grant temporary authorisation pending the granting of a licence.
I was grateful for the time that the Minister gave me with her and the deputy chief medical officer to talk about those changes, but when will there be a parliamentary opportunity to do so? We need to demonstrate that we have scrutinised this properly because the public want to know that we are talking about these things to the fullest extent. That would also allow us to address the point about immunity from civil liberty that the manufacturers and healthcare professionals are seeking, which is not surprising, but there are important and significant qualifiers around that not extending to sufficiently serious breaches. Will the Minister explain what a sufficiently serious breach would look like, or when we might have an occasion to talk about that further?
On vaccine hesitancy, it seems there are distinct phases. We have the anti-vax movement, which is about the substance of vaccinations to an extent, but it also about a broad range of other things. As our constituency mailbags will reflect, there is also a group of people who are hesitant, which is entirely understandable. They want to know that any vaccination, whichever one it is, is a safe one, but it is telling that last year the WHO had vaccine hesitancy in its top 10 threats to global health—up there with a future pandemic. That is something that we need to be aware of. We know that such speculation and the stuff that moves online at an incredible pace can really damage the process. For example, in Denmark in 2013 there were false claims from a documentary about the HPV vaccine, which led to a decline in uptake among some of the cohorts from levels of around 90%. Similarly, between 2014 and 2017 in Ireland, vocal attacks on the HPV vaccine from the anti-vaccine lobby led to a drop in take-up from 70% to 50%. These things matter. One thing that best counters them is proactive, positive health promotion campaigns. I am keen to hear whether the Government plan to talk about these things to educate the population ahead of time, but, again, it something that we all need to buy into, share and push out on a cross-party basis.
An area where I think there might be a little more room for divergence is delivery. We do not know what the future holds for the vaccine or when things will pop up, but it is reasonable to say that we expect one, and we know the scale of our population, so we have no reason not to have significant plans. When the Health Secretary was pushed on it this afternoon, he said that there were plans, but he was less forthcoming on what they were. I am keen for more detail. Whether it was PPE at the early stage of the pandemic or test and trace, frankly, throughout it, such big-scale planning and logistical exercises have not gone flawlessly. Qualifications could be made when they were being done for the first time, but we cannot repeat those mistakes now that we are, I hope, learning from what has happened.
Again, the Health Secretary has talked quite a bit today in the media and the Chamber about the importance of general practice. As I understand it, the BMA’s GP committee, NHS Improvement and NHS England have agreed an enhanced service for general practice to lead this process. That is good. People will want to see this delivered through the NHS rather than a private company, whether because they believe in its efficiency, as I certainly do, or whether in general they think that will reflect best in the population. That is a wise thing to do.
I understand that it is optional for practices to sign up, so may I get more detail from the Minister on that? If take-up is not good enough, will an alteration be considered? I also want to understand what assessment has been made about GPs’ capacity and workload. As I understand it, the programme requires participants to deliver at least 975 vaccinations over a seven-day period from each designated site—that will require 12-hour days seven days a week, including bank holidays. GPs are already busy, so I am keen to know about what assessments have been made about prioritisation.
I do not have enough time to talk about this properly, but I turn finally to the point made clearly by the hon. Members for Henley and for North Herefordshire: we have to come to an equitable settlement globally, too, and to play a leading role in global organisations as we do so.
Thank you, Mr Dowd. I will try to be concise. We have covered an awful lot of ground, and to give my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) his two minutes—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire on securing this debate—and on such a timely day, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said. It is almost as if my hon. Friend had planned it. I agree wholeheartedly with his comment that we must continue to protect the vulnerable as a priority. I also agree with much of what he said about making sure that we are moving at pace, while never sacrificing safety or efficacy, to drive forward and make sure, in therapeutics and particularly in vaccines, that we are delivering as fast as we can.
Many of those doing the work are involved not only in vaccine development but in vaccine manufacture. That means that they are ready to deploy once regulatory approval has been received. But the process has to be properly and ethically done, and people have to be secure in the knowledge that the vaccine is safe.
As everybody has mentioned, yesterday’s news excited us. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned, there is not a golden bullet. We need to carry on with the non-pharmaceutical interventions and with driving down the R number, as we are doing. But we have had good news, and we can all afford a little moderated optimism to give ourselves a little bit of cheer. It is promising progress that takes us one step closer to finding a vaccine and, as has been much mentioned in this debate, to helping protect millions of people across the world as well as in the UK.
We need to make the vaccine clinically safe. We know that it will not by itself bring the pandemic to an end, but an assured vaccine would be a huge step forward towards resuming a normal way of life. After clean water, vaccination is the single most effective public health intervention. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said, the benefits are enormous. Working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and social media platforms, we are making sure that the message of vaccination hesitancy is worked on. We are doing that across Government and, more broadly, across companies. This is a national effort, and we have to work together to make sure that we give the right message that gives people confidence.
There is enormous collaboration across science, medicine, industry and government, here and internationally, to find a safe vaccine. Our aim of rapidly developing a mass-produced vaccine means that we are striving to do something that has never been done before. Progress is being made at an extraordinary pace.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire took me back to my degrees by mentioning p-numbers and statistical significance, and as he said, although access to the vaccine should be given as quickly as possible, we must ensure that it is safe. I congratulate the vaccine taskforce, which has been mentioned, on its hard work leading the UK’s effort to find and manufacture a vaccine. It has successfully secured early access to 350 million doses through agreements with six separate vaccine developers.
My hon. Friend spoke of several of the vaccines, but not all of them. We have four different types: the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is in phase 3 trials; the BioNTech-Pfizer mNRA vaccine, about which we had the excellent phase 3 trials news yesterday; and inactivated whole virus vaccines and protein adjuvant vaccines, which are all in phase 1, 2 or pre-clinical trials. The vaccine taskforce makes a call on those most likely to be effective, because we need a rational approach. The vaccine candidates are all in different stages, and extraordinary progress is being made with the phase 3 clinical trials underway in the UK, the USA, India, Brazil and South Africa. I reassure all hon. Members that the Government are prioritising developing, acquiring and deploying vaccines as soon as they are safely available.
The NHS covid-19 vaccine research registry has been developed in partnership with NHS Digital to help facilitate the rapid recruitment of large numbers of people into further trials over the coming months, so that an effective vaccine for coronavirus could potentially be found. It is important that we spread the net and encourage as many people of both genders and from as many different backgrounds as possible to take part, because we know that there is often a degree of over-representation in clinical trials in certain areas. I know that my hon. Friend is particularly interested in ensuring that we do not dismiss any potential vaccines, but he also said that he is very interested in seeing things sped up, so that bench to patient is much quicker. I could not agree more.
Experts from the NHS, academia and the private sector have worked closely with us to explore and establish human challenge trials in the UK, backed by more than £33 million-worth of investment. The studies offer a chance to accelerate the development of promising covid-19 vaccines in a safe and controlled environment. They are being considered by regulators and ethics committees and, if approved, would start in January with results expected by May 2021. Almost £20 million more is being made available to scale up capabilities to process blood samples from clinical trials.
We have invested significantly through UK Research and Innovation to provide unique capability for process, development and scale up. Once an effective vaccine is ready, we must be able to manufacture it at an unmatched and hitherto unseen speed. We will then move on to deployment. I am running out of time, but I am sure that the usual routes will give us a chance to talk about that deployment and other pertinent issues at another date.
The global co-operation was mentioned by several hon. Members. Globally accessible vaccines, treatments and tests are needed for all of us. No single country holds the key; it is a worldwide pandemic, and we are stronger when working together. The UK has taken a strong role in global leadership and in collaborating with other countries. Our commitment to international collaboration is clear, and we were proud to work through multilaterals—such as the G7 and G20, and with the WHO and other international partners, including industry —to agree collaborative approaches to supporting vaccine development, manufacturing scale-up and future distribution to meet domestic and international needs, including for the world’s poorest countries, which touches on points that were made earlier.
I thank scientists and clinicians around the world for their remarkable efforts in working at pace to develop covid-19 vaccines. I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The vaccine will not be a silver bullet—we have to keep trying—but it will be one of the several tools that help our fight against the virus and allow us to have a more normal way of life.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered covid-19 vaccine.