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Westminster Hall

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 December 2020

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

National Tree Strategy

[Relevant documents: e-petition 300050, Legal rights for ancient trees.]

I remind hon. Members of the new arrangements for Westminster Hall so that social distancing can be respected. I remind Members that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the wind-ups, provided there is space in the room. Members are asked to respect the one-way system around the room; please exit by the door on the left. Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them, using the cleaning materials provided, and dispose of them—that is the cleaning materials, not the microphones—as they leave the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the National Tree Strategy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I declare an interest as a metro Mayor.

With Parliament’s focus understandably elsewhere at the moment, I am grateful to the Minister, to the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and to hon. Members for being here in Westminster Hall this morning. I also thank the Petitions Committee for linking this debate to the “Legal rights for ancient trees” petition, to which 17,000 people have added their name.

Our country—indeed, our planet—faces two major environmental crises: climate change and biodiversity collapse. The principle that trees harness the power to help us overcome both those crises is one on which we can all agree. I hope, too, that we can agree that, as the famous Chinese proverb puts it, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

We should take encouragement from the fact that every single major political party committed at last year’s general election to significantly increasing tree cover. From capturing carbon to reducing soil erosion, from improving air quality to alleviating flooding, and from supporting biodiversity to promoting health and wellbeing, the benefits that trees bring to our natural environment, our economy and our society cannot be overlooked or overstated.

However, the fact remains that we do not have enough trees and we are not yet looking after the trees that we have adequately. That is why the England tree strategy is so important. It represents a golden opportunity to rethink our approach to trees. Moreover, it is a chance to show the world how the UK is leading the way in addressing the climate emergency, by championing nature-based solutions ahead of COP26.

I should say from the outset that I will focus my remarks on the forthcoming England tree strategy, but this debate is entitled “National Tree Strategy”. Forestry, of course, is devolved and it is therefore important that we hear the voices from all our four nations. First, and I am sure that the Minister will address in her remarks, I would welcome an update on the consultation process. What work is being done to develop the strategy and when does her Department expect to publish the revised strategy?

I turn now to the issue of targets. As we know, the Government are committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Although I appreciate that there is considerable debate over the ambition of that date, if the Government are to achieve this goal, the UK will require a major expansion of tree cover. Despite the role that trees play in combating the climate crisis, there is no formal way to set targets regarding trees in England.

In its sixth carbon budget, which was published last week, the Committee on Climate Change was clear that the UK needs to do more. According to the committee’s report, we need to increase tree cover in the UK from the current level of 12% to around 20%. This will require up to 70,000 hectares of new trees and woods to be established each year. On our current trajectory, however, we will get nowhere near that recommendation.

Take last year as an example. The provisional Forestry Commission figures showed that just 13,460 hectares of new trees and woodland were created, of which only 17% was in England. That leads me to the Environment Bill, which I feel has a gaping hole on the issue of tree planting. In Committee, the Government were clearly reluctant to insert targets in the Bill, as was seen with new clause 17, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

Perhaps the Minister will take another look at new clause 19, which I tabled in Committee with the support of the Woodland Trust. It would ensure that the Government prepared a tree strategy for England and produced targets for the protection, restoration and expansion of trees and woodland. The proposal has a great deal of public support. Those on the Bill Committee should have received a compendium of comments from Woodland Trust members, which show a thirst for meaningful and binding targets. I invite the Minister to confirm whether the England tree strategy will include statutory targets and to say something about the target-setting measures in the Environment Bill.

Of course, this is not just a stats game. Quantity is important, but that should not mean that we compromise on quality. We urgently need more trees, but they must be the right trees, in the right places and delivered in the right way. A good place to start is how we calculate the expansion of trees and woods in England. Rather than looking simply at a number-of-trees-planted figure, which is problematic for several reasons, we need a standardised, reliable national metric, such as the percentage of land area covered by trees. We also need to establish a series of sub-targets, including for the expansion of new native woodland, trees outside woods and natural regeneration.

I will move on to what trees mean to people, because one of the most obvious lessons of the current public health crisis has been the importance that people place on green space. For many people, especially those living in flats and those without a garden, the local park has been a lifeline without which lockdown would have been even more of a struggle. I believe that the natural world should be not a faraway, abstract concept, but a part of our everyday lives—a notion that holds true regardless of whether we live in Barnsley or Benbecula, Sheffield or Shetland. The Woodland Trust’s “Space for people” research highlights what needs to be done in this respect. Across the UK, only 21% of people live within 500 metres of accessible woodland, and 27% do not have a larger accessible woodland within 4 km of their home.

By committing to increase the number of people who are able to benefit from trees and woodland in our towns and cities, the England tree strategy could help to transform our relationship with nature. That is why I believe that local authorities should be mandated to produce statutory local tree plans. Crucially, the plans would need to be town hall led rather than Whitehall driven. That means ensuring that local government has the power, money and capacity to deliver green reform. I am pleased to say that Barnsley Council is well on the way, having approved its tree planting strategy back in September. We are actively involved in supporting this work at regional level.

This point may be better directed at the Minister’s colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but currently London’s Mayor is the only Mayor in England with the power to produce a binding environment strategy. Despite the lack of devolved powers, we have still developed a plan in South Yorkshire to reach net zero by 2040 at the latest. My ambition is for woodland creation and tree planting to play a pivotal role in getting us there.

We have strongly supported plans to grow the Northern forest, and have recently recruited a woodland creation officer to work with our local nature partnership and other partners. The project of the Northern forest is close to my heart. I was part of the team that put the first trees in the ground, I planted the millionth tree, and last year I co-ordinated a letter, to which more than 120 cross-party northern leaders added their support, calling on the Prime Minister to back the Northern forest initiative.

Let me explain for hon. Members not familiar with it that the Northern forest will see 50 million trees planted over the next 25 years in the north of England by the Woodland Trust and its community forest partners. I am proud to say that more than 2.1 million trees are already in the ground. Sadly, woodland cover in our northern counties is only 7.6% ,which is far lower than England’s average of 10%, so the Northern Forest initiative seeks to address that disparity. The forest will span 120 miles, connecting the towns and cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Lancaster to the west, and Sheffield, Leeds and Hull to the east, benefiting 13 million residents and generating £2.5 billion in social, economic and environmental benefits. I very much hope that the England tree strategy will commit to supporting the delivery of the Northern forest.

Levelling up should not just be about new trains and skills programmes, crucial though they are. Regional inequality affects every part of people’s lives, including—crucially—their health and wellbeing. Projects such as the Northern forest should be afforded the status that they deserve. Given the role that trees play in flood prevention, it would be remiss of me not to say a few words about a topic with which the Minister is very familiar. She and I have discussed it one or two times previously. As she knows, it is now one year on from the flooding and devastation that battered our communities in South Yorkshire.

The Minister will be aware that I wrote to her and the Secretary of State last month following a constructive South Yorkshire flooding roundtable. Perhaps she will give a quick update on the points that I raised in the letter. First, where are we on confirming the provisional funds allocated to us through the medium-term plan and grant-in-aid proposals? Secondly, where are we on our innovative proposal to work together to deliver nine shovel-ready projects to protect 860 homes and critical elements of our regional infrastructure? Such a commitment from the Government would show that they are serious about working hand in hand with local leaders to level up, tackle the climate emergency and solve the problems faced by our communities.

I said at the start that we do not have enough trees and that we are not adequately looking after the ones that we have. The importance of the latter must be recognised in the strategy. There have been at least 20 serious plant pests and diseases inadvertently imported into the UK in the last 30 years. We are on course to lose 150 million mature trees and 2 billion saplings and seedlings to ash dieback disease in the next 10 to 20 years, and we have experienced a catastrophic loss of historic trees. Ancient woodlands cover less than 3% of our land and, once lost, can never be replaced. The England tree strategy must commit to preventing any further loss and to the restoration of all plantation on ancient woodland sites.

I appreciate that there are plenty of other issues to speak about. I have not touched on funding structures, the relationship between agriculture and forestry, and much more besides. I will conclude by saying that the need for an ambitious, fully resourced and long-term plan for trees has never been greater. The decisions that the Government make on the forthcoming strategy will shape the viability of our country and relationship with the natural world. By investing in our trees and woods, we invest in healthier and happier futures and lay the foundation for a legacy of which we can all be proud. It is a purpose around which I hope we can all unite.

The debate can last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Labour party spokesman no later than 10.37 am. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and Dan Jarvis will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are six stellar Back Benchers seeking to contribute to the debate. If the time is allocated evenly, each Back Bencher will have eight or nine minutes. If we can share the time equally, that will be best for all. We will start with Chris Clarkson.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone? I will not use the full nine minutes.

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate and for an extremely thoughtful speech. I am glad he touched on the Northern forest, as that is what I intend to talk about. As a proud Lancastrian, that is the highest praise I can give to a Yorkshire MP.

As some Members know, I like trees. In fact, my first ten-minute rule Bill called for all future housing developments to have tree-lined streets. I was particularly pleased when the Government adopted that proposal as part of the new planning regulations, and so, with a 100% success rate, I have not introduced any since. That particular endeavour led Quentin Letts to compare me to Basil Fotherington-Tomas, which caused some amusement in the Tea Room, but, given the other nickname I recently acquired courtesy of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), I will take it.

My dendrological exuberance does not just extend to planning. The UK’s horticulture sector is worth £24 billion and supports more than 560,000 jobs. Not only will it play a vital role in aiding our ambition to reach net zero by 2050; it will play an important part in our national recovery from covid-19. The Government’s ambition to recognise the importance of trees through a national tree strategy is a part of this.

I recently contributed to an article in the Conservative Environment Network’s net zero northern powerhouse series, setting out the importance of the Northern forest. It has never been more necessary to secure a future for generations to come and it is essential that policies and practices are put in place to protect trees and woods, to safeguard and buffer ancient woodlands and to stimulate new planting.

In November 2018, the first tree of the Northern forest was planted down the road from my Heywood and Middleton constituency in Radcliffe, where the planting of 200 saplings began as part of the Government’s £5.7 million investment. The Woodland Trust and the partnership behind the Northern forest estimate that it will cost about £500 million to develop it by planting 50 million trees over 25 years, trebling the current planting rate across the area. As an area, we have less than 8% tree coverage—one of the lowest in the country—so it is ideal territory for a new forest. As a major infrastructure project, it is predicted to generate about £2.5 billion of social, economic and environmental benefits.

The presence of trees and other greenery in our environment has a discernible effect on the physical and mental wellbeing of us all, as well as being responsible for cleaner air and playing a role in addressing climate change. As someone who lives in a flat, I say to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central that he is absolutely right that those parks were essential during lockdown.

Local authorities in Greater Manchester, Northumberland and Cumbria were selected by the Government in August to help kickstart nature’s recovery on a countrywide scale. As part of this, our combined authority in Greater Manchester will receive about £1 million of funding to set up a pilot study for a local nature recovery strategy, in conjunction with Natural England. This will kickstart the green recovery with practical and locally-led solutions, bringing a broad range of groups together to identify the green priorities for restoring nature. Our City of Trees will become a beacon for this important work. We should also encourage companies to align their own strategy for zero carbon with the opportunity that planting trees offers to offset emissions. If, as is predicted, the Northern forest offsets around 7 million tonnes of carbon once planted, it could really help make a dent in a corporation’s carbon footprint.

With an environmentally sensitive approach, planting the right trees in the right areas and ensuring that these are maintained as part of an ambitious long-term arboricultural strategy that is fixed on our 2050 goal, we should return around 30% of our country to nature in our lifetimes. In that way we can become, in the words of the Latin playwright Caecilius Statius,

“Serit arbores quae alteri saeclo prosint”—

those who plant trees for future generations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate and on his speech which set out some important points. As a Twigg, I am not sure whether I should declare an interest in this debate, but I did think that, as a Twigg, I should participate. I stress that Twigg, in my sense, has two g’s at the end.

In my constituency, Widnes, west Runcorn and Hale village are not blessed with large areas of woodland—most of the woodland only covers fairly small areas. The north of England has significantly less woodland cover than the rest of England, despite being home to 30 million people. We have just 7.6% woodland cover, which is significantly lower than the England average.

The Woodland Trust is working with the Mersey forest, City of Trees, the White Rose forest, HEYwoods and the Community Forest Trust to create a new Northern forest. This will increase woodland cover, while bringing endless benefits and opportunities to the people of the north. The Northern forest is already in progress, and once completed it will help tackle climate change; encourage nature-rich landscapes; reduce the risk of flooding, which has already been referred to; create thousands of new jobs; of course provide cool and clean air in our towns and cities; and improve health and wellbeing.

This is all very positive, but we know much more has to be done. In the time I have, I want to talk mainly about how more can be achieved to increase woodland cover in northern towns, such as the ones I represent in Runcorn and Widnes. In the last century, places such as Widnes, have faced a devastating environmental impact from the chemical industry, which dominated the town. People said Widnes could be smelt before they got to it. There were many chemical factories nearby to the Newtown area, where I am from and which was demolished in the slum clearance programme in the 1960s, well into the 20th century, but there were no trees to speak of. All my family members tell me that they cannot recall hearing or seeing any bees or, for that matter, many flying insects.The chemical pollution had seen to that. I am pleased to say that the old, polluted Widnes has now been transformed, since the early 1970s—not least because of the work of Halton Borough Council. It is now a place that people want to move to and live in

The Mersey forest project and Halton Council have made some welcome improvements in the number of trees in recent times, especially in street and urban tree planting. However, why should urban areas such as Widnes and Runcorn have to be content with only street planting, and small public space tree planting? Of course those are important, but we need to plant many more trees to increase woodland and create a new and significant woodland with native British trees. It is a question of woods that people recognise as woodland.

The Halton local plans, including the delivery and allocations local plan, are very much based on housing and industrial development, but do not seem to give the same weight to tree planting and developing forest and biodiversity. Why should current green and green-belt land be taken for development, rather than for the creation of larger woods with all the community and environmental benefits that that would bring? One of the largest areas in my constituency is a private golf course, which has a lot of trees. There is a proposal to use a significant part of that land for housing. That should never be allowed. It is right in the heart of Widnes. We want more trees and more space for our communities.

I see that today the proposals for controversial planning reforms in England have been revised—according to the local press—after the new housing targets prompted a backlash among many Conservative MPs. We also hear from the press that a computer-based formula used to decide where houses should be located has been updated to focus on cities and urban areas in the north and midlands. If that is true it is appalling. That brings me back to the point about whether it is okay for urban areas such as Runcorn and Widnes to be concerned with tree planting schemes, but not for them to create new significant woodland.

Yesterday the all-party group on gardening and horticulture wrote to me, and I think what it said was important. The group told me:

“A large proportion of the UK’s horticultural industry is concerned that growers may not have the ability and confidence to increase the production of young trees to the levels required. They need to feel confident that there will be an increased market of significant volume at the end of the growing cycles. Competing environmental schemes may lead to landowners perceiving greater benefits from taking other initiatives (such as solar panels) rather than planting trees. Some Government policies and structures are standing in the way of growers having such confidence”.

Promoting tree establishment is very important.

“The right trees need to be planted in the right place to maximise the long-term environmental, social and economic benefits of urban trees, as well as ensure that they do not perish and can survive. This means that species are identified, sourced, and planted in the environment best suited to their needs in order that they may flourish. The planting of the tree is a crucial part of the process, but it is but one part: tree establishment is equally as important. In particular, young tree maintenance is essential to enabling a newly planted tree to establish and thrive.”

How often do we see that newly planted trees are struggling because they have been through drought or have not been watered properly?

“Tree officers, for example, are the custodians of our urban trees, but years of under-investment in public sector tree management have left many of them struggling.”

Of course, some local authorities do not have tree management officers to speak of.

“Trees planted in urban settings need maintenance which has not always happened in the past, as responsibility is often passed between local government departments. Ensuring that local governments have the capabilities to maintain trees in the long term is crucial to ensuring that planting efforts are not wasted. The right professionals with the right resources are needed, but under-investment in the industry in recent years has left many struggling.”

It is a matter of quality, not just quantity, in native trees. We want biodiversity and hedgerows as well. We have seen commitment from the various political parties, which talk about hundreds of millions—in fact, billions—of trees over the next 10 to 30 years. We do need billions of trees to be planted in that period.

Councils should be at the forefront of the re-wooding of our communities, especially in towns such as Runcorn and Widnes, which are highly urbanised but still have enough land within the borough boundaries to accommodate and sustain significant tree planting and, therefore, the development of woods in the future. Developments in my constituency, such as the towns fund initiative in Runcorn—if that proposal comes off—will give opportunities for more tree planting. Again, there are opportunities with the Unlock Runcorn canal initiative, to restore the locks and the links to the Manchester ship canal, but we need the funding to do that.

In summary, Mr Hollobone, the main ask is that Government, working with local authorities, fund significant new sustainable tree planting and sustainable woods. We want people to see what they know and recognise as woods, and for every single town that has the space, to be able to have a wood planted and see it become sustainable and develop over the years. These are new woods, which people with no access to a car can easily get to and enjoy, where they can have the boost to their wellbeing that we know being among the trees brings.

From the pandemic that we have been through, we know how important it is for people to get out walking. I want to see that happen. It is key that every town should have a new wood, where they have land available; most towns have that land. The northern towns should not be lumbered with having to build lots more houses and industrial developments because the leafy parts of the south have risen up against us, as we have seen in the press today.

My final point is that local authorities should have funded tree officers. Schools and local organisations should be at the heart of tree planting, working alongside local authorities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and thank you for such kind words at the beginning. It is always nice to be considered esteemed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on his brilliant speech. Many of the points he raised are relevant to my constituency in Totnes and south Devon. I am sure there are many issues on which we shall be able to work together. It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). If wisdom grew on trees, he would surely be a bush.

My constituency is incredible fortunate. In the north it has a national park in the form of Dartmoor, and in the south there is a large area of outstanding natural beauty. We are incredibly privileged that it is so well looked after and cultivated by charities and local government organisations, to ensure that tourists and residents alike are able to benefit from it, in every shape and form. The important point is that it is in demand. People want more, not less. They do not want development to ride over their green spaces, and to see those beautiful hills, moorlands and peat bogs ruined by too many properties sprouting up left, right and centre. It is the same in our cities and towns, where our urban parks and our royal parks have been a safeguard and sanctuary for many people over the course of this year.

It is important to recognise the relationship that we all have with our green spaces and how we might cultivate them in future years. The Government have taken some appropriate steps over the past weeks and months. The England tree strategy consultation, which has had over 20,000 submissions and is due to report back in the spring, is incredibly welcome.

In the course of my remarks, I will recommend how we can incentivise and drive demand, in order to plant more trees, create more green spaces and encourage biodiversity. Under the 25-year environment plan, £5.7 million has been made available to plant 1.8 million trees by 2025. In my constituency, Moor Trees has benefited from that to the tune of almost half a million pounds. Moor Trees is a local organisation, based just outside Totnes, that has planted 145,000 trees since its establishment—100% of which are native species—restoring 88 sites and relying on thousands of volunteers. The money that is being given to them does not just lead to the planting of more trees; it leads to the creation of new jobs and the establishment of new sites, where we can green and improve biodiversity in every shape and form.

It is important to understand the value and benefit that the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Fisheries Act 2020 will have in creating and restoring our countryside and our coastline. We will be able to sequester more carbon, to ensure that there is sustainability on land and at sea, and that we can do well by our farmers and fishermen. That is certainly something on which I know the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) would agree with me. All of these are elements that give us the chance and the opportunity to improve the productivity of our land and to ensure that those who do not live on it, but come on holidays or as visitors to the UK, can benefit from the beauty of what we have.

On carbon sequestration, we know that trees are an extremely effective way to sequester carbon but grassland goes with that too. By looking at new and innovative techniques, such as regenerative agriculture and no-till farming, we can help to marry up farming and tree planting as effective tools for lowering the emissions that are created by derelict countryside or out-of-date techniques.

We are all stewards of the land. The conversation that has been had today in this Chamber is not a new one. In fact, Disraeli spoke of the Disraeli feudal principle that we are all stewards of the land to pass it on to the next generation. We are making exactly the same important point today—that we must pass on our land to future generations in a better state than we received it. Many people across my constituency feel extremely strongly about that.

In the time that I have, I want to ask the Government to consider a few things to improve the level of tree planting, bearing in mind that the consultation is coming and that, I am sure, many of these submissions have been put forward. There must be an incentivisation programme for people to plant trees, whether they are a large landholder, a farmer or a small landholder of an allotment or a hedgerow. Whatever it may be, we must find a way to do that.

The use of common land, and what it can be used for, has been routinely overlooked. The historical right to graze on common land is no longer utilised in many cases. Can the Government look at a programme in which people are incentivised to plant trees and to restore common land to what it was before? How might we engage with those who do that?

The point has been well made by the National Farmers Union that taxation must never get in the way of those who are trying to plant trees. Agricultural property relief or business property relief may not be available to those who take away their land from farming and put it to tree planting. Would the Minister be kind enough to respond as to how we might get around that issue?

I also ask the Government to consider a volunteer programme. There is significant concern about our green spaces, and significant engagement on the issue, so will the Government work with hon. Members on both sides of the House to create a volunteer programme to ramp up tree planting and get people more engaged with local organisations, such as Moor Trees, in other hon. Members’ constituencies? There is an appetite for that. If we can do something like that, we will be able to meet, and go beyond, the target of 70,000 trees a year. In fact, if we recognise that we want 12% more of our country to be covered by trees by 2060, that would be a suitable way to do it.

I am very proud to be the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds champion for the cirl bunting. Quite why I am deserving of being a champion for the cirl bunting, I do not know, but I spend many happy moments walking the south-west coastal path in south Devon looking for it. I have yet to see it, but it is there; I have been told that I may have been looking at the wrong bird, which is a slight problem.

There is an important point to make about biodiversity. We know that if we improve our hedgerows and trees, we can improve biodiversity, which has been hit incredibly hard over the past 40 to 50 years. Let us use this opportunity to make sure that we are cultivating biodiversity by using natural species of trees and plants, to help to regrow and recultivate that wildlife.

Our green spaces must be maintained, whether in urban centres or in the rural countryside—that point was brilliantly made by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). The Minister has been a champion of the issue. I look forward to seeing what happens in the Environment Bill when it comes back before the House. I hope that she will work with us all to shape this opportunity to plant more trees and embody the opportunity to give future generations more green jspaces.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing the debate. I am the parliamentary species champion for swifts, so I am in the slightly unusual position of campaigning for swift bricks, rather than trees, to protect their habitat; but we all recognise the importance of tree planting and rewilding. It is about not just making our towns and cities more pleasant places to live, but the benefits for physical and mental health of being able to get out into nature, as hon. Members have mentioned.

As has been said, planting more trees is absolutely central to efforts to address the climate change emergency, the ecological emergency and the devastating collapse in biodiversity that we have we seen, by providing natural carbon sinks and habitats for wildlife to flourish. As has been mentioned, it also prevents soil erosion and flooding. In the winter of 2015-16, when I went to some of our northern constituencies that had been badly affected by flooding, there was much discussion about the need to plant more trees to prevent soil erosion. I went to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and talked to Yorkshire Water. It is about planting trees in the right place, as well. It is not just numbers that count but location and the type of tree.

Without natural climate solutions we have little hope of reaching net zero emissions or preventing further species decline. The issue is not limited to tree planting; peatlands and sea grass meadows are also vital carbon sinks. I give credit to the RSPB and the WWF for their recent work to raise the profile of those areas. I hope the Government will finally act in response to their campaigns.

However, we are here to talk about tree planting. The UK’s lack of ambition on this front in the past is reflected by the fact that we have 13% forest cover. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said 12%. Whatever the precise figure, that is compared with an EU average of 40%, so clearly there is a lot more to be done. I welcome recent Government pledges on tree planting. As has been said, at the last election there was a race to outdo each other on the number of trees to be planted. The Government were bottom of the league table, pledging to plant only 30 million a year, while the Labour party was pledging to plant 100 million. I think we can all agree, if not on the precise number, that the ambition needs to be there.

I briefly want to mention my concern about deforestation overseas. We are here to talk about England’s tree strategy, but it is shocking to see the continued devastation in the Amazon rainforest, which is referred to as the lungs of the Earth, due to its immense capacity to convert carbon to oxygen. It faces an onslaught due to industrial agriculture, mining and forest fires linked to climate change. When the Environment Bill was in Committee we tried to add provisions to start measuring our global footprint and the links to deforestation in our supply chain.

While I am talking about the Environment Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central criticised its lack of focus on tree planting. I have a huge number of concerns about the Bill, not least that it has yet to become law. There will be a regulatory gap once we exit the transition period, with the Office for Environmental Protection not fully up and running and able to take enforcement action until July 2021, according to what I have heard. A chair has been appointed but no board has been recruited. We do not know about its budget or resources. How are we going to enforce regulations, not just stop people chopping down trees? We have already heard that there is going to be rowback on planning proposals, but there is still a real battle between the need to protect our natural environment and the desire to build more houses.

We have not had the right reassurances about how net gain and biodiversity offsetting will work, particularly over the long term. It is one thing to say that if trees are chopped down to build houses, more trees need to be planted elsewhere, but how can we be sure that, 10 years down the line, that woodland is protected and maintained? Who is responsible—the developer or the council? Who is held to account if the trees are not put in place? There are concerns about whether the regulators have the powers and resources to take such enforcement action.

A major driver of deforestation in this country, as in the Amazon, is land conversion for agricultural purposes. A key means to address that is agroforestry. I am pleased that, under the Agriculture Act, farmers will be rewarded for planting more trees and encouraging biodiversity on their land. There is a lot of evidence to show that if we plant trees and other plants among crops, rather than rigidly sticking to monocultures, we could improve conditions for crops and wildlife by creating nutrient-rich, complex ecosystems. A lot of people think that the countryside that we see as we go through it on a train—fields of grass, with cows grazing on them—is the natural environment, but it is not. That is not what our countryside should look like. It should be far more diverse, and there should be far more trees. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology—if anyone wants to join, they are very welcome—and we have been campaigning for these things for a long time. Agroforestry should be an absolutely central part of any national tree-planting strategy.

All major landholders have a responsibility to try to do their bit. I have been asking questions at Church Commissioners questions, as the Church of England is one of the biggest landowners in this country. I was originally told that because so much of its land is high-grade agricultural land, it is not really suitable for planting trees, but the figures I have show that well under half of it is good-quality agricultural land, so the Church of England could do much more to plant trees, and the same goes for the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister is doing what she can to encourage that.

In Bristol—I am a Bristol MP—we are leading the way on tree planting. We have a campaign to double Bristol’s tree canopy cover by planting 250,000 trees by 2030. The “one tree per child” campaign is part of that, and in 2015, when we were the European green capital, we managed to plant one tree for every primary school child in the city.

The Woodland Trust has been doing great work planting mini-orchards. One of my pet hates is when housing is developed, leaving green triangles everywhere—little bits of green space—or verges by the pavement. They are of no use for anything. People cannot sit on them and children cannot play on them. It is nothing but grass. The Woodland Trust has been helping to plant mini-orchards on some of those pieces of land, which makes a huge difference to the look and feel of a place. I hope to hear how the Minister plans to do more to empower local communities to push forward with those sort of tree-planting and rewilding programmes.

One of the upsides of covid, and of councils having less in the way of resources, is that they have not been mowing the grass in the same way, and we have seen biodiversity flourish. Some people think it looks scruffy, but I think most of us would agree that that is a massive improvement. I think we are all on the same page on this, but I would like to hear from the Minister how we will raise our ambitions and meet the targets that we have been talking about.

I am grateful to be called in this really important debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who really has championed this cause. Talking of champions, I feel that I must put on the record the tansy beetle, which I have seen and cherish most dearly in York. It is known as the jewel of York.

The more we understand about the environmental emergency, the loss of biodiversity and the change to our climate, the more we understand the centrality of reparation, and that is what we are here to discuss. If we do not take action, we will see more flooding, more soil degradation, more carbon in our atmosphere, temperatures rising and global catastrophe. For that reason, I welcome the Government’s focus on trees. I know that the Minister is committed to that agenda, but she needs to be more ambitious and bolder. Her strategy must be cross-purpose and cross-departmental, and her plan must change minds.

On ambition, Labour committed to planting 300 million trees and investing £2.5 billion in our first term. We would have achieved a total of 1 billion trees by 2030, and 2 billion by 2040, to support the narrative that woodland growth is essential to a biodiversity shift. Labour would have reached 2 million hectares of new woodland by 2040, and 3 million hectares by 2050. That is what we mean by ambition.

Building a carbon-storage landscape in both urban and rural settings means rebuilding lost habitats, creating beautiful environments and, importantly, holding water and restoring soils. The Committee on Climate Change echoes the need for ambition if net zero is to be reached by 2050, although that is far too late. It says that woodland cover needs to rise from the current 13% to at least 17%, but 19% would be better. Friends of the Earth says that it should be 26%—double the current cover.

We have 3 billion trees in the country—I have not counted them, but I have that number on good authority. We must raise our game and plant 120 million trees every single year. However, if the Government had it their way, they would have planted only 900,000 hectares by 2050, and when they first came to power, they wanted to sell off our woodlands by privatising our forests—and they are light on ambition now, despite being armed with all the facts about the impact of tree planting.

How are the Government doing? Let us take last year. Some 13,460 hectares of new woodland was created in the UK. Just 17% of that was in England, and just 90 hectares was created by public bodies; 96.2% of planting in England was by the private sector. This is an abysmal record by the Government. They are committed to planting 30 hectares of new woodland in England; at that rate, we will be lucky to meet the Committee on Climate Change targets by the turn of the next century, and meet less than half of our ambitions. In England, the Government are hardly scratching the surface. Compare that with the coverage in France, where it is at 32%; Germany, where it is at 33%; and Spain, where it is at 37%. We have to pull our weight and look at the mitigation that forestry brings.

I welcome the Northern forest initiative, which will make such a difference to my constituency. It will provide new opportunities for work and a social setting, and is important for our landscape. The Labour group in York and I supported the White Rose forest from its inception, and I am glad that we have convinced our council to take planting seriously. Latterly, it has signed up to this initiative, and has purchased 150 acres to grow York community woodlands.

However, I urge the council to go further, particularly in the light of our flooding situation in York, which the Minister knows all about. We need to plant smartly alongside rivers to absorb the water that comes from those catchments. If we plant there, the water will be drawn deep into the roots and soil, which really will slow the flow. That is why it is so important that we have a proper, cross-purpose, joined-up strategy to ensure we maximise the benefits of planting. Also, the canopy stops water hitting the ground as fast, and can bring a real reduction in run-off. In fact, some predict a reduction of up to 80% compared with hardcore land. It is therefore really important to transform surfaces around rivers into green spaces, and then plant there.

York also suffers from poor air quality. It is in the Vale of York, and the topography means that the air is held there—and therefore pollution is, too. We need to ensure that our urban spaces are well planted. This clashes with the Government’s plan to build on brownfield sites. I urge the Minister to look at land swaps, so that brownfield sites can become greenfield sites again, and perhaps other areas can be used in environmentally sensitive ways for development. This will bring more of those green lungs into the centre of our conurbations. That is much needed, not only for the health benefits, but for the social and mental health benefits. A benefit of not having transport in York city centre is that it reduced nitrogen dioxide levels significantly: they dropped 47%, which is the eighth largest fall in the country. However, while planting can help with mitigation, it cannot be seen as the only measure. I therefore call on the Minister to work cross-departmentally, in particular with the Department for Transport, to construct environments that are robust, and protect our health in cities and conurbations in the future.

I call on the Minister, when looking at tree planting and transport, to consider the Government’s road-building programme. The environmental assessment is poor or non-existent; the impact will be catastrophic for our environment. Likewise, there is High Speed 2. I tried to amend the HS2 Bill to protect the environment. Chris Packham beautifully described the 108 ancient woodlands that will be destroyed under the Bill as “cathedrals of biodiversity” that will be lost. We would not do that to our cathedrals, so we need to look again at what we are doing to our ancient woodlands. Perhaps the need for speed can be reassessed, given the need to secure those ancient woodlands.

Woodlands are also healers of our poor physical and mental health—gymnasiums to mitigate poor health. They cannot be just about rural landscapes; they are about urban landscapes, too. England’s tree strategy must look at urban as well as rural areas, because for the poorest people in our communities, access to our countryside is often limited.

Finally, I want to talk about changing minds. When I talk to children, they get it; they understand the connectivity between nature and their wellbeing, and they know that this is the right thing to do. We have an immense challenge in bringing about behavioural change, and to convincing developers and others of the importance of investment in our future bio-economy. We need to ensure that hardwired into the “Planning for the Future” White Paper, which is under consultation, is a tree plan; it should be at the heart of where we are going, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central said. We need to recognise that hardcore planning is as significant, if not more so, than environmental planning when it comes to trees.

We need to get the balance right. At the moment, it feels as if it is tipped against nature, and we need to pull that back. After today’s debate, as we head towards COP26, I hope that the Government will wake up to the climate challenge, and challenge themselves, now more than ever.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for setting the scene well, as he so often does in both the main Chamber and Westminster Hall. I thank everyone for their considerable contributions so far, and I am very much looking forward to the speeches of the shadow Minister and the Minister, who is appropriately dressed for the occasion; in a forest, we would not even know she was there, such is her colour scheme. It is lovely to see her, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

As a country sports enthusiast, conservation is something I am passionate about. I am not a tree-hugger, but I tell you what: I love trees. Over the past few years, I have planted a large number of trees—approximately 3,500—on the land that we own back home. That is a small part to play, but I am pleased to do it. Planting those trees has restored the bird, plant and insect life referred to by the hon. Members for Barnsley Central, and for Halton (Derek Twigg).

Keeping some trees in the corners of fields creates a habitat that encourages birds. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), an RSPB champion, referred to the cirl bunting. In my constituency, the yellowhammer has returned in numbers to our farm—and the surrounding farms, because I am not the only person doing this; it is also thanks to the efforts of Vi Calvert and her late husband Michael, who neighbour my land, as well as Lord Dunleath in Ballywalter, and Daphne and Bill Montgomery in Grey Abbey. They have made it happen. They were able to, but that is not the point; the point is that they have done it. They make a direct contribution to tree-planting.

To be honest, one of the reasons why I plant trees—I say this unashamedly—is that I love shooting. I hope that those trees will produce pigeons. When they produce pigeons, I will be more than happy, so there is a purpose in what I am doing. At the end of the day, it also means that I can hand over those trees and that land to my eldest son and my grandchildren. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central referred to the Chinese proverb, “If you want to plant a tree, you should have done so 20 years ago.” We did that nearly 20 years ago, so we are now seeing them grow, but I do say to myself, “I wish I had planted trees over there, too, so I could see them grow in my lifetime.” However, my family, after me, will see them.

Northern Ireland has the lowest number of trees planted in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have a target to achieve. I was encouraged last week to hear that the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, alongside the Woodland Trust and Northern Ireland Water, have committed to planting 1 million trees in the next 10 years. It is part of a broader plan to plant 18 million trees in the next 10 years. That is fantastic, but it is only an extra 1% of trees. We must do more to catch up. DAERA is doing that, but it is important that other Departments do the same if they can.

Northern Ireland Water is Northern Ireland’s second-largest landowner. It is good to see its commitment. I encourage others to recognise that planting trees improves water quality, captures carbon, mitigates flooding and enhances the natural environment. The Minister has spoken about flooding on many occasions, and hon. Members have asked about planting trees to prevent flooding. Those things are really important.

Most people agree that we are in a combined climate and biodiversity crisis. We must recognise where we are. This is not just about new trees; we must see this as an opportunity to improve the protection, restoration and management of woods. The two planting schemes that I have been involved with have been educational tree planting in primary and secondary schools in the area. To mark an occasion, we plant a few trees. Those projects, carried out with the Woodland Trust and others, ensure that trees become part of children’s way of life, from an early age through to their later years. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned that trees have become a greater part of our lives now that we are walking perhaps more than we ever did. I am fortunate in that I can go for a walk on the land behind me and on my neighbour’s land whenever I want, but not everybody can do that.

Having spoken to experts at the Woodland Trust, it is clear that while Northern Ireland Water and Northern Ireland are heading in the right direction, we need to be more ambitious. The Northern Ireland forestry strategy for sustainable growth, published in 2006, set out a plan to double woodland cover from 6% to 12% by 2050. By 2020, we moved to 8%. the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister announced the “Forests for Our Future” programme in March 2020, which seeks to plant 18 million trees across 900 hectares by 2030. We are told that will amount to an additional 1% of coverage. Although that seems unambitious against the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations, it sets the direction of travel—we are going from 200 hectares to 900 hectares. As I said, that is only 1%, so it is important that we try to do more. The Government in Northern Ireland are doing their bit. It is up to the landowners to do something, too. It is a bold first move to suggest quadrupling planting rates.

The Woodland Trust has commended the DAERA Minister for his ambitious reworking of the grant programme to incentivise landowners to convert to woodland. Perhaps the Minister here can give us some idea of the grant scheme available to landowners and farmers, to incentivise them to do that. The condition of planting trees back home is that they cannot be cut down for 30 years. I never cut mine down; I hope they will live as healthy a life as they can. To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets, ambitions need to be much bolder, and a renewed tree strategy should be developed as a pillar of the plans to decarbonise; it is important that we reach that target.

To conclude, the future agricultural payment schemes replacing the common agricultural policy will be pivotal in delivery of trees in the farmed landscape. The message is that a UK-wide approach will benefit all the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We want to address this issue in the best way. As on all the other issues we speak about—I say this very honestly, Mr Hollobone; you know where I come from—we are better, stronger and always more effective together.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on proposing the debate and for speaking so eloquently about the need not only to plant more trees but to plant the right trees in the right place as well.

Whether you are a tree-hugger or not a tree-hugger, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) described himself, a towering oak of insight or a little bush of enthusiasm, to borrow the words of the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), this has been a good debate. The message the Minister needs to take from it is that we are all willing her on to greater ambition for tree planting.

There is much cutting and pasting of environmental soundbites, often three-word statements like build back better, green industrial revolution, green new deal. What we need is the policy and delivery to be stapled to those soundbites. We have heard today a cross-party endorsement of the need for delivery and ambition to be combined if we are to achieve the level of tree planting that we all want to see in this country. We are in a climate and ecological emergency. Members from all parties have highlighted not only the benefits that come from tree planting in carbon sequestration and biodiversity gain, but the benefits to mental health and wellbeing that were so clearly articulated by my hon. Friend in his opening remarks.

The benefits of tree planting are immense. Scientists predict that a worldwide tree planting programme could remove two thirds of all emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today. The University of Exeter—a university proudly in my neck of the woods in the south-west—has found that, overall, people living in green urban areas were displaying fewer signs of depression or anxiety. Trees really are a cure-all medicine. They are good for our mental health, our physical health and the health of our planet. Coronavirus has shown what really matters to people and what people value. Family, friends, community, health and nature have been what I find people in Plymouth have really valued and are focusing more on for next year. The connection with nature is really important.

Every tree matters. Labour has always been ambitious when it comes to our plans for tree planting. We want to see 1 billion new trees planted across Britain by 2030 and 2 billion by 2040, not just rows and rows of conifers, not just trees for commercial use, but a wide variety of species, deciduous and evergreen, British native species and the best varieties from around the world, adding to our rich tapestry of biodiversity. We must plant the right trees in the right places and make sure they are accessible for us all to enjoy.

We all know that we are living in a climate emergency, but too often we forget that we are living in an ecological emergency as well. To tackle the climate crisis and cut carbon, we need new forests, salt marshes and peat bogs too. We need to value biodiversity, deal with species loss and habitat loss and make sure that we are championing not only totemic, iconic species in Britain, such as badgers and so on, but insects such as beetles, little birds, and all the fantastic variety in our animal kingdom. Nature is one of our greenest allies in defending the world from climate breakdown and it is important that we use it now.

It is safe to say that the England tree plan the Government are consulting on is unambitious at best and disappointing at worst. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there is no formal way to set targets in England; that might be something the Minister will want to take on board from this debate. We need to know what success looks like, whether our tree planting efforts are going in the right direction, at the pace required, how many trees are being planted and, importantly, how many trees we are losing along the way. The Government have set out the need to plant more but do not record how many we lose, so we are only really measuring one side of that equation. We need to look at both sides if we are to make this work.

The contributions to the debate have been excellent. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I share a love of swift bricks. They may just be breeze blocks with holes in, but they are a present that should be sent to every major housebuilding developer over the Christmas season, because building back better must also mean building nature into our new developments. That means not only the correct level of planting, but building birdlife and the life of nature into that opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) set out the ambition very clearly when she talked about the need for an English ambition in this respect. There have been no contributors from Scotland today, but if we look at the level of tree planting in Scotland, we see that the heavy burden Scotland is carrying for the United Kingdom is obscuring the lack of delivery in England. The focus on English ambition that my hon. Friend spoke about is very important, as is the role of tree planting in providing nature-based solutions for flood alleviation. That is especially important in the areas that have been hardest hit by floods, including York in recent years.

The balance being tipped against nature is a very good way of describing our planning system. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Treasury about where the Dasgupta review has got to? The Government started a review of the economic value of biodiversity, which sounds like a very Conservative thing to do—putting a value in pounds, shillings and pence on everything—but there is a real logic to it. Not valuing biodiversity in the economic decisions we make effectively means that nature is worthless in those decisions. We have seen an interim report from the Treasury on the Dasgupta review, which I think in most cases pointed in the right direction, but we do not have a timetable for when the final report will be published. A timetable would be useful.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) spoke passionately, echoing the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, about the importance of the Northern forest. Setting up tree planting in a way that is accessible to people is a really important part of what we have to achieve. Rows and rows of conifers, as I described them, are really important for our commercial forestry business, and we need that business to improve because Britain is a huge importer of wood when we should be growing and using more wood of our own; but we also need to ensure that tree planting is accessible because woodland can make a really big difference to both our mental health and physical health. Awareness of that needs to be baked in to our environment policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) described the situation very well when he argued the case for councils to be at the forefront of rewooding. Borrowing the very good description of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, the process should be town hall-led and not Whitehall-driven. The idea that every town should have a new wood is also important. I support the National Trust’s campaign to ensure that everyone lives within 10 minutes’ walk of a green space, but as well as what constitutes a green space, we should consider what the nature-rich environment is that we want to create in our urban areas, and in our semi-rural areas as well—living near a field does not mean living near accessible nature. We must remember that ensuring there is more accessible nature for all communities is important.

The hon. Member for Totnes is always good value in these debates and I enjoyed his remarks this morning. The cirl bunting is a really important bird, as are many of the birds along the south coast of Devon, extending from Plymouth into Cornwall. The challenge around common land tree planting is an interesting one, but it has not been raised in the debate so far. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to continue to ask questions about how that challenge can be addressed. There is a good case for preserving the values of common land and its accessibility, so there is a good campaign in the making.

In Plymouth, we fought hard against the initial plans from David Cameron to sell off our forests. I led the campaign to save Cann Wood from being sold, and it is now reaping the benefits of people really valuing it precisely because it was almost lost. That is something that we should consider. Plymouth already has one of the largest canopy covers of any city of its size, and with the Woodland Trust our Labour council has put together an exciting plan for trees, which is a model of best practice. We want to plant a bare minimum of nearly 3,000 trees across 67 locations in addition to the 30,000 street trees and 100 hectares of woodland that Plymouth already has.

Planting the right trees in the right place is important, especially when we look at the root growth pattern of different species. There are far too many communities in our country that are blighted by unlevel pavements because of poor decisions about which species of tree to plant in which area, and too many people are dying unnecessarily in accidents because trees have been planted near relatively high-speed roads. Trees are not frangible and reflect the impact of any collision straight away, so there is much to be done in that regard, too.

I should also celebrate the arrival of Plymouth’s first beaver in hundreds of years. We will need to plant some more trees to cope with our little friend the beaver and its efforts to dam up the river around Forder valley, which is an important part of our flood prevention strategy. This is a source of much concern. The boy beaver that we have will be joined by a girl beaver in the new year, so they can have lots of little beavers.

Ancient woodland is a really important part of the debate, because once lost it can never be replaced. Only 3% of our land is ancient woodland. I want the England tree strategy to commit to preventing any further loss and to restoration of all plantation on ancient woodland sites along the way. The amendment attempted by Labour to the High Speed 2 legislation to include statutory reporting on the impact on ancient woodland in the construction process was an important contribution. I am pleased that the Government accepted that, but I have to say to Ministers that there is much more work to be done in that respect, and much good will was lost because of the decisions taken by Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about seagrass. I am not an official champion for seagrass, but as someone who has taken it to heart, I will say that we need to recognise that seagrass and kelp forests have an important part to play in carbon sequestration; they are 30 times more effective than the equivalent tree planting on land. Our ambition on land must be matched by our ambition in the marine environment. That is really important.

Ministers’ ambitions for increased tree planting and the England tree strategy must be truly cross-departmental. Highways England, Network Rail and other public bodies must have the same ambition baked into their particular values. What we have heard today should leave the Minister in no doubt that we want her to succeed in the level of tree planting that she has committed to, and to go much, much further.

It is an absolute pleasure to be having this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. What a veritable forest of parliamentary tree-huggers and lovers we have in the room! We have so much in common when we talk about trees. I like to argue with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), but that is quite difficult on this subject, although I will try on a couple of points.

Of course, I have to thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate about tree planting and the all-encompassing things that trees bring to us and to our lives. Planting more trees in England and protecting our existing woodlands are a key part of the Government’s plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

I said that I was not going to get feisty, but I will get this off my chest. We do not just talk about tree planting numbers. We have the national forest inventory, which looks at all tree planting and forestation, so it is not right to say that we talk only about the numbers of trees. Just as important to us is protecting the standing trees. This is not just about individual tree planting numbers.

I absolutely agree with the shadow Minister on the importance of planting the right tree in the right place and how we can do much more to sequester carbon and deliver all the multiple benefits that trees provide us with. That is why the Government’s ambitious “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” clearly sets out our commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees every year in the UK by 2025, protecting and restoring our natural environment, but also creating jobs. A number of hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, suggested that we are not being ambitious. I say that this plan absolutely demonstrates our ambition. This is not just a game of numbers and writing random numbers on the board; we are setting out the process and methods by which we will actually be able to plant the trees. That is the key thing, because it is not straightforward. We have to harness the good will of all the landowners in this country and all the other people involved. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, there are various big land owners, including the Church and the Ministry of Defence. Those are all important.

I think that we do have the ambition. We are committed to what I would say is a step change in how we work, and we are working closely with devolved Administrations, which is really important as well. Yes, Scotland is planting a great many trees, but it has different terrain, so people are not always comparing like with like. We have to work together on this.

We are exploring whether a statutory target for trees in England would be appropriate under the target-setting process that we have set out in the Environment Bill, which has just been through Committee. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will know, if he has listened to the Committee’s proceedings, what that process is and what it will enable. We can set a target on anything we think is the right thing to do for the environment. Certainly, we can explore whether we need targets for trees, which is tremendously exciting, because we have not had that opportunity before—that is why the Environment Bill is so great. I applaud Northern Ireland and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on the new target that has been announced for how many trees will be planted in Northern Ireland, which is to be welcomed.

We welcome the advice of the Committee on Climate Change and we will carefully consider its recommendations as we set out our sixth carbon budget. Our nature for climate fund will invest £640 million in driving up nature-based solutions, including supporting our ambitious tree planting programme. It will be underpinned by the imminent and much talked about England tree strategy, which will be published in spring, as has been referenced.

Today’s debate is timely because Lord Goldsmith, the Minister responsible for trees, with whom I work closely because trees obviously have an impact on everything to do with the environment, is hosting a roundtable right now to discuss the strategy’s development. A great deal of work continues on that.

We have an opportunity, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central rightly said, to harness this moment and have an exciting new way of thinking about trees. Over the summer, we consulted on the England tree strategy. We received more than 20,000 responses, which reflects the interest in this area and the importance placed on trees. I thank every single body and organisation that contributed to that consultation. We have a vision that will set out what we want England’s treescape to look like for future generations and how we deliver the goal set out in our 25-year environment plan.

As many hon. Members have said, trees and woodlands can deliver multiple benefits, not least for nature and biodiversity. We have heard so much about biodiversity, not least from our cirl bunting champion, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). Cirl buntings actually live in the more arable lands that we get around the coast, but that is not say that we cannot talk about them in a tree debate, because it is all about biodiversity. We need well-designed new woodlands, supported by long-term management, to help nature’s recovery.

Through our new environmental land management scheme, landowners and managers will be able to integrate trees into the landscape, which will contribute to the nature recovery networks for which there are many measures of support in the Environment Bill, and be able to support the Government’s commitment—another big Government commitment—to 30% of our land being protected by 2030.

On top of our future schemes, I encourage any farmer or landowner considering tree planting to sign up to the countryside stewardship grants now, if they have not done so already, or to extend their schemes, because those will enable them to transition to the new environmental land management scheme if they choose to in future. We already have a range of grants to encourage woodland planting, but we will be opening new grants for woodland creation in spring, with money from the nature for climate fund, which is designed to do just that.

Trees and woodlands can deliver for water and soil. We know, for example, that trees can make an important contribution to natural flood management, as we have heard from several hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). We have supported that through £5.7 million of funding in the Northern forest. Linked to that, £700,000 has been allocated to Leeds City Council for its flood alleviation scheme to help to prevent future flooding incidents in Leeds through the creation of woodlands higher up the steep-sided valleys known as cloughs. That is exactly what many hon. Members have been suggesting. Work is under way, and hopefully we will see a great deal more of it.

We are also exploring opportunities to support tree planting and woodland creation along rivers, to create riparian woodlands. We hope that the beavers will not come and gnaw them all down—beavers are very useful in one way, but not when it comes to that. It is a carefully controlled management tool that we have to work into all our processes of thinking. Woody buffer strips along waterways can be helpful in many ways.

Lord Goldsmith and I have been engaging with a number of experts and specialists who have illustrated the variety of that kind of planting, which can help our aquatic environment, mitigate flooding, and help us meet our net-zero targets. The Environment Agency has already been awarded £1.4 million from the nature for climate fund to support projects that will plant more than 850,000 trees and protect and enhance 162 km of river.

We know that tree planting is not suitable for all locations, so we will work to ensure that the vision showcases how we can deliver tree planting that is sensitive to protected landscapes and complements our heritage. We obviously need to ensure they work in harmony with habitats such as our peat lands and the uplands, and we will link up with the peat strategy to ensure that we have the trees in the right place.

A number of Members mentioned management issues with trees. Managing pests, deer and grey squirrels is obviously important if we want to maintain trees and biodiversity, as is managing outbreaks of disease, such as the devastating ash dieback, which has been mentioned. I went up to the Quantocks near me the other day, and I nearly cried; it was so devastating. I took photographs—I am always sending them to my team—of how devastating that disease is and what an impact it is going to have. The Government have already set up a nursery that is growing saplings that might be resistant. A lot of work is going on at pace to make sure we can address this, because it is so important.

The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) mentioned the horticultural nursery industry, and I think he will welcome the fact that, back in the summer, we announced a £2 million partnership of investment to work up domestic nursery capacity to provide the trees that we will need. That is obviously really important.

This is not just about woodlands, though; it is also about hedgerows and shelter belts. We have already taken some actions: we have allocated £2.5 million from the shared outcomes fund to encourage tree planting outside woodlands, and we have announced that we are introducing guidance for local authorities to do their own tree and woodland strategies. I was really interested to hear about Barnsley Council’s tree strategy. Lots of local authorities are working in that way, and it is great to be proactive. They know their areas and where they would like to have the trees.

Trees on farms are also really important. I grew up on a farm and have planted many trees, as has my dad; he has owl boxes and bird boxes all over the place. Those trees are now little woods, so that shows that if we get on with it, it is worth it. I hope the hon. Member for Bristol East will welcome the fact that we have just released guidance on how agroforestry, which integrates trees into the farm landscape, as she eloquently outlined, can be eligible for the basic payment scheme. I agree that could make a really big contribution to our landscapes.

Many hon. Members mentioned urban trees, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—I congratulate him on his success with his ten-minute rule Bill. The Government listened, so what a great start. Sit down now—excellent work! I also have to congratulate him on his Latin pronunciation. He made so many good points. Urban trees are so important and will play a part, as will community, forest and parkland trees, which have multiple benefits. We have spent £10 million on the urban tree challenge fund, which has planted just over 18,000 trees across towns and cities to date. We will be continuing with that funding.

On top of that, we are supporting urban tree planting through the green recovery challenge fund. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned the planting of 145,000 trees over 88 sites—I think a lot of that came from funding—and I congratulate him on that. That is the model that others should follow, so I hope they keep up the great work.

On the green recovery challenge fund, Earthwatch has recently received funding to plant tiny forests the size of tennis courts. I am a tennis player and I still want some tennis courts, but that is a great idea. Earthwatch has just got an allocation from the new fund that the Government launched, and that will also help with jobs in that world. The forests will connect our communities to trees.

I want to touch on the net gain point that was raised. Developers will be responsible for maintaining the new woodlands that they create through the net gain process. Under the Environment Bill, every developer will have to put back 10% more nature than was there when it started and will have to look after it for 30 years.

The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the importance of nature to our health and wellbeing; many people in this Chamber have touched on that today. That, too, is recognised in our vision for trees, particularly through the community woodlands and the urban and peri-urban planting. As I have set out, we are supporting the existing Northern forest partnership of the community forest and the Woodland Trust. It is a brilliant partnership. The investment is funding the planting of at least 1.8 million new trees across the Northern forest. I applaud the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for being there at the start and then at the millionth tree. The Government are utterly committed to the project.

Hot on the heels of the Northern forest comes the new Northumberland forestry partnership, which will facilitate tree planting in Northumberland. I hope that will help to address the need for more trees in the north. We are doing that at pace. The new nature for climate fund announced £12 million for community forests. The new trees for climate programme will see more than 500 hectares of trees planted in 10 community forests across the country within the next so many months, so that is moving at pace.

Who will plant these new trees? We will need to inspire a generation of foresters. [Interruption.] The Chair is indicating that I need to wind up, so I will do so by answering a couple of questions. I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for his letter to the Secretary of State; he will receive a reply. On the nine shovel-ready projects, I urge him to look at the £200 million innovation fund that opens in January, so will he please apply? Obviously, we will work with all those people to bring all that forward.

Ancient woodlands are hugely important to us, so we have given them extra protection. I had a great visit the other day in Fingle Woods, Dartmoor, where we have provided another fund to help manage that woodland and bring forward new skills to train foresters and sawmill owners, and to provide portable sawmills. There are all kinds of new opportunities in timber. Yes, we need to grow more at home, and yes, we need to use more at home.

I shall wind up, Mr Hollobone, because I know you want me to. I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for securing this debate. There is a huge amount of synergy in the room. We are totally committed to our tree strategy. I am going home this weekend to plant an amelanchier—a beautiful garden tree that Lord Goldsmith gave me for my birthday. I am going to start this weekend, and I urge every Member to do the same, including the Chair. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central as a champion of COP26. I am sure there is a lot more that we will be able to discuss.

This has been a really useful and constructive debate. I am grateful to all Members for their contributions. It has been great to hear about local environmental projects, and of course I am hugely encouraged by the support that exists for the Northern forest. The shadow Minister said that we are willing the Minister on, and we are. There is real agreement that planting trees is a key part of our efforts to address climate change in the biodiversity collapse. The England tree strategy represents an important opportunity to rethink our approach to planting trees and to tree cover.

On the point about targets, what gets measured gets done, so I encourage the Minister to be bold. Given the climate emergency that we all know we are living through, we need to get on with this. Ahead of the COP26 conference next year, there is a really important opportunity to champion nature-based solutions and to show real global leadership, so I hope the Government will meet the moment with the urgency it deserves.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the National Tree Strategy.

Order. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes. I urge hon. Members to leave by the exit door on the left as quickly as possible.

Sitting suspended.

Walthamstow Toy Library Eviction: NHS Role

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the NHS’s role in the eviction of the Walthamstow Toy Library.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to start by saying that I am sorry that we must have this debate, because I know there are some incredibly serious issues facing our health service. All our communities are dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. I wish I were asking the Minister about that, because that should be his priority. However, under the cover of the pandemic, something is taking place in my community.

I am hoping this morning for a bit of a Christmas miracle and some positive news for my local community about something that hundreds of residents have expressed concern about, and I know many more will. It is the fate of our local toy library. The Walthamstow toy library has been there for more than 40 years, serving thousands of children and their families locally. It is vital community resource. It does not just loan toys, but helps with children’s social development and provides emotional support to parents in the ninth poorest community for child poverty in the country.

Its mission is to provide a safe and stimulating place for young children and their parents and carers to play, learn and interact. What does that mean in practice? It means a wealth of activities: help to support new mums to breastfeed, mental health support for those with post-natal depression, support for children with special educational needs, advice on healthy eating and living activities, and outreach, as well as the promotion of wider social objectives such as recycling and, of course, loaning toys and encouraging child development.

Do not take it from me, Minister—take it from the users of the service. Stacy, one of the many mums from Walthamstow on a low income, wrote to me:

“As a first time mum, I found the social aspect of motherhood very daunting. The thought of meeting other mothers whilst supporting my child to play and interact with other children seemed almost impossible! This was until I came across the Toy Library. You would assume such facilities and service wouldn’t be available to those who couldn’t financially afford it but this isn’t the case. The Toy Library doesn’t have such barriers in place, so it means if you are a parent who needs that financial support through borrowing of toys or affordable entry/membership it is available. I felt very supported and encouraged to become part of the Toy Library without being judged for my circumstances.”

The Minister might say to me, “That sounds all very nice, but what about health care?” That is ultimately his priority. I want to highlight that we have a very high level of challenge in my local community when it comes to child and maternal health. The World Health Organisation has a vaccination target of 95%. I am sorry to say that my borough does not meet that for any vaccine: under 30% of two to three-year-olds have had the flu jab in my borough this year. Our measles, mumps, rubella rates are well below the England average, with only 83% of children aged 24 months in Waltham Forest vaccinated. Our rates of childhood obesity are also above the national average.

The library supports not just children but their mums. During lockdown, my office has been inundated by mothers with post-natal depression who have had no support since health visitors were taken away. It has been the toy library that has offered vital help for those mums, too. Indeed, during the pandemic they stepped up to support many low income families in Walthamstow, offering one-to-one contact with 150 of them, providing activity ideas and helping to deal with the isolation that so many families have felt in the past months. They offered parents one-to-one support with a trained counsellor, renewed play sessions, when they could, and offered craft packs to nearly 1,000 local children. These are critical services that have never been more needed, which have a health outcome. They deal with mental health and mean we have a connection with some of the hardest-to-reach children in our community.

The Walthamstow toy library has just eight members of staff and an annual turnover of £85,000. That means that the work they do and the impact they have is all the more remarkable. They do not receive any public subsidy. Occasionally, they have a grant from the council, but they fund all their activities through relentless fundraising and a network of alumni, who recognise the value of their work to local children and the community. That is why I am asking for a Christmas miracle from Ministers today. We are in danger of losing this vital resource in Walthamstow, which, importantly, represents value for money.

Walthamstow toy library has been in the same building since 1986. It is a purpose-built building, on the site of the original toy library that was knocked down to make way for the Comely Bank campus, which is the space it is now in. The Comely Bank campus was a local improvement finance trust company initiative for the NHS, which is where the Minister starts to begin to take responsibility for this. The Minister should be worried not just about my local toy library, but about what this episode reveals for the wider NHS property account, for which he has responsibility.

LIFT was supposed to be the not-for-profit version of the private finance initiative—that old chestnut—helping to bring much-needed properties to the NHS, but it is clear that the company running this building is motivated by money, not the needs of my local community. When it was first built and run by the primary care trust, it was agreed that the toy library would have a peppercorn rent, so the toy library would be there, work with healthcare providers and provide all those services to the local community.

LIFTCos also meant that the NHS would have some control over GP services and primary care facilities in those buildings. Although the PCTs only had a small stake, they had some ability to determine how local facilities were built and used. Since PCTs were abolished and their stake referred to a company called Community Health Partnerships, all that local control has gone.

LIFTCo behaviour is now dominated by their private financers, often hidden from view, who are seeking to maximise their returns by charging extortionately high rents and service charges. As this case shows, the overriding drive of Community Health Partnerships is not what our community needs or wants, but how it can generate as much income as possible to pay back the debt and provide a return to its shareholders, known as RWF Health and Community Developers Ltd.

For eight years, and through multiple ownership structures of the building, including the eventual abolition of the PCT and then working with the NHS Waltham Forest Clinical Commissioning Group, the Walthamstow toy library has frankly been treated as a nuisance by the CCG and CHP. Those organisations have also failed to provide adequate healthcare services to my community. Indeed, the CCG is one of the services most complained about to my office.

For years, the volunteers who work at the Walthamstow toy library have been trying to sort out their lease, to work with the CCG and to be commissioned to provide services to help address issues such as the poor vaccination rate or childhood obesity. Frankly, the CCG has not just refused but has been point-blank rude about those offers, including to me and the volunteers. The volunteers have tried, in vain, because they know how much it means to the community and because they have suddenly started getting bills for hundreds of thousands of pounds for the building.

Suddenly, Waltham Forest CCG wished to claim that the cost of having a toy library there is around £60,000 a year. For property aficionados, let me be clear what we are talking about: it is 120 square metres, with a kitchen, two toilets and a garden. I know everybody thinks that Walthamstow village is fancy and expensive, but I have talked to local estate agents and even if it were the most swanky building, the most they think such a building should cost is £30,000 a year, with service charges. I thank community estate agents, such as Strettons, for helping us and for being so shocked for our community.

It is not just about the rent they are trying to charge. When we look at the amounts of money that the CCG and CHP seem to want, the toy library’s charges seem to have increased at a much higher rate than for the property as a whole: from £77,000 in 2019 to £102,000 in 2020-21—an annual increase of 32%—yet the overall lease for Comely Bank seems to have increased by only 2.8%. One might query why the toy library, a charitable organisation, is suddenly being asked to pay an excessive amount of rent and charges, compared with anyone in the rest of the building.

Leaving that aside, the CCG itself—it has not negotiated with the toy library but summarily issued documents—has agreed to pay for the presence of the toy library, honouring the original agreement for a peppercorn rent so that the toy library could be in Walthamstow. However, it should trouble the Minister, given the concern that I know he has for value for money, that any one side of the NHS should be charging another double the cost of a building, before service charges. I think that the honest truth is that that is why the CCG has refused to work with me and residents to try to save the toy library, and why, indeed, it is colluding in evicting it.

It should also trouble the Minister that Andrew Meakin, the regional property director for CHP, wrote to me threatening to send bailiffs to the toy library to recover nearly £200,000-worth of debt that he claimed it owed in building and service charges. He argued that CHP is a publicly-owned company and could not see any option except to progress debt collection through the usual channels, to recoup public funds. That was in October. Those were costs that the CCG had already claimed it would pay and, indeed, that CHP knew about and subsequently, mysteriously, issued credit notes for. However, one can imagine what it must feel like for volunteers to receive a bill for £200,000 from an organisation claiming to represent the NHS.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the detail of the coronavirus legislation that places a moratorium on commercial landlords evicting people. The current time of great uncertainty in funding and operations for the toy library means that it is hard for it to raise funds. Mr Meakin is acting as the Christmas Grinch in trying to chase revenue sources for which he has already been paid twice, to justify evicting the toy library. It gets worse, however. He demanded that the toy library should act as a commercial operator and charge fees for services that it does not provide, suggesting that its offering is less commercial than those of its rivals in my constituency, as though the building was a commercial one. The whole point about the service is that it is not commercial. It is open to everyone. That is the benefit.

It is interesting to me that CHP demands commercial behaviour and transparency from the toy library while it is unwilling to be honest about its own activities. Despite being a public sector body, it is wholly unaccountable about revealing how much it makes through charging such extortionate rents. For any other PFI deal I could go to the Treasury database and see the interest on the loan that is driving the situation, but it has refused to reveal that information, even with a freedom of information request, claiming that to do so would prejudice the commercial interests of CHP and its private developers, RWF Health and Community Developers Ltd. It then argues—this is surely meant to be ironic—that revealing how much money it is making would impact on its abilities in relation to services in areas of high social and health need, which I presume means areas such as my constituency.

I am not sure what the commercial interests are with respect to what is supposedly an NHS building, but I guess that some of them are overseas. In the FOI response it was claimed that there have been no subsequent sales of shares in the project since it was first commissioned. However, a look at the company accounts shows that the subsidiary and the ultimate parent company, HICL, have been part of nine different holding companies for the building. Indeed, Barclays sold its share in this LIFTCo to HICL in 2013. It is not clear how much Barclays sold the share for, but, as we have all seen with PFI, HICL was registered offshore in Guernsey at the time, and remained so until 2018.

It is also clear that around £3.2 million in management fees has been extracted from the subsidiary of the LIFTCo between 2007 and 2020. It looks as though that is in addition to the returns to shareholders and the interest on debt repayments. That sum would be more than enough to cover the alleged cost of having the Waltham Forest toy library in there for decades to come.

I ask the Minister, as a starting point—given that he is a stakeholder, and that ultimately CHP is owned by the Secretary of State—whether he can tell me what the internal rate of return is. I am sure that he would agree that it is in the public interest to know that. What does he think the commercial interests are? It is my understanding that the CCG is colluding with CHP to evict the Walthamstow toy library so that it can put another tenant in the building. However, that is the same CCG that will, I have no doubt, come to the Minister at some point for funding for property. Essentially, one side of the NHS is asking the other for over-inflated rents—robbing Peter to pay Paul. That would irk me less if the CCG had not presided over a building that has been under-occupied for years. The under-occupation rate has been 20% since 2016, and in the last year it has been 30%—all in a building whose lease finishes in less than 10 years.

In the absence of being able to hold CHP accountable, I have come to the Minister to ask for his help and to ask whether he believes that the decisions that are being taken square with his statutory duties under the Health and Social Care Act 2012 to reduce inequalities and promote a comprehensive health service. It is not acceptable to say that these are just decisions for the local LIFTCo or CHP, when CHP is owned by the Secretary of State and it is refusing to answer questions. There is a vacuum in which the interests of private finance have come before the public in Walthamstow.

This is not just a constituency problem, because CHP manages 5% of the NHS property estate. If it is behaving in such ways in other parts of the country, other communities are also being overcharged for their properties. In other parts of the NHS, social prescribing has been the way forward, working with community organisations, such as at the Michael Burke Wellbeing Centre in Suffolk or Houghton Primary Care Centre in Houghton le Spring.

We know that PFI was the wrong move—Governments of all sides have recognised that—and we all want to sort it out, but LIFTCos have not had the same level of scrutiny. Can the Minister tell me who will own the building in less than 10 years’ time? Can he tell me how much it is costing us as taxpayers? Can he tell me whether he believes that in evicting the Walthamstow toy library, CHP is adhering to the original lease, as it is required to do, which talked about non-NHS use and working with local communities? Above all, can he offer me some advice and help on how I can support my local community, which is struggling in the pandemic, and those children who rely on the toy library, to make sure that we have a toy library for many years to come in Walthamstow?

I know the Minister has been told one thing by the CCG and CHP, but I would be happy to inform him of my experience of dealing with these organisations and the truth of the attempts at negotiation. With Christmas just a few days away, will he play Santa to the children of Walthamstow and commit today to supporting the Walthamstow toy library and helping us to save it?

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will endeavour not to qualify for the Grinch’s green suit in what I am about to say to the hon. Lady. I congratulate her on securing this debate. It is always a pleasure to appear opposite her and she has always been a strong and vocal champion for her constituents in this House.

The hon. Lady has raised a number of points, and I am grateful to her for highlighting in advance the outline and contours of the issue, which means that I have had an opportunity to look into some of it. I will come back to this point later, but I make the offer that I am very happy, as soon as we return after the Christmas recess, to meet her to go into more detail about the issues she has raised and some of the history and chronology of what has happened here, if that is helpful to her.

I know the hon. Lady has been an active supporter of and campaigner for the Walthamstow toy library, which is an important local charity, and she started the campaign to save it from possibly having to move from the current premises, as she has talked about today. As she highlighted, the building is owned by one of the NHS local improvement finance trust companies, CHP, and that is one of the companies that is managed by the Department for Health and Social Care, or owned by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. It is now the head tenant for the property, having taken over from the PCT in 2013, when PCTs were abolished. CHP sublet to GPs and other providers of NHS services that received the majority of their income from the local CCG.

I note at the outset that the hon. Lady may wish to challenge some of these points when we meet, as she has done today. As has been related to me, in 2005, the toy library was incentivised to relocate to the new building following the destruction, for want of a better way of putting it, of its old building, by being offered a lease at a peppercorn rent, with a small contribution towards running costs for 10 years, which started on 27 September 2005. It occupies about 9% of the building.

That original lease was between the PCT and the toy library, meaning the PCT bore the cost. In 2013, when the lease was transferred to CHP and the local CCG, they agreed to honour that previous subsidy. My understanding is that during 2015 there were extensive negotiations between CHP, the toy library, the CCG and Waltham Forest children’s services on the expiry of the lease. It was recognised then by the CCG that the toy library would at the very least need time to review the options available to it and to explore securing alternative accommodation, other funding sources to increase its income or, for example, a contract for commissioned services from the council in order to pay its rent. As such, the CCG agreed to subsidise the occupancy for a further three years, beginning on 1 April 2015, at a cost of £50,000 per annum, with contributions also coming from the LIFT company and CHP for the balance of that.

By 2018, my understanding is that no progress had been made in sourcing alternative accommodation, and that the CCG agreed to a further three years of subsidising the rent on similar terms, continuing to contribute £50,000 per annum to costs, with a continued contribution from the LIFT company. The position of the CCG and the LIFT company is that this was always intended to be an interim measure for three years. They state that they sent a clear message to the toy library that, by March 2021, it was expected to pay the full cost of occupancy if it was to remain a tenant. The hon. Lady has put on the record a different interpretation of that, which I am happy to explore with her. If she wants to intervene, I will happily allow it.

It may be useful to clarify that at no point has the CCG told the toy library that it is to leave the building; indeed, the CCG keeps telling me that it is not evicting the toy library. More importantly, in the chronology that the Minister talks about, if the toy library had been told to find an alternative building, why was it working on commissioning services together with the CCG? I fear that the Minister has been sadly misled by Selina Douglas and the Waltham Forest CCG on this matter.

I was about to make one final point, which is that I understand that a further three-month extension was agreed until 30 June 2021. However, I highlight what the hon. Lady said, not only just now but previously, which clearly suggests that a different complexion has been put on this issue. That is why my meeting her would be useful.

I will put on the record one or two points. It is important to note that the subsidy paid by the CCG is an arrangement that is not offered to any other charitable or voluntary group within the borough. I recognise, as the hon. Lady set out, the value that this charity brings. In my distant past when I was a Westminster city councillor, before I was a Leicestershire MP, I recognised the value that toy libraries and similar charities brought to the local community in London. I put that on the record because we must always remain conscious of fairness. There are specific circumstances, but I just wanted to highlight that point.

The hon. Lady talked about social prescribing, and she is absolutely right. That goes to my experience in seeing the huge value that charity facilities such as this can bring not only to those who are in need, but to others within the community more broadly who access the toy library and come together in that context. Such facilities are hugely important in the communities where they exist. They bring people together and provide mutual support, often to families and individuals who may not have a medical need, or who may not want their needs to be dealt with through medical means, but who find the support they need—help through a difficult time, or just more broadly—through such facilities. I recognise their value.

During the time that the toy library has been in this building, the CHP and the CCG suggest that a substantial debt for service charges and utility bills has accrued, which they assert that the toy library clearly agreed to pay as part of the original lease, separate from the rent. I see from the hon. Lady’s expression that that will feature in our discussion. I appreciate that there are different perspectives on the form that engagement has taken. CHP and the CCG have engaged with the toy library on a number of occasions to explore solutions to the issues that have arisen. Those solutions have included moving to a more sustainable business model, becoming a social enterprise or having the council commission services. They state that the toy library has been supported in those discussions to find alternative premises, with options explored including whether it could be relocated or co-located with other services for children and families.

The toy library of course has the first option on this space, certainly until the end of that period of extension, but I understand that, in the meantime, a feasibility study has been commissioned by the CCG on prioritising use of the building for health purposes. There are no signed agreements yet, but NHS parties state that they are reserving the right to reconfigure the building for what they deem to be its primary purpose: in their words, to get best value for the local health economy. However, to the hon. Lady’s point, we must always be conscious of the need to look at value not just in financial terms or in purely primary care terms, but in terms of broader health benefits and broader benefits to the community. Value, for want of a better way of putting it, takes many forms, not always with pound signs involved: there are broader, more intangible measures of value. Again, I am very happy to explore that aspect of the issue with her when we meet.

The view and perspective of CHP, the local CCG and the LIFT is that they have sought to engage constructively with the toy library since they first assumed that relationship—in 2013, if my memory of what I just said serves me—but they do need to look to the future. The suggestion of finding an alternative space at a similar peppercorn rent, for example, may be a way forward. However, I again note what the hon. Lady said: this is a purpose-built space for the toy library, and a shared space with others coming in and coming out would not necessarily work with the model for the services that are provided to the people who use it. I hope that as we look to the future, both the toy library and—equally, and hugely importantly—the CCG and CHP will try to engage, genuinely and openly, to explore options around either finance or genuinely viable alternative premises. I also hope that throughout, they will engage directly, and indeed courteously, with the hon. Lady as a representative of her constituents in this House.

The hon. Lady raised two specific points that I am happy to look at and discuss with her: one was about the IRR, and one was about levels of management fees. If she will permit me, I will take those away and look at them, and when we meet we can discuss those points.

This is a challenging situation, and clearly, some compromises may have to be made on both sides to move us forward. I have therefore already asked the CCG, CHP and the LIFT company to engage further with the toy library, openly and constructively, and to report back to me with a jointly agreed update on progress at the end of February. The hon. Lady has raised some significant issues, and I would hope to meet with her well before that stage, because I am keen to hear from her in a way that is not always possible in debates in this House. Although debates may raise the profile of an issue and highlight scrutiny of it, we can sometimes get into more detail in a private conversation. I am very happy to meet her and see whether we can find a constructive way forward that genuinely meets the needs of her community. Thank you, Mr Hollobone.

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not allowed a right of reply. Generously, I will allow her to intervene on the Minister, if he agrees that he has not finished his speech, but the intervention has to be brief.

Apologies; when I said “Thank you, Mr Hollobone”, I thought that I had caught your eye and you were about to stand, so I sat down. If I may, I will finish my conclusion, and should the hon. Lady wish to intervene on me, I am happy to take that intervention.

I thank the Minister for letting me intervene, and for the good Christmas cheer that he is bringing. Can I confirm that a side letter was sent by the CCG to the Walthamstow toy library in, I think, 2018, committing to paying all the costs of it being in the building? As such, the suggestion that charges were outstanding is another misleading statement. When he looks into the issue, could he also clarify who will own the building after 2030, when the original lease runs out? We are fewer than 10 years away, and surely any redevelopment of the building has to take place in that context.

I will very much take the Minister up on his offer of a meeting, because I think a way forward can be found to save the Walthamstow toy library where it is. I hope CHP and Waltham Forest CCG are listening very clearly, and that they will finally start to engage properly with my community. In view of that, I wish everybody a merry Christmas.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. If she is able and happy to forward me a copy of that letter—she may have to do so in confidence—I am very happy to look at it, because it will be useful for me to see it before we meet. She has raised a number of other questions; forgive me, because I did not pick up on that one when I answered. Again, in so far as I am able to discuss that issue with her, I will do so, and my office will get in touch with hers after this debate to try to get us a meeting in January. I hope that, as I say, we will be able to find a constructive and positive way forward that works for the NHS, for her community and for all parties involved, including the toy library.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.

Breast Cancer Screening

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

[Relevant document: e-petition 332828, Lower the age that breast screening services are offered.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered breast cancer screening.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

I am pleased to have secured this debate on a really important issue that affects so many people in the High Peak and across the country. I am glad to see the Minister in her place today and very grateful to her for meeting me to discuss this issue. I look forward to hearing her response to the debate, as well as the thoughts of colleagues who are in Westminster Hall today. I pay tribute to those colleagues who have worked so hard on this issue over many years, especially through the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who led a debate on this issue just last month.

In my lifetime, we have come a long, long way on breast cancer research, treatment and survival rates. Despite that huge progress, breast cancer remains one of the biggest health challenges facing this country. Every year, one in seven women will develop breast cancer, which is 55,000 women. Also, 370 men will develop breast cancer every year; it is important that we do not forget them. Almost 1,000 women die from breast cancer every month and around 600,000 people are living with or after breast cancer, including 35,000 women living with secondary breast cancer. I will repeat those figures—almost 1,000 women die of breast cancer every month, which is around 11,500 women every year. Just in my small local area, an estimated 223 people develop breast cancer every year and 41 people die from it, almost all of them from secondary breast cancer. Those numbers cannot begin to convey the heartbreak caused to too many families, who grieve the loss of a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife or a partner.

We know that early diagnosis is the best way of preventing these deaths and increasing the chances of survival. Around 186,000 women a month are screened in England, which prevents an estimated 1,300 deaths every year. However, although it is true that there has been increased uptake of screening nationally, that uptake has not been evenly spread across the country. Of the women aged between 50 and 70 invited for screening in my local area, 69.7% attended within six months. That is lower than the 72.4% average across England.

I fear that the situation in my area has been made worse by the recent commissioning decision by NHS Midlands to withdraw the breast cancer mobile screening unit from Buxton, Chapel-en-le-Frith and New Mills in the High Peak, citing covid as the reason. Instead, my constituents are being asked to travel to appointments at Bakewell in the Derbyshire dales.

I am very worried about the impact that decision is having. To be clear, this is no slight at all on Newholme Hospital in Bakewell and the fantastic staff there; I pay tribute to them and to all NHS staff working in breast cancer screening services. It is a question of accessibility. The Peak district is beautiful, but our transport links are poor, especially in the winter months, when road closures are common because of extreme weather. For example, driving from the village of Rowarth to Bakewell typically takes just under an hour and involves having to drive a good part of the way on single-track country lanes, which are often closed when there is snow or heavy rainfall. Public transport links between the High Peak and Bakewell are even more limited. The railway between Buxton and Bakewell closed in 1968, cutting off the High Peak from the rest of Derbyshire.

I am very worried about how many women in my area will be unable to make screening appointments, which is why I have been campaigning to get the mobile screening unit reinstated in the High Peak as a matter of urgency. In just a few weeks, over 2,000 local people have signed my petition calling for its reinstatement. I hope that the Government will listen and that the Minister can give my constituents good news today. I was very grateful to her for meeting me last week to discuss this issue, when she gave me positive news by assuring me that the current arrangement is temporary. However, it has often been said that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary Government measure, so I hope that she can be more specific today and that we can get a date for when we can expect these services to be reinstated to the High Peak.

More broadly, to help more people get a diagnosis early on, we need the capacity ready in our local health services. Breast Cancer Now found that 40% of hospital trusts and health boards—including Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Stepping Hill Hospital and so serves a large part of my constituency—could not say how many secondary breast cancer patients were under their care.

Coronavirus has placed immense pressure on our NHS workforce and infrastructure. It is essential that we keep the virus under control, but there is a heavy cost. In March, the breast cancer screening programme was officially paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and was paused in all but name in England. Screening has restarted, but access is not rising fast enough nationally, and it is falling in places such as High Peak. Breast cancer screening services in England are running at around 60% of normal capacity, according to Cancer Research UK. As a result, there was a 70% drop in all cancers being reported in some parts of the country, leading to nearly 107,000 fewer breast cancer referrals. Despite the fall in referrals, cancer waiting times have increased. In August, the rate of achieving the two-week wait target fell to 87.8% from 90% the previous month.

I am grateful to the digital engagement team and Breast Cancer Now for reaching out to people affected by breast cancer screening delays caused by covid. I thank everyone who responded ahead of the debate to share their experiences. For example, Gill said:

“My routine screening was rescheduled (twice) from April 2020 to Sep 2020. I was then diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer spread to a lot of lymph nodes. I can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been to have picked this up 6 months earlier.”

This has been happening to people across the country, with serious consequences that must be addressed. Breast Cancer Now estimates a backlog of nearly 1 million women requiring screening across the UK because of the pause in March. We do not know how long it will take to catch up. Around 8,600 of these women could have been living with undetected breast cancer.

As the general population ages and lives longer, the number of women and men developing breast cancer has increased. Of course, people younger than 50 can also develop breast cancer, and it is important that they also have access to screening. I take this chance to note that more than 13,000 people have signed an e-petition in support of lowering the age at which screening services are offered, including many in High Peak. We clearly need to ramp up capacity to meet the rising demand for screenings. Not doing so will put the NHS workforce infrastructure under incredible strain. I ask the Minister: what action are the Government taking to ensure that women respond to open invitations and make appointments for screening, and how many women have been screened this year compared with last year?

Managing demand for screenings as a result of increased uptake and the backlog created by covid requires a long-term strategy to raise capacity, with a strong focus on the NHS workforce. There is a serious worry of burnout among NHS workers due to the sustained physical, psychological and emotional pressure of this difficult year. A British Medical Association survey revealed that 28% of doctors have found non-covid demand to be higher than before the pandemic, with 58% saying that they are concerned about their ability to care for patients, 44% worried about plans to manage the huge backlog of patients and 65% saying that staffing shortages are the most pressing concern.

That is compounded by the fact that a considerable proportion of the breast cancer screening workforce is approaching retirement. Around half of all mammographers are aged 50 and likely to retire in five to 10 years. This has led to a rise in vacancies for crucial roles. Public Health England has reported a 15% vacancy rate for mammography; that only 18% of screening units are adequately resourced with radiotherapy staff; and that one in four trusts and health boards has at least one vacant consultant breast radiologist post. Ensuring that the breast imaging and diagnostic workforce is fully staffed and trained is critical to the delivery of the commitment in the NHS England long-term plan to ensure that the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 rises from around half to three quarters by 2028. I understand that the pandemic delayed the publication of the full implementation plan, but further detailed is needed.

NHS workforce development was not mentioned in the recent spending review, and there has not been a national NHS workforce strategy since 2003. We need to prioritise that work to be sure that the new NHS funding is being used in the best way possible. Long-term solutions cannot be sacrificed because of short-term pressures.

I am therefore glad that the Government asked Professor Sir Mike Richards to review screening programmes as part of the NHS long-term plan. The review concluded that the main obstacle to achieving the commitment on cancer diagnosis is the size of the workforce, and the equipment and facilities available to them. Professor Sir Mike Richards recommended that we recruit 2,000 additional radiologists and 4,000 radiographers, as well as other support staff, and replace outdated testing machines. Those recommendations ought to be a critical part of the next NHS people plan, setting out a long-term strategy for the NHS workforce. I hope that the Minister is able to update us on when she expects to publish a plan to implement the review. It will also be interesting to learn how the new National Institute for Health Protection will affect the breast cancer screening programme.

It is crucial that people are not discouraged from seeking help with a health problem. The NHS’s “Help Us Help You” campaign is a promising initiative that urges people to speak to their GP if they are worried about possible cancer symptoms. I understand that people feel reluctant to come forward, worried that they might catch the virus or be a burden on the health service, but it is more important than ever that women are able to have a regular screening check-up. If the campaign is successful, I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government expect the NHS workforce to cope with increased demand during the winter months.

The Government need to set out how capacity in the diagnostic workforce will be managed; provide funding to grow the workforce and ensure they are properly resourced; and increase the number of facilities where people can be diagnosed. That includes reinstating important services across the country, such as the mobile screening unit in High Peak. Failure to do so will reduce our chances of delivering the early diagnosis, treatment and care that could help thousands of people beat breast cancer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for securing this important debate.

Finding breast cancer early will save lives—that is the bottom line and has always been the case. The earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. That is the messaging that needs to be harnessed moving forward. Fifty-five thousand women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK per year. We are doing much better, but those figures are a stark reminder of the prevalence of this type of cancer in our communities.

In my local patch, West Bromwich East has about 141 per 10,000 people developing breast cancer, compared with 168 per 10,000 across England. That means 284 people in my constituency are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. In West Bromwich, 67.5% of women aged 50 to 70 are invited to attend a screening within six months—a figure that is significantly worse than the 72.4% across England. The uptake of screening appointment invitations is also significantly worse than the England average.

Aside from screening appointment uptake, we have a wider issue that affects the entire NHS. As an increased percentage of the population becomes eligible for breast cancer screening, the existing infrastructure needs to evolve to meet that demand, in terms of both a trained workforce and diagnosis machines. Indeed, Professor Sir Mike Richards’ independent review of adult screening programmes in England, which was committed to in the NHS long-term plan, made some incredibly interesting findings when it was published last year. Most strikingly, according to the review, screening programmes are constrained by the size and nature of their workforce and by the equipment and facilities available to them. That will act as a barrier to implementing the review’s recommendations.

The breast cancer screening workforce are being put under increasing strain as the populations eligible for breast screening increase. Creating the capacity for that change is key to ensuring that screening programmes are fit for the future. The Chancellor’s spending review announcement committing £325 million for the NHS to invest in new diagnostics machines such as MRI and CT scanners was clearly welcome, but that is only a short-term fix to address the current backlog. Ultimately, it comes down to education about the importance of the issue and of the process of getting women to be screened. We also need to move away from the idea that only the over-50s are diagnosed with breast cancer; young people are affected too.

Various online petitions to lower the age at which breast cancer screening services are offered outline a crucial point. Research shows that the X-ray mammogram test used in the breast cancer screening procedures, which can spot cancer when it is too small to see or feel, is much less effective in younger women due to their tissue density. Therefore, educating young women to check for anything abnormal in their body has never been more important, mainly because we know that they have a much higher chance of survival if it is caught early.

I ask the Minister to update us on the Government’s plans to lower the age at which breast screening services are offered and on what the Government plan to do to help younger people identify breast cancer sooner. The NHS has a serious job on its hands to break down these barriers, where people simply think it will be okay and do not get screened. We need to be proactive in encouraging people to take this seriously.

We have made amazing progress so far, but more can be done and early diagnosis is key. I can relate to that directly. Six months after my aunt passed away from secondary breast cancer, my mum—her sister—was also diagnosed. I advised her to be on the lookout for early signs, namely dimples. She is in full health now, but if I had not told her of the signs back then, things could have been different. My mum would not have gone to see her GP and she would not have known some of the lesser-known early warning signs of breast cancer.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a backlog in screening and treatment. Breast Cancer Now estimates that a significant backlog of nearly 1 million women requiring screening built up across the UK in the course of this year. It is unclear how long it will take to catch up. Some measures have been taken to try to ensure attendance at the reduced number of appointments available. In England, from the end of September to the end of March 2021, women will be sent open invitations to call and make an appointment for screening, rather than a timed appointment.

Research shows that the number of women making appointments is significantly lower than those who attend timed appointments. That could worsen the persistent decline that we have seen in the take-up of breast cancer screening in recent years. The impact this will have on groups among which the uptake is already low is particularly concerning—for example, women living in deprived areas and some black and minority ethnic groups. How can we reach these people, reassure them and encourage them to be screened? I would be grateful if the Minister has any ideas on this. Will she also confirm what action the Government are taking to ensure that women are sent open invitations to make an appointment for screening, and what success there has been in the take-up of open invitations?

Our NHS staff have worked tirelessly over the course of this dreadful pandemic and made sacrifices on an unimaginable scale. We need to back them in this place on breast cancer screening too. I passionately believe that it is everyone’s role to promote the importance of breast cancer screening and early diagnosis, and to ensure that we have the right number of women screened as early as possible. After covid-19 is over, this should be one of our new “saving lives” messages.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for securing this debate. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) made a remarkably good speech, citing her own family’s experience.

Both hon. Members have spoken about Breast Cancer Now’s assessment that almost 1 million women have missed a screening during this period. Its assessment is that that would mean 8,650 women may be out there with undetected breast cancer. Cancer Research UK assesses that screening services are running at 60% capacity. That means the situation is getting worse week by week. A hundred fewer women started treatment for breast cancer each day in May and June than during those months in 2019.

If we look beyond breast cancer, in my county of Cumbria there is a 17% reduction in the number of people starting cancer treatment this year compared to 2019. It is fair to assume, therefore, that roughly one in six people who would have been diagnosed with cancers of all kinds is out there undiagnosed. We know that for every four weeks treatment is delayed, for whatever reason, the chances one has of survival fall by 10%. That delay in treatment can be due to a delay in people coming forward, a delay in diagnosis and a delay in treatment.

Any Government of any combination of colours would have been thrown by the coronavirus. In those early months the messaging was really good and powerful: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” It often occurs to me that the position of the NHS in British society, the affection in which it is held, was a key driver. I suspect that in another country, where the message might have been, “Protect the expensive private healthcare that you use, through exorbitant insurance models,” would probably have been less compelling. The NHS was a key driver and the Government deployed it well.

Why were we protecting the NHS? We were doing so not only so that we could tackle covid, but so that the NHS could carry on its lifesaving work in every other area. People not coming forward for treatment, for reasons that have been mentioned, such as being scared of being infected or nervousness about being a burden and troubling staff, is a huge part of the reason why the backlog exists.

There were treatment cancellations for perfectly good clinical reasons, as well as those for not good clinical reasons. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on radiotherapy, and Members would be staggered if I did not talk about radiotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer and other forms. Radiotherapy is the clean form of cancer treatment. It does not affect immunity and is not likely to open up someone to infection. The amount of radiotherapy being delivered during that period should not have been changed, because people are at no more risk of covid from taking it and, because it is a clean form of treatment, it should be substitutionary. It could be used, and in some cases has been, as a substitute for more risky forms of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and surgery, where that was necessary. In some cases, that has happened, which should be noted.

For example, bladder radiotherapy treatment is now at 160% of normal levels and capacity. In that area at least, we are using that clean technology to catch up with cancer in that area. The problem is that it is not the case across the board. We do not have figures since summer, but Public Health England has just released figures from April to the summer, which showed a 15% drop in radiotherapy treatments started during that time. That includes starting in April, so that cannot have been a response to fewer people coming through.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommendations and guidance at the beginning of coronavirus were to stop, postpone or delay radiotherapy treatment—for no clinical reason whatsoever. Some cancer centres followed that advice and people did not get treatment. We know what that means for people’s likelihood of surviving. That 15% drop in radiotherapy treatment will have cost lives. It was unnecessary and it means that the backlog is even greater than it would have been.

Cancer Research UK has estimated that we will unnecessarily lose 35,000 lives to cancer because of the crisis. The British Medical Journal published research a few weeks ago that showed we would lose, as a country, 60,000 additional years of life to cancer, because of the coronavirus crisis.

When breast cancer screening services are running at just 60% of capacity and we are witnessing a 50% reduction in the number of people starting radiotherapy treatment, we see a backlog that can only be getting worse as we speak. I want to endorse what has been said by the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)—that it will take NHS cancer screening, diagnostics and treatment services, as a piece, operating at 120%usb capacity for two solid years to catch up fully with the backlog, to catch up with cancer.

Members will have been as deeply moved as I was by the recent sad death of Sherwin Hall, a 27-year-old father of two, as a result of delayed treatment. His family have been supported by the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, launched by the family of Kelly Smith, who also died far too young as a result of delays to her treatment during this process. Catch Up With Cancer estimates that the backlog might be up to 100,000 people. This is a national crisis on the scale of covid—different, but on the same scale—and it needs a response as ambitious and as urgent as the NHS’s correct response to covid. However, in the comprehensive spending review there was just a single mention of cancer in the entire document.

There are three issues at play here, the first of which is people having the confidence and awareness to come forward, as has been mentioned. The second is the diagnostic process and the third is the treatment. Issue one, the issue of people being brought forward or encouraged to come forward for treatment, is about strong public health and public information messages, and all of us getting behind them and being open about the necessity—as was mentioned, rightly, by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East—for a person to come forward if they have the slightest hint of a doubt that something might be wrong or unusual with any part of their body.

Issues two and three, diagnostics and treatment, need more than an ad campaign. They need more than good public relations and public information: they need money. It has been mentioned that within the CSR, £325 million was set aside for diagnostic machines, but the CSR says that that is

“enough funding to replace over two thirds of imaging equipment that is over 10 years old.”

In other words, it is money to replace some of the stuff that ought to have already been replaced. It is not new—it is not expanded capacity—and yet, when it comes to treatment, we have not got even that.

This was the Government’s opportunity. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on radiotherapy, along with the Catch Up With Cancer campaign and the all-party parliamentary group on cancer—which I am proud to also be a member of—we made a submission to the Department of Health and Social Care and to the Treasury, calling for an immediate fund to catch up with cancer. That did not arrive, and I am going to shock the Minister by reminding her of a promise that she made me in this place a couple of weeks ago—to meet me and the Catch Up With Cancer team before Christmas, to look at how we can get that urgently needed ring-fenced investment through the spending review and into additional cancer diagnosis and treatments. I would like to hold her to that promise, and I hope she will refer to it in her closing remarks.

Alongside covid, the early diagnosis of women with breast cancer, so that we can treat them and cure them, is an ongoing problem. The United Kingdom is towards the bottom of the league tables for most of the major cancers when it comes to survival. To the Government’s credit, they acknowledged that in the NHS long-term plan released two years ago. Its fundamental aim—the headline part of that NHS long-term plan—was to diagnose more people early with all cancers, including breast cancer, so that we could treat them and cure them, and so that survival rates would be far better than the terrible situation that we have for most cancers in this country now.

I say to the Minister that if we are successful in diagnosing more people sooner, earlier—and we must be successful—we will then need the capacity to treat those people, and we do not have that. Radiotherapy is part of the solution, so it is absolutely essential to invest now in the kit, the technology and—as has been mentioned—the workforce, in order to be able to deliver treatments to those people who have been diagnosed early. How tragic would it be to diagnose maybe tens of thousands more people earlier than we do at the moment, and then not have the kit, the capacity, the staff or the technology to treat them? That is a challenge that the Government can meet, and I hope the Minister will take that on board and do just that.

Thank you for calling me, Sir Edward. First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) on the way that he set the scene. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for her contributions, as well as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and I also thank him for the leadership that he gives to the all-party parliamentary group on radiotherapy. I am a member of that APPG, but I know that the person who moves it and makes it happen is the hon. Gentleman, along with other colleagues who are trying to make this subject a focus for every one of us.

The statistics for breast cancer are horrifying. The hon. Member for High Peak set them out in his introduction, but I want to repeat them. It is salient and important to focus on the stats, because they are not just stats: they are a person’s life and they affect everybody around them. That is what I want to refer to. The breast cancer stats are clear: 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed every year in the UK. We sometimes overlook the fact that men can get breast cancer—not in the same numbers or percentages as ladies, but none the less it can develop in them.

One in seven women in the UK will develop breast cancer, and 35,000 women are living with incurable secondary breast cancer. Almost 1,000 die from breast cancer in the UK every month. Perhaps if they had screening, that would not have happened. That is 1,000 mothers, daughters, sisters—1,000 homes that will never recover from the loss. We must never underestimate the loss and hurt that people feel when someone they love is no longer there. We sometimes focus on the “if only”—we do not know what that “if only” would have done, but it does come into our minds and our questions.

About 600,000 people in the UK are living with or beyond breast cancer. Let us be honest: if it is caught in time and if the surgery and treatment go correctly, people can live for longer. We should perhaps not always focus on the negatives, although this debate is about breast cancer and is an opportunity to highlight the issues that we feel are important. Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and I understand that the Minister cannot answer for it—I am not asking her to—but I want to make a contribution to this debate because what happens here on the mainland will be replicated in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I said that it is not only the person who has breast cancer who suffers. We have to look at the families around them who also suffer—those who feel the pain of their partner or loved one who unfortunately has breast cancer and, in some cases, is still waiting for the treatment or screening that they need.

I am my party’s spokesman, and I have a deep interest in health matters. That is why I attend all health debates whenever I have the opportunity. I cannot get to them all, but I do my best to get to most of them. Back in Northern Ireland, I have had the opportunity over the years to get to know some of my constituents personally. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to two names. I never refer to names—they probably would not know who they are when they are referred to in this Chamber, but I do not do that because this is a very personal thing. It is a very physical problem that they have gone through. Some of those people have survived and some have not. As an elected representative and a person with compassion, as we all are in this House, my heart goes out to those who are in need of treatment and need it now.

We cannot neglect—I do not think there is an intention to do so—those with cancer, because time is of the essence and early diagnosis is needed. This is where we are. What I and other Members want is a different set of statistics for next year. We do not want to be referring to the 100,000 and some of the other stats that I will give in a few minutes. We want statistics that show more early diagnosis, more successful outcomes and—please, God—nowhere near 1,000 grieving loved ones. How do we achieve that? That is the key issue of this debate, and why we are here. I believe we all agree on this. It is simple: screening. Early screening, frequent screening, structured screening, simple screening—screening, screening, screening. We need to get that into our minds for how we deal with this. We are here today because we all have the same idea. That is how we get better outcomes.

In the media and the newspapers yesterday and every other day I can recall, we have had stats for cancer treatment. We cannot fail to be annoyed when we see the stats for the people who are waiting for treatment, diagnosis or screening. It has all been put on hold, and we need to look at that urgently. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to the Government response to covid-19. The Government responded in an excellent way. They made all the necessary resources available and they gave us hope, up to the stage where we are now, with the vaccine in place. That hope will lead us into next year. Perhaps by this time next year everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have had that vaccine; that would be our hope.

The coronavirus is the biggest crisis that breast cancer care has faced in decades. With every month that passes, more women with breast cancer could be missing the best possible chance of early diagnosis, which is key to preventing death from the disease. The breast screening programme was officially paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and effectively paused in England, in March. Screening has now restarted, although that has happened more quickly in some parts of the country than others.

Breast Cancer Now has estimated that a significant backlog of nearly a million women requiring screening built up across the UK during the first pause, which is a massive number. If a million ladies are waiting to have the screening, that underlines the importance of putting resources into that, to try and give people peace of mind. It is unclear how long it will take to catch up. Around 8,600 of those women could have been living with undetected breast cancer, which is a worry.

When my wife went to get the test, we got the results back quickly, but imagine what it would be like for someone waiting for the screening if they suspected something was wrong but were not sure. Sometimes the screening can diagnose at an early stage something that the individual was not aware of or might not see themselves. Can the Minister be so kind, during her closing remarks, to clarify what the Government mean when they say they have cleared the backlog on breast cancer screening? Does that mean that open invitations to breast screening have been sent, but not that the actual screening has happened? I have every confidence that the Minister’s response will answer those questions and give us the hope and reassurance that we need.

The expected increase in referrals and backlog of women waiting for breast screening will lead naturally to an increase in demand for diagnostic and imaging services in the coming months, threatening to overwhelm a workforce that was already stretched before the pandemic. Combined with a reduction in the number of people that services will be able to see, as a result of infection prevention and control measures, there is grave concern that that may lead to people waiting longer to be diagnosed and receive treatment. Again, we need reassurance.

A recent survey by the British Medical Association revealed that 28% of doctors—the people on the frontline, doing the work—have found non-covid demand higher than before the pandemic. They recognise a serious gap that needs to be filled. Moreover, 58% are concerned about their ability to care for non-covid patients, 44% are worried about the plans to manage the huge backlog of patients and 65% say staffing shortages are their most pressing concern. I understand those concerns, and I look genuinely and respectfully to the Minister for her answers.

The unprecedented pressures put on the NHS by the first wave of the pandemic, which have already had damaging impacts on diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer patients, are now being exacerbated by the second wave and the winter pressures, which we all know are coming to every region in the United Kingdom. Winter pressures come every year, but this year they will be greater because of the waiting lists and the ways we are dealing with that.

While it is great to see Health Education England receive an additional £260 million to train more staff in 2021-22, Cancer Research UK estimates that £140 million to £260 million is needed over the next 35 years to grow the cancer workforce alone. It is not only about responding to the current waiting lists, but how we deal with the growing number of those with cancer over the next few years. An additional £260 million for HEE’s total budget in 2021-22 should go some way to address that, but will not fill the gap.

I conclude by reflecting on the comment by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, because to me it is the key to the issue. The Government responded in an exceptional way to covid-19. They made the resources available. A strategy for something we had never dealt with before was difficult to get together, but they did it in a way we all welcomed—we give credit where it is due—until now we have the vaccine.

However, when it comes to cancer we need a similar policy and strategy, so that we can give peace of mind to all those people who have breast cancer, and have a worrying process to go through. The Government have shown they can do it, and I believe they, and the Minister, can again respond in a way that will show us we can deal with breast cancer. We need a dedicated strategy and long-term investment. I look to the Minister to hear how that can and will be provided, in the light of the additional covid-19 demands. Covid-19 is not over yet. I wish it was, but at least we are going the right way. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope for the future, but we need the same hope for those with cancer.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for securing this important debate. It is also important to thank all the NHS staff who are working so hard to keep services running during this difficult time, and the cancer charities working to keep funds coming in and awareness high, and to support those living with a cancer diagnosis. High-profile breast cancer awareness events such as the “wear it pink” photocalls that we are all so used to were lost to the virus this year, so there is a lot of ground to make up to keep the UK’s fourth biggest killer high on the political agenda.

Thanks to a combination of advances in the medical sciences, treatments, early diagnosis and screening, breast cancer survival has doubled in the last 40 years, but the necessity of disrupting routine screenings has created a danger of progress taking a significant step backwards. There are immense challenges, now, for the NHS, in meeting an influx of demand, when we are clearly still in the teeth of the pandemic. As members of the Royal College of Radiologists report, challenges are made all the tougher by the extra infection control methods needed at screening centres, limited availability of space because of distancing, and, at times, staff and equipment shortages because of redeployment.

As other hon. Members have said, Breast Cancer Now estimates that nearly 1 million women in the UK missed potentially life-saving mammograms because of covid-19. There was also a marked fall in the number of urgent breast cancer referrals from GPs during the pandemic. That was due to a range of factors, including reluctance to take up the scheduled appointments, worry about catching the virus, or a lack of awareness that while routine screenings were paused the majority of cancer treatment services continued throughout. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, 100 fewer women started treatment for breast cancer each working day in May and June 2020, compared with a year ago. It estimates that there are 50,000 missing cancer diagnoses across the UK because of covid-19 disruption.

Those are serious causes for concern. Cancer patients cannot be allowed to be collateral damage as we struggle to fight the pandemic. All of us have a role to play in encouraging take-up of opportunities for screening, self-checks and getting out the message that the NHS is there for people if they are worried about cancer. Covid continues to dominate the headlines, but the NHS has never stopped prioritising cancer cases.

Governments also have a role in communicating about cancer services, and making sure that there is investment in facilities and staff in the NHS cancer workforce. As the RCR reports, the clinical radiology workforce was already under strain before the pandemic. One in four English trusts has at least one vacant consultant breast radiologist post, and the UK has fewer CT and MRI scanners than the majority of comparable OECD countries. Decisions about the NHS are made by the devolved Government in Scotland. Thankfully, the Scottish Government are working to minimise disruption in the face of the covid-19 challenges. They have invested an additional £10 million to support cancer treatment throughout the pandemic and beyond, in addition to purchasing six additional MRI scanners and three additional CT scanners to aid cancer diagnosis, at a cost of £5.6 million.

There is much to be done, but I welcome the fact that there has been an 89.6% increase in consultant oncologists in Scotland under the current SNP Administration and a 54.4% increase in consultant radiologists. Early detection will also be improved by more GPs. Scotland has 76 GPs per 100,000 population, compared with the UK average of just 60. There are also two new early cancer diagnostic centres, which will be opened in the spring of next year.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the request to extend screening to younger men and women in the petition that we are debating today. It is always heartbreaking to hear of cases that are not diagnosed early enough, leading to long battles to fight the disease and a greater chance of lives being lost too early. We know the risk is related to age and is highest in women over 50—they account for 80% of cases—but that is cold comfort to the 10,000 women under 50 and the 370 men in the UK who receive the dreaded diagnosis each year. Catching this disease early is essential to saving more lives. I would back screening for all in a heartbeat if it was justified clinically, but it is just one tool in the toolbox and it is not always the best one to use.

There are harms as well as benefits to getting mammograms, and decisions on routine screening programmes are all about getting the balance right. The four nations of the UK all take advice on screening from medical experts at the UK National Screening Committee and the Scottish Government concur with the points made in the UK Government’s response to the petition.

If there is one thing that the pandemic should have taught politicians—perhaps even the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—it is that we should be listening to experts. Their views are so important. It is the scientists and clinicians who are guiding us through the pandemic and providing hope for a solution through their incredible efforts to find treatments and vaccines. So, too, should we trust evidence on screening. The Marmot review of the benefits and harms of breast cancer screening identified overdiagnosis as one of the dangers, stating:

“The consequences of overdiagnosis matter, women are turned into patients unnecessarily, surgery and other forms of cancer treatment are undertaken, and quality of life and psychological well being are adversely affected.”

Only 1% of cases involve men. There is a need for us to focus on messaging and spread the awareness that breast cancer is possible for both sexes, although at a far lower risk for men. Perhaps we all need to do that bit more to highlight that point, to make sure that men self-check and seek treatment where necessary.

Although there is largely consensus on the science, there is perhaps more divergence on these isles about the resources needed. Warm words about tackling cancer are easy, but they need to be backed up by sustained and substantial further investment. Ahead of November’s comprehensive spending review, the SNP called on the Government to increase funding for NHS England to match per capita spending in Scotland. That would have amounted to a £35 billion increase by 2023-24. The £3 billion offered for the next year is only a third of what we have been calling for on a yearly basis. After a decade of austerity, the sum is not even enough to cover the cost of outstanding hospital repairs in England, let alone recover from the coronavirus and deliver decent cancer care moving forwards.

I urge the UK Government to do all they can—to “build back better”, to borrow their phrase—and to properly and genuinely invest in the NHS to save lives.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for securing this important debate and for his introductory speech. It is clear that he feels very passionately about improving access to breast cancer screening for his constituents. He was right that tremendous progress has been made in tackling this awful disease in recent years, but there is still an awful long way to go, as we have heard today.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of screening, as most Members did. I was very sorry to hear that the mobile screening service in his constituency has been temporarily halted. I hope it is a temporary halt and the Minister is able to give us some good news when she responds. It is particularly disappointing because the hon. Member spoke very highly of that service in the last debate we had on this matter, only last month. He certainly set out very clearly why moving to the system that we have at the moment is presenting a particular challenge to his constituents. He also gave some very personal testimony about the consequences of a delay in screening, showing why, of course, access is important.

We have heard some other excellent contributions this afternoon. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) cited her local area’s statistics to point out that the figure for screening appointments in her constituency was lower than the national average; clearly, such a situation is something that all Members can play a role in remedying. She was right to say that the key to all this is being proactive and encouraging people to seek screening and early diagnosis. She gave a very personal example of how that approach had made a real difference to someone very close to her.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) extrapolated from his local statistics to state that about one in six people who would ordinarily have received treatment this year are not receiving it. He mentioned his work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on radiotherapy and I commend him for his consistent work in that particular forum. He referred, quite rightly, to the 15% drop in the use of radiotherapy treatment, which is of particular concern. He said that he does not believe that there were good medical reasons for that reduction, so there is a challenge for the Minister to go back to trusts to see whether there are reasons beyond medical reasons why these treatments are not taking place. He described the situation as a crisis on the scale of covid and said that it needs a Government response on that scale to tackle the issues that we have discussed today.

Those sentiments were also expressed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who gave a typically passionate and well-informed speech. I am sure that we all agreed with him when he said that he would like to read out a different set of statistics in a debate on this issue next year. Like all the hon. Members who have spoken today, he very clearly set out the importance of screening. He also raised a number of other issues, which I will touch on in my remarks.

This is the second Westminster Hall debate on breast cancer in as many months, which reflects the importance of this subject. On both occasions, it has been evident from the testimonies of Members how many people have had their own lives touched by breast cancer. Debates such as this one are important because, as many Members have mentioned, the various statistics out there show that there are very few people whose lives are not touched by this issue in some way. As we have heard from many Members, one in seven women in the UK will develop breast cancer during their lifetime—on average, that is 55,000 women, as well as 370 men, every year. Around 600,000 people in the UK are living with or beyond breast cancer, and, sadly, around 35,000 people have incurable secondary breast cancer.

As the hon. Members for High Peak and for Strangford both said, almost 1,000 women die from breast cancer in the UK every month, almost all of them from secondary breast cancer. The hon. Member for Strangford put things very well when he reminded us that these statistics are about real people and real homes, which may never recover from such a tragic loss. We must never forget the human tragedy behind these figures when we read them out in debates such as this one.

This very important issue affects so many people, but there are also many people who are united in their desire to do all they can to beat this disease. I pay tribute to all the dedicated campaigners, ambassadors and charities, who all do their bit to make life a little bit easier for those suffering with cancer. We must, of course, pay tribute to the NHS staff for everything that they do, not just this year—the most difficult of years—but every year, in the fight against cancer. I also thank Breast Cancer Now for its continuing support for all politicians from all parties in the House and, most importantly, the support it gives to those living with or affected by breast cancer, because, as we have heard, more women, thankfully, are now surviving breast cancer than ever before.

As many Members have already said, the key to that is screening, because we know that the earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. We also know that currently around 95% of women diagnosed will survive for more than one year and more than 80% for more than five years.

In the debate on this issue last month, I touched on the impact of coronavirus on early diagnosis, as most Members have today. Cancer Research UK estimates that around 3 million people are waiting for breast, bowel or cervical screening, and Macmillan estimates that there are currently around 50,000 missing diagnoses from this year compared to last year. This is the biggest crisis that cancer has faced in decades.

Breast Cancer Now estimates a significant backlog of nearly 1 million women requiring screening has built up during this year. Among the women still waiting for their screening, we know from the statistics that there will be around 8,600 who do have breast cancer, but it remains undetected. As Members have set out, the reasons for that backlog are numerous. Social distancing and infection control means that many cancer services can operate only at about 60% of their capacity. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale pointed out, that means the situation might get worse rather than better. Services were already under severe strain during the first few months of this year, and we know about the unprecedented steps that the NHS has had to take to deal with the large influx of covid-19 patients, which has led to an effective pausing of breast screening in England.

Of course, not only the screening programme was affected. Breast Cancer Now has also reported that the number of people referred to see a specialist with suspected cancer declined dramatically during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in April. It estimates that across the UK there are likely to be nearly 107,000 fewer breast cancer referrals. Some of those women could be living with undetected breast cancer, and with every month that passes more women will be missing that early diagnosis that we have all heard today is the key to preventing death.

Although screening programmes have now restarted, we have heard that that has happened more quickly in some parts of the country. Breast cancer charities have raised concerns about the current strategy that has been adopted to clear the backlog, with the plan to send women open invitations to call and make an appointment from September this year to the end of March. As the hon. Member for West Bromwich East said, research has shown that the number of women who make appointments is sometimes lower than the number of women who actually attend for a timed appointment.

Breast Cancer Now fears the strategy could worsen the persistent decline that we have seen in the uptake of screening in recent years. It has also raised concerns, as did the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, about the impact on groups, among which uptake is already low, such as those who live in deprived areas and those from black and minority ethnic groups. This is particularly important at a time when surveys have shown that people are reluctant to come forward with symptoms due to concerns about catching coronavirus and giving it to the family, and putting pressure on an already very busy NHS. When the Minister responds, will she tell us a little more about what steps the Government can take to ensure that the women who have received open invitations for screening are able to take those up in the coming months?

It is very welcome that October’s NHS breast cancer waiting times showed an increase in referrals for people with potential symptoms of breast cancer to see a specialist. However, the crucial targets for women to be seen within two weeks was missed. There are immense pressures on our health service at the moment, but before the pandemic the breast imaging and diagnostic work was already overstretched and under severe pressure because of increased demand on their services—and that of course has been compounded, as many Members have referred to, by the shortages and vacancies in the workforce.

As the hon. Member for High Peak mentioned, Public Health England has previously reported a vacancy rate of 15% for mammography staff. About half of all mammographers are aged 50 or over and therefore likely to retire in the next 10 to 15 years. That is very concerning, given the importance of mammograms in detecting breast cancer.

Of equal concern is what Breast Cancer Now tells us: only 18% of breast screening units are adequately resourced with radiography staff in line with breast screening uptake demand in their area, and one in four trusts and health boards across the UK has at least one vacant consultant breast radiologist post. Sadly, that situation is unlikely to improve any time soon as vacancies are set to increase with about a quarter of breast radiologists forecast to retire over the next five years.

A recent analysis of NHS trust risk registers showed that 83% of trusts surveyed reported a workforce risk, including not having enough staff to manage cancer care, showing the NHS entering the pandemic with huge holes in the workforce.

The Government commissioned reviews that have highlighted some concerns. We heard from the hon. Member for High Peak and various other Members about the independent review of adult screening programmes in England, which found that such programmes are constrained by the size and nature of their workforce and by the equipment and facilities available to them. As we heard, Professor Sir Mike Richards’s review, which was commissioned by Sir Simon Stevens, found that significant investment in facilities, equipment and workforce was needed. That means replacing outdated testing machines and expanding the imaging workforce by about 2,000 additional radiologists and 4,000 radiographers, as well as support staff.

In September, a Public Accounts Committee report called on the Government urgently to prioritise publication of the long-term workforce plan. Unfortunately, that exposed the lack of long-term thinking in the current approach to the NHS workforce. Such thinking is vital if we are to see the NHS perform at the level we all want it to. We need to see a full five-year people plan, with costed actions within it.

The pandemic has shown, as other Members said, just how valuable and appreciated NHS staff are, but it has also highlighted the unaddressed long-term issues of excessive workload, burn-out and the inequalities experienced by staff. The rhetoric on support for our NHS staff needs to be matched by action. As we have heard today, that commitment is vital to ensuring that breast cancer services can safely continue to give all those affected by breast cancer the very best chances of survival. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about how that ambition, which we all share, will be delivered.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for securing this important debate. As he and many Members know, breast health—diagnosis, treatment and research, as well as screening—is a matter that is close to my heart. I am honoured to respond on this important issue on behalf of the Government, and on behalf of women and the 3% of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.

I want to state clearly that screening services are back up and that the availability of breast screening to everyone who needs it is there. However, the recovery of those services from the disruption this year is not only a priority for me, but an enormous challenge, for exactly the reasons that have been laid out so eloquently by all contributors to the debate. We know that our cancer workforce had challenges before we went into the pandemic.

Let me remind Members of something that only the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) briefly referred to: yesterday, 506 families lost a loved one to covid. It is still with us. We are in a covid-tinged world, and that affects how quickly we can drive other services. However, the resumption of cancer services across the piece—be they treatment, diagnosis or screening—has been the No. 1 priority for me from the time we understood and were able to drive those things in.

I am glad that hon. Members who have taken part in the debate recognise the importance of breast screening in the early detection of breast cancer. As with any diagnosis of cancer, early detection gives people a better chance. The simple fact is that screening saves lives.

I very gently take the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) to task on the statistic that every four weeks represents a 10% lower chance of survival. Cancers, as he well knows, vary enormously in type, grade and everything else. I do not want people not to come forward for screening, diagnosis or treatment because they feel that any loss of time will have had a negative impact. It has to be that as soon as you have a symptom, you come forward. Campaigns such as “Be Clear on Cancer” and “Help Us Help You” are driving at giving people confidence.

We have ensured that services are safe, and our aim is for people to be able to access them as quickly as possible, secure in the knowledge that they are safe. I will cover this later, but while I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) were saying, the whole point of open appointments is to maximise the use of available capacity versus fixed-time appointments. A health inequality impact assessment has been done to try to make sure that nobody is disproportionately impacted, and I have asked for a specific eye to be kept on that. Now, if you like—

I am so sorry, Sir Edward. As I was saying, the challenge is that there is variation in the system. That variation occurs for a plethora of reasons, not only those that are covered by an impact assessment on accessibility via open appointments. It is important to keep an eye on all the data.

I am proud that we have a national breast screening programme that offers every woman between the ages of 50 and 70 an appointment every three years. We will strain every sinew to ensure that nobody waits longer than 36 months. We will not step back from that, even with the challenge of driving the backlog down. The programme reaches millions of women and detects approximately 20,000 cancers each year. I recognise the challenge, but every single individual provider has been asked to produce a recovery plan, which should help us to understand the variation. I recognise that about half a million women are waiting, but there are also 500,000 women who have not replied. They will need to be re-approached and encouraged into the system. It is incumbent on everyone to give women the confidence to come forward.

We have also had to look at making sure that women are asked to come forward in accordance with priority by targeting the women who are most likely to have an occurrence of breast cancer. High-risk women will not have open appointments; they will be called immediately. We will then screen positive women in the pathway, followed by screening results that have not been processed, routine open episodes, those who have previously been invited but not screened, and the delays. It is important that we prioritise, so that we target the women we are most worried about.

I am aware that this year, the national breast screening programme could not maintain the service that it normally provides. In March, as the NHS responded to one of the biggest challenges that has faced our healthcare system in a generation, many local providers made the decision to pause appointments so that arrangements could be put in place to protect staff and patients from covid-19. We were unaware at that point what we were dealing with. Staff and facilities were redeployed to tackle the outbreak of the pandemic, but as soon as it was possible to do so, it was made an absolute priority that they were brought back in to do the job that we need them to do.

I am sure that there is not a single Member in this Chamber, or indeed the House, who does not pay tribute to the hard work of all NHS staff. Cancer staff and their teams have done a particularly incredible job of making sure that people across the cancer family have received treatment. Earlier today, I talked to a young man about the treatment he has had, and I talked to a young woman who experienced chimeric antigen receptor T-cell treatment earlier this year. The redeployment of staff left a shortfall in the breast screening programme, and screening appointments for many women have been delayed. I know that that wait, and the anxiety it drives, is incredibly difficult. For those who are looking for reassurance from their routine screen, or who are waiting to receive an all-clear or an early warning that something is wrong, this is undoubtedly a challenging time. However, I want to be absolutely clear that no woman has been left behind, and no woman ever will be. It is a priority to ensure that services are there. Improvements are being driven by the heroic efforts of staff, who have been working longer days and over weekends. They have gone above and beyond to schedule as many appointments as possible to help to drive down the backlog that was created earlier this year.

The first priority is to screen women aged 53 who have not yet had their first screening appointment; those who have passed their 71st birthday and have not yet received their final breast screen; those at very high risk of breast cancer, as I said; and those who have been identified for further treatment. I am pleased to say that the tremendous efforts of screening staff—the nurses, the radiographers and the whole team—are succeeding and the backlog is steadily reducing. The number of women waiting for screening, having received an invitation prior to the first wave, decreased by 98% between 1 June and 4 November.

Screening has been made a clear priority this winter and NHS commissioners have been instructed, where humanly possible, not to redeploy their staff or their facilities away from screening services. It is a priority, and that is absolutely the right approach. My message to everyone is that breast screening services are running, they are safe, they will continue to run through the winter and they are standing up to the increased capacity that is coming towards them.

When people receive an appointment to attend, I urge them to go. “Do not attends” are so frustrating. Those appointments could be taken by a woman who—although she would not want a diagnosis—might get into the stream quicker.

I suspect that on some occasions, ladies are not attending because of the fear of catching covid-19 at the hospital. I have spoken to some ladies back home and that was one of their concerns. How can we address that?

Essentially, by constantly reassuring them that the reason why we can do elective operations, have out-patient clinics open and carry on doing some of the business as usual is because heroic efforts have been made to make sure that there are safe places. I pay tribute to Dame Cally Palmer, who has made sure that rapid diagnostic centres have been stood up to ensure that patients can access care safely. We had 17 at the start of the pandemic, and we now have 45. The cancer alliances have worked extremely hard in all our regions. There is no one silver bullet, but it is important that we do what we can for patients.

If people have any concerns or notice any abnormal changes in their breasts, they should contact their GP. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East, and I am pleased that her mum is now in good health. CoppaFeel! is a great charity and its website shows how to do a good check. Breast Cancer Awareness Month still went on—I did wear it pink—although it did not quite have the same profile as usual. It is every woman’s responsibility to make sure that they check their breasts monthly. If they see anything unusual that they are concerned about, such as puckering or discharge from the nipple, GPs are open and there to help women.

One thing that can help is to make sure that people go, but we are here to talk predominantly about screening services. Cancer diagnostics and treatments are back on track. The latest official data for October 2020 suggests that GP referrals are back to almost 85% of pre-pandemic levels, compared with August 2019. I appreciate that that leaves a lag, but we are heading in the right direction.

Urgent referrals were 156% higher in October than in April, which is when they were most affected. That shows that we are not only getting there, but beginning to go beyond. Nearly 88% of cancer patients saw a specialist within two weeks following their referral, and nearly 96% of patients received their treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. In October, 83.5% of breast cancer patients received their first treatment within 62 days, and breast cancer treatment activity was at 101% of last year’s levels. However, these figures do not hide the fact that there is a backlog and we have to work as hard as we can to address that. The “Help Us Help You” campaign, launched in October, is a key part of this and reinforces that message of seeking help. We will closely monitor the effect of covid restrictions on referral rates to ensure that the number of people coming forward with symptoms remains high, because it is about confidence. Some pathways are more problematic than others, but the important thing is to make sure that we get as many people as possible through the pathway.

I turn to the theme of breast screening for younger women. As the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has said, this has been found not to be evidenced-based. There is a risk in referring women for unnecessary tests, in over-treatment, and in operating on women who have diseases that mean that that is likely to cause harm. Women with a very high risk of breast cancer, such as those with a family history, may well be offered screening earlier and more frequently. Sometimes, in life, we just have to ask a question, and I recently asked a breast cancer specialist about this. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), and the former Members for Dewsbury and for Eddisbury, all of whom are in the younger age group, are going through treatment—I think one of them is post treatment—and I was their age when I was diagnosed. Just because something looks right, it does not necessarily mean that it is, and we have to act on the evidence. That is where we are at the moment for young women.

We published the people plan in July, and I recognise, as Sir Mike Richards did, that the screening workforce is a challenge and it is important that we drive more individuals into the areas of radiography, mammography, pathology, nursing and cancer specialist nursing. The spending review provided another £260 million to continue to grow the workforce and support those commitments, which were so important in the NHS long-term plan.

Health Education England has also provided £5 million to support training and development programmes through the National Breast Imaging Academy, which aims to improve breast screening recruitment targets and early diagnosis. It has already made significant progress, launching the mammography level 4 apprenticeship; recruiting the first of the NBIA radiology fellows, who will benefit from specialist training in breast radiology; and developing e-learning for health programmes on the breast.

To improve screening uptake, we need to work with cancer alliances, primary care networks and the regional teams to promote the uptake of breast screening and to get to as many people as possible. As I said, the open appointments systems is something that we are looking at, and we hope that the result will be that we get more women through. The national cancer recovery plan was released this week. It is a joint effort from cancer charities, royal colleges, national teams and patient voices, and it was led by the national clinical director for cancer, Professor Peter Johnson. Its whole ethos is to outline the actions that need to be taken to restore demand to at least pre-pandemic levels by raising national public awareness through campaigns; ensuring that there are efficient routes into the NHS for people who are at risk of cancer; improving referral management practice in primary and secondary care; and setting out immediate steps to reduce the number of people who wait more than 62 days from urgent referral, so that patients are seen as quickly and safely as possible. Finally, it ensures sufficient capacity to meet demand through maximising the use of available capacity in both symptomatic and screening pathways, which both feed into the same funnel, optimising the use of the available independent sector capacity, enabling the restoration of other services, and protecting service recovery during winter.

This is an excellent plan, which will work towards the long-term plan ambitions for cancer services to continue during the pandemic. I am fully committed to seeing it through and working with Dame Cally Palmer and all the others to ensure that we can get to a better place. I recognise that, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, there have been some remarkable changes to treatments with radiography and other treatments in cancer. We must take those silver linings where we can.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak for coming to me to say that High Peak was special due to its geography, and he did not want the women he serves in his constituency to be disadvantaged in any way by a loss of service. I understand that the decision to put breast screening services into static positions was taken to maximise capacity. I was quite amazed that, pre pandemic, 70% to 80% of screening happened in mobile units. They are particularly helpful in dispersed rural areas, but with some of the challenges of providing covid-secure spaces—some of those units did not even have running water—a decision was made to bring them back to a static site. The static units can stay open longer and at the weekend, making about 1,000 more appointments possible in a three-month period, so a lot more women can be seen.

Although I take on board the point about travel, I am asking women to bear with us—to work with us. These are temporary changes, but they are a vital measure in the recovery of breast cancer screening services, allowing more women to be seen, particularly those who may have missed an appointment this year. I know that longer travel times are difficult. I know that those beautiful hills that my hon. Friend’s constituency is blessed with do not have particularly good bus services either. This is not always an easy proposition, but it was decided that, for now at least, optimising the service to see as many people as possible should take priority over optimising a mobile service.

When my hon. Friend came and met me, I could not give him any assurance, and he has pressed me again today. I assure him that this is a short-term measure. The increase of appointment availability will assist us in in being able to resume mobile screening for High Peak, safety permitting, by July 2021. I have been reassured by the Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS trust that it is monitoring attendance, that this compromise is temporary, while services recover, and that the usual screening locations will be reinstated in the longer term to ease access. I take this opportunity to stress that the screening services are safe to attend and a range of measures have been put in place to ensure that people go.

I thank my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members who have participated today. I pay tribute to all the incredible staff across the country who are working so hard on the backlog and to make sure that cancer services stand up and catch up over the winter period. Hon. Members have my absolute commitment that we are focused not only on the short-term recovery of screening services, but on their long-term improvement too. Prevention, public health and early diagnosis continue to be a huge priority for me. We will continue to bear down on screening services, making sure we have the right kit in the right place and that we are delivering the different parts of the cancer pathway for men and women to have the best treatment.

It is a pleasure to sum up this debate. It has been very constructive, with a lot of agreement. I appreciate the speeches from both the Opposition speakers, who made a lot of important points in a constructive manner, striking the right tone. I would like to highlight the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), who talked of her family’s personal experience. She is a fantastic champion for her constituency.

I would also mention the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). We represent similar constituencies; he represents the Lake district and I represent the Peak district. I am sure we could argue all day about which is better, but they face similar challenges. I am a big admirer of his knowledge of the subject and the work he has done over the years. I must, of course, mention the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who is always an assiduous attendee in this place. He made an important speech, with lots of very good points.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comments. I have listened to her speak before about her personal experience. I know there is no one more committed to this issue. I am reassured that we have such a diligent and committed Minister working for us on this subject. I am pleased with the news that the breast cancer screening service mobile unit will be reinstated to High Peak. I hope the Minister understands that I will be holding her feet to the fire, and making certain that the date is brought forward to be as soon as possible, so that we can get the mobile unit back to New Mills, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Buxton and the rest of the High Peak.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered breast cancer screening.

Sitting suspended.

Defence Manufacturing and Procurement: Shropshire

[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered defence manufacturing and procurement in Shropshire.

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to bring this issue to the House’s attention. I am particularly pleased that the Minister of State is in his place, and look forward to his response to today’s debate.

Shropshire, and Telford and Wrekin, are fast becoming a crucial defence hub. Of course, there is a lot of defence history in Shropshire, which many Members will know about, but on the manufacturing side Shropshire, and Telford and Wrekin, are very much becoming a geographical engineering cluster that feeds not only the UK defence market, but the wider European defence manufacturing and procurement sector. I am proud that Shropshire continues to play its part in UK defence manufacturing, with existing contracts for Boxer and Warrior vehicles, and hopefully the Challenger 2 life extension programme.

The defence sector, locally and nationally, continues to grow under a Conservative Government. We should not ignore that material fact, for as you know, Mrs Miller, it is only with a strong defence that any country can have a strong peace. Defence manufacturing is an important part of the UK’s strong defence, and I am pleased that on 19 November, the Prime Minister committed the UK to increasing its defence budget—the largest boost in the nation’s defence for the past 30 years, and indeed the biggest increase post world war two—investing an extra £24 billion in our national security and sustaining and creating thousands of jobs across the UK, including in Shropshire. It is the biggest investment in the nation’s defence since the end of the cold war, which is fantastic news for the nation as a whole, and specifically for my constituents in The Wrekin.

The Minister will know that BAE Systems employs 300 people in Telford, and spends more than £6 million in the midlands supply chain and in the region as a whole, based at Hadley Castle Works. I am grateful that he took the time to visit my constituency some months ago and meet with many of these dedicated engineers, as well as those who manage the business. Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land is a very welcome joint venture between Rheinmetall and BAE Systems, designing, manufacturing and maintaining combat vehicles at Hadley Castle Works, with Rheinmetall owning a 55% stake in the joint venture and BAE Systems owning 45%. That joint venture will sustain a skilled workforce of about 450 employees across the UK, including those engineers based at RBSL in Telford. General Dynamics Land Systems—Force Protection Europe’s manufacturing spares facility is also based in my constituency.

Then, of course, there is GKN, a manufacturer of off-highway wheels also based at Hadley Castle Works. GKN has had some challenges in recent years, but I hope that, whether it is under the current ownership of GKN or a future, different ownership, that site and the skill set there will be retained, not only for Shropshire but for the UK defence sector as a whole. It is important that GKN is supported, too. We also have Lockheed Martin, currently delivering the Warrior capability sustainment programme—the demonstration contract, that is—and that is welcome too. Babcock International, the defence engineering business, has a site in Donnington, and in April Babcock was awarded a contract to manufacture 10,000 ventilators to help to control the covid-19 pandemic. I pay tribute to all the workforce there and to the wider MOD staff at all those facilities—whether civilian or non-civilian, uniform or non-uniform —at MOD Donnington and RAF Cosford, as well as the private sector companies I have mentioned.

I want to put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who quite rightly is a champion of Caterpillar Defence, based in Shrewsbury, which as the Minister knows specialises in the design and development of engine and drivetrain packages to meet the needs of many of the tracked and wheeled military vehicles that the MOD uses. Of course, there are myriad local supply chains and small and medium-sized enterprises, and I am delighted that the Government have committed to getting more small businesses into defence supply chains.

We have had very welcome news about Boxer. It is designed to transport troops to the frontline and was described as a “leader in its field” by the Secretary of State for Defence, no less, and of course he is absolutely right. Over the next 10 years, RBSL will build 260 Boxer vehicles—almost half the British Army’s fleet, I hasten to add—in Telford at the Hadley site. That contract, worth £860 million, will create and sustain 200-plus skilled jobs in the area, and probably more. RBSL officially received its manufacturing subcontract just a few weeks ago. That was a very welcome pre-Christmas present, but the real Christmas present would be if the Minister were to announce today that the life extension of Challenger 2 is going ahead, and that much of that programme will be required to be delivered in my constituency.

Of course, we have the integrated review at the moment, and it is important that we have it to look at the whole piece, covering defence, foreign policy, diplomacy and intelligence—the whole gamut of how Governments protect themselves and project their own values and interests around the world. Hybrid warfare, information technology, the National Cyber Force, which is now public, and unmanned aerial vehicles are all vital, but at the end of the day there is still a requirement for hard kit—not just boots on the ground, but metal on the ground too. I hope that that is metal in the form of Challenger having its life extended and being delivered in, of course, Shropshire. The Boxer vehicles will be delivered in 2023, so the timeframe is quite short, but I have absolutely no doubt that they will be delivered on time.

The contract has been secured for RBSL’s main upcoming programme—the mechanised infantry vehicle programme—and I understand from the research done by my office that the Challenger 2 life extension programme will support 60 local suppliers. Covid has had an impact, albeit at the moment not a huge impact, but every job lost in my constituency is a job loss too many. There have been job losses since March. We have seen an upward tick in job losses in the constituency, and it would be great to have new job announcements to fight those unemployment figures.

Lockheed Martin is in charge of Warrior, the fighting vehicle capability and sustainment programme. Locally, we are seeing more and more people in our universities, including Wolverhampton and the new university campus in Shrewsbury—not so much Harper Adams, because that is mostly agritech—and more young people in the region being interested in defence manufacturing and a career in defence. Another fresh, good announcement would help a lot of those young people to make the right career choice.

The life extension programme is a UK MOD programme to deliver the next generation of heavy armoured capability. It is important to put that the record, but I know the Minister knows that. The programme will deliver Challenger 3, a network-enabled digital main battle tank that will reinvigorate the UK’s and Shropshire’s design and engineering skills. That digital element is critical and feeds into other Government streams of thinking. As I am sure the British Army would say, it will deliver a world-class capability, generating significant export opportunities and support for global Britain, and the UK’s wider economic growth. The maintenance of Challenger 2 will be carried out by Babcock Defence Support Group, which supports my constituents.

The Minister kindly answered a question that I put to him at the last Defence questions. I will quote it back to him, which is always a novelty. He said:

“The proposition is now being worked up prior to a decision being taken on the investment case.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2020; Vol. 685, c. 557.]

I understand that we are in the midst of the timetable where such decisions are being made. I am pretty sure that this debate is being held after some of those important decisions, rather than before. Perhaps the timing of this debate is purely coincidental, but I would proffer that it is not. I hope the Minister is therefore in a position to enlighten the Chamber today on the progress of the life extension programme.

As the Minister will be aware, RBSL won the contract for the Fuchs chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear reconnaissance vehicles and training simulator earlier this year. It will sustain the British Army’s fleet of reconnaissance vehicles and the training simulator. The contract has been awarded. Again, Hadley is playing its part, sustaining hundreds of jobs. That vehicle, with its built-in detection equipment for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, is absolutely critical.

I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond. Of course, every Member of Parliament rightly defends and speaks out for their constituency, but it is a matter of fact that the defence engineering skill set and the geographical cluster of those skills—to use management speak—in Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire is there for everybody to see. It does not make sense, whatever advocacy make take place for other parts of the country, for this work to go elsewhere, only for companies to struggle to recruit or relocate a workforce.

I put the case that if the Ministry of Defence wants to move quickly on a programme that is vital for the UK armed forces and the British Army, which will be the user, it makes sense to deliver it where the skills are, where the workforce is committed and where there is a history of dedication to Her Majesty’s armed forces, both in uniform and out of uniform.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for calling this debate. He is an assiduous constituency MP. He is one of those people, to whom he referred, who will always advocate the cause of their constituency, but he is also one of my hon. Friends who serves on the Intelligence and Security Committee. He had a previous role with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and therefore knows the threats that we face, and the capabilities we need to meet those threats and deter them, both now and into the future.

It is a huge boon to my hon. Friend that he knows about the threats and capabilities, and that so many deterrents to them can be produced in the heart of Shropshire and in his constituency in particular, which combines great companies with tremendous skills, and an enthusiasm for embracing and supporting our armed forces in all their endeavours.

My hon. Friend referred to Boxer vehicles and the capabilities that they produce, which are just one good example. We look forward to bringing them into our armoury and helping to export them around the world. He touched on that, and we recognise it as a way we can help to drive forward the success of our sector in the future. We are currently the second biggest defence exporter in the world. We need to maintain that position to help ensure that we maintain research and development in our country, so that we continue to get the capabilities we need and to enhance those capabilities for the future.

My hon. Friend referred to the ventilator challenge and the work performed in his constituency. I recognise the fantastic achievements of the whole of the defence supply chain in supporting our great NHS throughout the pandemic. I highlight the work of everyone at the Defence Fulfilment Centre at Donnington in his constituency. I know that he knows it well. It has been the nerve centre and at the forefront of the logistics effort to provide vital equipment in support of the Department of Health and Social Care, including the supply of ventilators, to which he referred, and other critical medical equipment to the frontline.

The figures are astounding. Over the past seven months to November, more than 3.8 million items were handled by the defence supply chain, with the vast majority passing through Donnington. That includes over 20,000 ventilators, 70,000 pieces of equipment and over 3.7 million consumables. Those vital items have been moved and delivered across the length and breadth of the British Isles, from Belfast to Great Yarmouth, from Guernsey to NHS National Services Scotland. This has been a truly great endeavour in the face of adversity. I commend those people in defence across Shropshire, the west midlands and beyond who have risen to that vital challenge.

Donnington is just one of the valuable contributions Shropshire makes to defence. In addition to providing a central role in our pandemic response, the team at Donnington has continued, as has the rest of the defence team, to do the day job, processing 1.5 million requests, 135,000 trade receipts and 110,000 customer returns in the last 12 months for millions of items in support of our armed forces worldwide—a truly exceptional performance.

My hon. Friend referred to the broader footprint. The Royal Air Force has a significant footprint through its stations and operations at RAF Shawbury and RAF Cosford. That includes training around 200 personnel a year in basic and advanced rotary wing flying as part of the UK Military Flying Training System at Shawbury and the provision of world-class aeronautical engineering training to RAF and international students at RAF Cosford.

The school offers an extensive range of advanced apprenticeships spanning mechanical, avionics, weapons and survival equipment disciplines, from which around 2,000 aircraft engineers graduate each year. This investment in our people not only benefits defence, but sustains jobs and supports the local and wider regional economies. This is a classic example of how defence—in this case through its training school in Shropshire—provides vital skills to support our research and industrial base of the future.

More broadly, in 2018-19 we spent some £583 million in the west midlands, sustaining around 4,300 jobs, and Shropshire plays a vital role. In addition to the good work being undertaken by Kuehne+Nagel and Team Leidos at Donnington, Babcock Defence Support Group provides vital maintenance, overhaul and engineering support for our Warrior infantry fighting vehicles and other military vehicles at the Donnington site.

I would also highlight, as did my hon. Friend, the work being undertaken by Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land—RBSL—at Telford in support of the Challenger 2 life extension programme and congratulate it on the recent award of a contract of £860 million to manufacture more than 260 Boxer vehicles at its Telford facility, as part of the £2.3 billion mechanised infantry vehicle programme, to deliver a state-of-the-art capability to equip the Army’s strike brigades. It is also under contract to modernise and support the British Army’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear reconnaissance vehicles.

My first industrial engagement as Minister for Defence Procurement was a pre-lockdown visit to RBSL in March this year. I was very impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the workforce in delivering for defence. I was especially delighted to meet RBSL apprentices, who showed real enthusiasm for their work in supporting our defence programmes. It is vital that we continue to seek to empower future generations through science, technology, engineering and mathematics to grow a dynamic, innovative economy.

Our investment in the UK defence industry is allowing us to do just that. Within RBSL, in addition to the excellent work of the STEM ambassador scheme, the Boxer vehicle sub-contract award will allow the company to provide work and training opportunities to more than 60 apprentices over the next five years, and may also provide further opportunities throughout the supply chain. RBSL’s £20 million investment in its Telford site will not only provide state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities, but support the company’s apprenticeship schemes by delivering a high standard of training, enabling apprentices to benefit from work-based learning and paths to formal qualifications. Those schemes and other similar initiatives will help to grow and sustain engineering and manufacturing skills in Shropshire and across the UK, ensuring that we can deliver for defence now and in the future.

My hon. Friend referred to other companies, which are there in legion, be it Caterpillar or GKN, supporting us directly or through the wider supply chain doing vital work such as that on the F-35, for which we are the only tier 1 partner of our American allies. I also recognise the work of small and medium-sized enterprises, who play a vital role in the UK defence industrial base. We want to harness their ingenuity and niche capabilities in providing and supporting battle-winning capabilities for our armed forces.

In 2019, we published an SME action plan and, to support that commitment, appointed SME champions at senior level within our 19 strategic suppliers. We are targeting 25% of our procurement spend to be with SMEs by 2022. We are making progress. SMEs accounted for over 19% of the MOD’s procurement spend in 2018-19, representing some £3.9 billion, which was a significant increase on the previous year and the third year in a row in which the proportion of funds going to SMEs rose.

SMEs working in Shropshire provide valuable support to a varied range of defence activities. Air Covers Ltd is manufacturing and supplying canopy covers for the Typhoon combat aircraft fleet and Skylaunch Ltd is providing glider winches for our air cadets, among many others. Alongside our support to SMEs, we continue our internal programmes of transformation and reform, allowing us to work better with the defence industry to deliver what defence needs now and in the future. That includes leading the cross-Government review of the UK’s defence and security sectors, continued investment to manage and enhance the resilience of our supply chains, and improving the pace and agility of our acquisition processes. We are also taking the opportunity offered by our departure from the EU to develop defence and security procurement regulations tailored to better meet the UK’s needs.

We can be positive about the future, underpinned by the huge boost to defence recently announced by the Prime Minister. The four-year settlement to which my hon. Friend made reference amounts to an extra £24 billion —including at least £6.6 billion for R&D—and provides us with the opportunity to modernise and compete effectively in the digitised battlefield and, above all, deter. As one of the biggest defence spenders in the world, our investment already injects over £19 billion into our industry every year right the way across the United Kingdom, securing thousands of jobs and growing opportunities across the whole nation. The settlement will allow us to build on that and provide new opportunities across the supply chain, helping the country to build back better from the pandemic by supporting UK skills, jobs and industry.

It came as no surprise that, on the back of the Prime Minister’s excellent announcement of a multi-year spending review, my hon. Friend inquired about specific procurement exercises that I know from his previous questions are at the front of his mind and are of interest more broadly in Shropshire. On his ask for an early Christmas present, I am afraid it will come as a disappointment—but probably no surprise—that I cannot be drawn on those specific issues at this time. However, I am aware of both the capability enhancements and prosperity benefits elucidated. I am grateful to him for giving us yet another opportunity to raise them in the House, and I look forward to being able to say more in due course.

Defence is part of the fabric of the UK. Through our defence industries both big and small, the UK supports our armed forces with the equipment they need to get the job done, provide our security and keep us safe. I am convinced that the Government’s funding commitment to defence will secure the long-term future of our defence industry both in Shropshire and across all the regions and all four nations of the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Winter Homelessness Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for the homeless during the winter months.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am grateful that I have been able to secure this debate to discuss support for the homeless as we head into Christmas and the winter months. I am delighted that so many hon. Members are keen to take part in the debate and represent their constituents’ concerns. I hope that I speak for us all, no matter what our political affiliation, when I say that we want the issues of rough sleeping and homelessness to be solved. We all aspire to the same end goal—to see homelessness assigned to the history books.

I am extremely proud that one of the Government’s main priorities is to end rough sleeping by 2024. As hon. Members will be aware, the issues surrounding rough sleeping and homelessness are acute in central London, and particularly in my constituency. We need only step outside this building to witness the problems, and the scale of the challenge that we face. I receive regular correspondence from businesses and residents who are concerned for the welfare of rough sleepers, so today I want to focus my concern on the first stages of supporting those who sleep rough on the streets into a bed and the right support environment. Other colleagues may want to discuss later stages of the journey, such as moving individuals into settled accommodation, but for me and my constituents the major concern is to support people off the streets in the first place.

It is important that we understand the different cohorts of rough sleepers on the streets. Today I am speaking specifically about Westminster, which has more rough sleepers than any borough in the country. The latest overnight count in Westminster took place in November. It provided a snapshot of the night-time street population. On count night, Westminster found 242 people sleeping rough. Of those, just under half were UK or Irish nationals. The rest represented a wide range of nationalities, but substantially the remainder were eastern European. Beyond nationality there are many underlying causes for people finding themselves on the street.

From my previous experience of being responsible for rough sleeping policy in Westminster, and my long association with charities such as St Mungo’s and The Passage, there are generally three main cohorts of rough sleepers in Westminster. First, there are those suffering with acute mental health or addiction issues. They are often mistrustful of the support that is offered, having been let down by society throughout their life, and refuse to engage with outreach teams. The second cohort is economic migrants, who may choose to sleep outside or in a tent in order to save their earnings, which they send back to their families. They often have no recourse to public funds, owing to their nationality, so help from local authorities eludes them anyway. The third cohort is those who are suffering at the hands of gangmasters as modern-day slaves. Some will have been brought here against their will to beg, to be forced into prostitution or to commit crime. Many are brought here under false pretences with promises of accommodation, only for that not to materialise.

Allow me to outline what support I believe should be considered if we are to end rough sleeping for good. First, for those suffering from mental health and addiction issues the answer is clear. We need to offer greater social care and specialist medical support alongside the safety of a bed. I am proud that Westminster City Council has more than 400 beds for rough sleepers on any given night. However, I have spoken in depth with the council and the charities involved, and it is now clear to me that what is needed is sustained and long-term support, attached to that bed—an addiction counsellor, psychiatric help and medical support for those who have suffered after years of sleeping rough.

The current pandemic has shown that when central and local government works together, much can be achieved. During the first lockdown, the Everyone In strategy saw 90% of those on the street brought in. With integrated services available, many accepted the mental health and addiction help provided as part of the covid-19 support. A bed is one thing, but without the support services attached, it will not change much for those in desperate need.

I am therefore delighted that the Government clearly understand the importance of tackling mental health and addiction. The extra help for rough sleepers with dependency issues announced this week, including £1.1 million to Westminster for addiction support, clearly shows that Ministers now understand the importance of tackling the causes—why so many find themselves on the street. If we are to end rough sleeping, however, that funding must continue. Tackling the causes of rough sleeping takes long-term, sustainable funding.

Secondly, if the Government are to achieve their goal of ending rough sleeping, they must also repeal the Vagrancy Act. Much has been spoken about repealing that out-of-date legislation, but it is now time for action. The Vagrancy Act, passed in 1824, is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to address the acute 21st-century problems that public sector agencies and charities work tirelessly to deal with among the street population.

Rather than seek to help those on the street, the Vagrancy Act criminalises them. Sadly, in some desperate cases, the Vagrancy Act is the last resort to take people off the street and into the support that they need, albeit that requires police intervention. In place of the Act, I would like to see legislation that allows for assertive outreach that puts protection, not criminality, at its heart. So many on the street present with complex needs and do not have the mental health capacity to make the decision, for their own wellbeing, to accept the help on offer.

Does the woman sleeping in an underpass not far from here, with maggots growing out of her leg but consistently refusing help to come inside, really have the mental capacity? Has the time come to overhaul the mental health threshold for those on the street, to allow outreach workers to make the decision on their behalf? The alternative is the status quo, which allows people to remain on the street, failing to address their serious mental health problems. I am not a great believer in state intervention, but were my son or daughter on the street with serious addiction or mental health problems, I would want to know that society has the levers available to make the decision for them, for their own wellbeing, and possibly to save their life.

I recall sitting outside Charing Cross station watching a guy drink water from a puddle like a dog, and up to several thousand people passed him before anyone did anything about it. Likewise, kids in the summer have a bit of a party and take loads of drugs, but the weather changes and they are addicted. They need to be got off the streets before what started as a party ends as a nightmare. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

As I want to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak in this debate, I do not have time to go into the detail that discussion of the other issues faced by economic migrants and modern-day slaves who find themselves on the street would deserve, but I will turn to them briefly. Their issues are as complex as those of people dealing with health and addiction issues, especially as agencies are often hampered in the support that they can offer because foreign nationals may not have access to public funds.

To help those cohorts requires much greater co-ordination across government, between the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and local authorities. In the case of modern-day slaves, those people desperately need our support, but the difficulty in law is how to criminalise their gangmasters without criminalising those who have been trafficked on to our streets. What support or help should we offer them? Would they like to return home? Should we help them return home? Such matters can only be truly addressed by a deeper and honest conversation across Government, local authorities and the charity sector.

For too long the elephant in the room has been the issue of the “no recourse to public funds” category and whether to suspend it—a difficult decision, I recognise, but one that does need addressing. As I have highlighted, the issues around rough sleeping are complex and there are no easy answers. If we are to achieve the Government’s laudable aim to end rough sleeping, greater support for health and addiction issues, and a reassessment of both the Vagrancy Act and the no recourse to public funds rules are all required.

I recognise and welcome the increased focus and funding that the Government have provided to local authorities to support rough sleeping this year. The Government are clearly determined to end rough sleeping and I look forward to providing support to Ministers to achieve our shared goal. I look forward to the contributions of Members and the Minister’s response.

I remind all right hon. and hon. Members to respect the one-way system, to sanitise microphones using the cleaning materials, and to dispose of the materials in the bin. I think we have enough room so that people can sit in the horseshoe. I suggest a four-minute time limit, so that everybody can come in. I will call the wind-ups just before 10 past 5, if that is all right. I call Stephen Timms.

Thank you, Mrs Miller. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate, and I agree with a great deal of what she had to say. Like her, I see what is happening around Westminster. I came in via the Embankment this morning and it is impossible to miss the tents under Hungerford bridge, where a growing number of people seem to be making their homes. It shames all of us that in this city so many are sleeping rough in that way.

The one policy that could deal with that effectively is a substantial programme of investment in social housing. I recognise that Ministers are sincere in wanting to end the scourge of rough sleeping, and I acknowledge the commitment that the Government have made. In reality, we are not going to end rough sleeping without a substantial programme of new social house building. I see no sign of that happening. Without it, we are not going to end rough sleeping.

I particularly want to pay tribute to the network of church-based homelessness night shelters in London that operate in winter. At least one has been set up in every London borough. Seven or 14 churches take it in turns to gather volunteers to provide a hot meal, a bed and some breakfast to rough sleepers, one night per week. In past years, for hundreds of people it has been the only alternative to sleeping rough. I pay tribute to Housing Justice, which supports their work and liaises between them and the Mayor of London.

I welcome the imaginative support that the Minister’s Department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has been providing to that network lately. This year the network are working on alternative covid-safe provision. Unavoidably, that means less capacity. I think the Department has provided about £2 million to support their work, to enable them to operate in a covid-safe way. I commend the Department and the night shelters. Last February, St Paul’s Cathedral hosted a service to celebrate their work and to thank the hundreds of volunteers who keep them going. Everybody there will have agreed with the Bishop of Edmonton, the chair of Housing Justice, who was the preacher, that volunteers should not have to do that work.

I want to refer to a point that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster highlighted in her opening speech about people with leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds. The Local Government Association brief for this debate highlights the large number seen by councils who, their work stopped because of the pandemic, are unable to claim benefits because of the no recourse to public funds condition, and who face homelessness and destitution. Expectations on councils to support people with NRPF have changed during the pandemic. Councils are obliged in law to support families and adults with care and support needs, but not others. Local welfare funds, provided through councils, are not available to those with NRPF.

The Minister’s Department rightly made it clear at the outset that councils should provide shelter for people sleeping rough, even if those people had no recourse to public funds. However, the legal unclarity has made matters harder, and sadly the enlightenment of the Minister’s Department has not been emulated by the Home Office. Government guidance has not been updated on what assistance can be accessed by people with no recourse to public funds. So, will the Minister press her colleagues in the Home Office to do what the Women and Equalities Committee—a Committee chaired by a former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)— recommended unanimously in its report published yesterday, and suspend the no recourse to public funds restriction for the duration of the pandemic?

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate. She actually knows what she is talking about in this regard, having grappled with the centre of gravity for street homelessness in our national life.

What is street homelessness? To me, street homelessness has almost nothing to do with housing. In my experience—I have got some; I reckon that I have spent four and a half to five months of my life living on the streets of various cities, here and in the United States—street homelessness is actually a health issue. We are only ever going to deal with the problem if the Government understand that, and if the fabulous Minister present today were to spend most of her time in the Department of Health.

Street homelessness is about mental health or about addiction, and very often a combination of the two. I know that the media and lots of us in all parties in the House like to present homelessness as the fault of the evil Government of x hue or y hue, and of the evil bedroom tax, and benefit cuts, or whatever else. In my experience, there are people on the streets who would fit into that category, and I am in no doubt that there are tens of thousands of homeless people in the so-called sofa-surfing arena, but of the street homeless people, only a tiny number fit in that category. Everybody else is drug-addicted or mentally ill.

Actually, I would add a new thing that had not occurred to me until the Minister mentioned state intervention just now, because there is another thing that the street homeless have in common—including the lady with maggots, who I have not met yet but will seek out—and that is that they no longer have family or friends who are interested in them.

I am all for the small state, but I actually agree with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster that the state has got to take a bigger role in the lives of this really relatively small number of people—possibly 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 people nationally, but obviously that figure twirls around. I think we need to ensure that.

The other observation that I will make—again I agree with the right hon. Member for East Ham—is that ultimately, of course, lack of housing is going to impact the people at the very, very bottom, and we need to sort that out; but we should also be mindful that we are increasing our population, and we still are under this Government, to the tune of 1 million people every three years.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing today’s debate. I absolutely agree with everything that she and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said about social housing need. Investment in social housing is absolutely imperative.

A year ago, I was elected on a promise to end rough sleeping in Hastings and Rye by the end of this Parliament, and to prevent homelessness—a promise to local residents that I intend to keep. I am pleased that although we have been battered and bashed by covid-19, the Government have not lost sight of their desire to ensure that we support the most vulnerable and eradicate rough sleeping once and for all. The determination to live up to that promise is clear in the actions that have been taken throughout the covid-19 pandemic to help and support rough sleepers and the homeless.

There was the initial funding of £3.2 million given to local authorities in March for the Everyone In campaign to help get rough sleepers off the streets as coronavirus spread. To ensure that rough sleepers do not return to the streets after the pandemic, the Government launched the Next Steps accommodation programme, which provides funding of more than £250 million to local authorities and their partners in 2020-21 for short and medium-term accommodation solutions, and also more than £150 million to 276 schemes for longer-term accommodation solutions.

This winter the Government have announced masses of funding and a welcome package to protect rough sleepers over the winter months. All told, over this pandemic and into the winter, the Government have allocated more than £700 million in ring-fenced funding to support rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping. In Hastings we have an acute issue with rough sleeping. The local authority has one of the highest rates of rough sleeping in our region, having increased from three in 2010 to 48 people sleeping on the streets in 2018. That increase is deeply concerning, but it is not just the raw numbers that alarm me; it is also the way in which we approach the issue.

The best thing we can do is to offer rough sleepers and those registered as homeless Housing First with full wraparound support. Too often, I have heard of cases of rough sleepers being taken off the streets and put into temporary, insecure and poor quality accommodation and simply left there. I want to see a proper series of interventions that provide more secure quality accommodation, access to health services to deal with any addictions, health concerns or mental illness, and also support with skills training and employability advice to help sustain tenancies and get rough sleepers off the cold, wintry streets and back on their feet, standing tall with a future to look on with hope and pride.

Too often we have sought quick wins in short-term solutions. We need to make sure that we have a long-term plan with the funding. I am pleased with the support and the emphasis that the Government have put on supporting local authorities and organisations to help the most vulnerable, but, going forward, we need a more holistic approach to tackling the underlying causes of rough sleeping to really give these people a fresh start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this important debate.

In January, I delivered my maiden speech on homelessness, and it seems appropriate to return to the subject for what is likely to be my final contribution of 2020. Much has changed since then. The country has found itself under attack from an invisible and previously unknown enemy. While the public were urged to stay at home, local authorities and third sector organisations leapt into action to ensure that no one was left on the streets. Thanks to their tireless efforts, countless lives were saved, but the Government failed to capitalise on that success. Decisive action was needed to end the scourge of homelessness forever. Instead, the funding dried up and people were sent back on to the streets once again.

As we draw closer to the longest night of the year with the temperatures set to plummet, we find ourselves once again debating support for homeless people. The scale of the crisis was demonstrated by the recent news that 778 homeless people died in 2019. That was a 7% increase on the year before and the highest number since the Office for National Statistics began to monitor cases in 2013.

Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy, and those of us who have the great privilege of serving here must ensure that that awful death toll is never repeated. Local authorities must be given the resources that they need to provide rough sleepers with safe, self-contained accommodation this winter. I am deeply concerned by the Government’s decision to reopen communal night shelters over the Christmas period, a decision that has been criticised by Crisis and more than 16 other housing and health charities.

Homeless people are far more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to covid-19. They should not be forced to choose between spending a night freezing on the streets or jeopardising their health in communal accommodation. We also need to take steps to prevent people driven into poverty by the combined threat of deprivation and covid from becoming yet more involuntary recruits to the ranks of the homeless this winter and every winter to come.

I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the ban on evictions until 11 January, but with cases rising across the country and joblessness soaring, it is imperative that the ban is extended until we have decisively won the war on covid. I also urge the Government to listen to leading housing charities and remove the benefit cap, end the freeze on local housing allowance and strengthen financial support for those at risk of homelessness. Support must be made available for everyone who needs it, regardless of nationality or immigration status. That means ending once and for all the punitive and discriminatory policy of no recourse to public funds.

The housing crisis must be tackled head on. For far too long, successive Governments have failed to address the pressing need to build secure and affordable housing. There are more than 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing, but a mere 5,000 new homes were built last year. That has left millions of people in precarious housing situations, paying sky-high rents that spiral ever upwards while wages spiral down.

Today, almost half of private renters are just one pay cheque away from homelessness. That has to change. More than ever, we need an ambitious house building programme that delivers the high-quality, affordable housing stock that our country desperately needs. We need to end the disastrous right to buy programme, which for decades has prevented local authorities from building much-needed council houses. I believe that council house building on a scale similar to that of the post-war years is the best way to end the scourge of homelessness and the shameful shortage of decent homes.

Our ambition should match the needs of our country. Our reward will be more stable and prosperous communities, homes to be proud of and an end to the tragedy of human beings being forced to live their lives on the streets and taking shelter beneath cardboard boxes.

It is a pleasure to join this debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this debate.

A year ago, the Government were elected with a manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping in this Parliament. That is a welcome and ambitious agenda. This year, they could go some way to meeting that target through Everyone In, which is estimated to have helped 30,000 people.

We should put on the record our gratitude to charities such as St Mungo’s, which operates in Southwark, and councils such as the London borough of Southwark for all the support they have given in this difficult period. Southwark has helped 799 people, and at one point was providing help to more than one third of all those accommodated in the entire capital city.

That 30,000 figure follows the Government claim in January that there were only 5,000 rough sleepers in the country. My first question to the Minister is: when will the Government implement a new, robust measurement, rather than that finger-in-the-air approach? During Everyone In, Combined Homelessness and Information Network stats showed that there were still 3,500 people sleeping on the streets from July, so has the Minister done an assessment of why that was happening that can be shared with the House?

One of the reasons that has been identified today is no recourse to public funds. The Government simply are not funding everyone. Ten per cent. of those helped in the London borough of Southwark had no recourse to public funds. Is that figure the same nationally, Minister? Will the Government fix the misnomer of Everyone In and actually fund everyone? Will the Minister acknowledge that it is cheaper to cancel the no recourse to public funds restrictions than to require councils, using public money, to spend more on emergency accommodation?

We should recognise that Everyone In has saved lives. One study published in The Lancet suggested that 266 deaths, more than 21,000 infections and more than 1,000 hospital admissions had been avoided, so it has saved lives and saved the NHS from being overwhelmed. That safety-first approach needs to continue.

Southwark is using the Robes Project—a fantastic organisation—to provide self-contained rooms this winter, because communal shelters cannot operate due to the risk of covid. Will the Government also commit to funding safe accommodation for everyone this winter? I ask that because their cold weather fund, which has already been announced, is £3 million lower this year than it was last year, despite the covid risks, the higher costs and the growing risk of not just becoming homeless but being homeless.

We have just heard about the ONS figures, which were published on Monday, that show that there is a greater risk of dying on our streets. It was 778 last year—up 7% on the previous year. An extra person every week dies on our streets. That is the highest ever figure. It rose last year and is very likely to jump again in 2021 if the Government do not act now. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what specific measures are being adopted to tackle the problem of people dying on our streets.

That is a legitimate question. Look at the situation we face: not just covid, but the rise in unemployment, the return of evictions and the continued lack of support for people facing hostile environment policies. To put some numbers on that, nearly 67,000 people approached English local authorities for homelessness assistance between April and June this year. That figure is likely to rise further in the next statistics. The Government need to recognise the scale of the problem, and fully resource councils to respond to and manage the volume they are seeing. A failure to act will mean not just a missed manifesto target, but that councils and charities are overwhelmed, that covid infections will rise, and that there will be more deaths on our streets. That will be the brutal reality if the Government fail to act.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this debate.

I cannot think of many things worse than being homeless. Maybe it is not surprising that homeless people are three and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The suicide rate among rough sleepers is estimated to have increased by 30% in just 12 months, and Birmingham has recorded 25 homeless deaths over a 12-month period—not all of them suicides, but that is the second highest rate in the country. More people will almost certainly perish on our streets this winter. In Birmingham, over 3,500 house- holds are homeless, living in temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfasts and some pretty grim hotels. Some 16,000 households are on the Birmingham housing register.

It is not a lack of will that causes these problems. We saw during the Everyone In programme what can be achieved, and I really admire the energy and determination of Birmingham Councillor Sharon Thompson in trying to make a difference. However, we need a more joined-up response, and we need to agree that homelessness is as much of an evil as hunger or disease. I do not wish to strike a discordant note in this debate, but I was slightly surprised by the emphasis that the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) placed on people’s social problems, at a time when so many prominent voices in the Tory party have been promoting Housing First as a policy. I would be really interested to hear from the Minister whether there is a view on that.

Birmingham is a generous city, and The Birmingham Mail’s #BrumWish campaign has raised money from its readers for more than 2,000 presents for children living in homeless accommodation this Christmas. However, we cannot solve homelessness with donations: we need action to address the lack of affordable housing. Private rents in Birmingham are already too high, and with the economic uncertainty that lies ahead, there will be a further increase in homelessness unless some practical measures to address exorbitant rents are introduced.

I totally get the hon. Gentleman’s point about 60,000 people on waiting lists, emergency accommodation and everything else, but this is what we always do. We are always conflating the homelessness of the sorts of people the hon. Gentleman is talking about with the street homeless, who are sometimes used as a thing to batter Government with. I think there is a very big difference between the entrenched street homeless and the sorts of people that the hon. Gentleman is describing. They are different, and we will not help the street homeless or our cohorts unless we accept that there is a difference between the two groups.

I guess my point is that we should be helping both. I would say it is as simple as that: I do not really want to divide and separate these people, but to help both groups.

We also need strengthened arrangements to prevent developers wriggling out of obligations to provide affordable housing by fiddling figures to disguise their real profit margins at the expense of homeless people. That is what is happening in my city, and I will wager that it is happening up and down the country. As the Minister will know, too many people in Birmingham and elsewhere are placed in expensive and dodgy exempt accommodation, draining the public purse of money that could be put to much better use in tackling homelessness on both of these fronts. We should be dealing with the people on the streets, but if a child is sharing a bed with their three sisters and mother in a bed-and-breakfast house in Birmingham, they do not have much of a future, either.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this very important debate.

The covid-19 pandemic has hugely impacted so much of our lives. Many people are now facing redundancy and financial hardship. This public health crisis proves now more than ever that ending homelessness and rough sleeping should be a priority. Obviously, housing and homelessness is a devolved topic, but by virtue of our third party obligations here, we are compelled to take part in the debates. This has been an interesting debate, and I want to offer just a few thoughts on what happens in Scotland—and not by any means to say that we are doing this better, because I think that homelessness is a blight on all of us. I do not think any of us would disagree that one person homeless is one too many. But certainly in Scotland, the SNP has ensured that Scots have some of the strongest homelessness rights in the world. They mean that anyone who is experiencing or even at risk of homelessness is entitled to receive help from the local authority, including accommodation.

The SNP is clear on the fact that a settled home is vital in supporting people to have a happy and healthy life. That is why the Scottish Government are investing £32.5 million, which is more than half their £50-million Ending Homelessness Together fund, to support local authorities to prioritise settled accommodation for all.

In addition to more investment, this year the Scottish Government, along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, published an updated “Ending Homelessness Together” action plan, and one of the most significant recommendations in the action plan is the phasing out of night shelters in Scotland. Night shelters will be replaced with rehousing welcome centres for people who would otherwise be sleeping rough this winter. The centres will provide emergency accommodation, and people using the centres will be offered targeted support, including for wellbeing, health and social care issues, legal rights, employment and welfare. I think that that will be life changing for people experiencing homelessness.

The Scottish Government have also announced a £100-million package of further measures to alleviate the social harms caused by the covid-19 pandemic. That includes £5 million to help those at risk of homelessness to find a settled home. As part of the £100 million, Scotland’s winter plan for social protection includes £15 million of flexible funding for local authorities entering covid-19 protection level 4, which Glasgow has just been in. That can be used to pay for food and essentials.

It is clear that UK Home Office policies are causing people to face destitution and homelessness over the winter months. My party and I remain very concerned that the Home Office plans to deport non-UK nationals who are sleeping rough. That is clearly a very inhumane and backward policy. I am afraid that those actions will undermine the UK Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping in England, alongside undermining the vital work of the devolved Administrations to help those most vulnerable during the pandemic.

The issue of no recourse to public funds has come up this afternoon. Likewise, the SNP Government have repeatedly called on the UK Government to suspend the no-recourse-to-public-funds policy and enable people to access public services, including health advice, during the coronavirus pandemic. The Scottish Government will continue to extend support to people with no recourse to public funds where possible, but it would be good to have action by the UK Government on that as well.

On 16 November, the Scottish Government announced a further £278,000 of funding for six organisations supporting people subject to NRPF. The grants will support projects in Edinburgh and Glasgow that are helping people subject to the UK Government’s policy, which imposes conditions on someone because of their immigration status and restricts access to welfare, housing and financial support. I think we would all agree that coronavirus is not something that respects people’s immigration status—I will leave the Minister to reflect on that.

Despite the measures put in place by the Scottish Government, this area of work and pensions policy is clearly reserved to Westminster, and I think that that brings us to the crux of the issue, because until Scotland is an independent country, it is an inescapable reality that—

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is coming on to this, but perhaps he could outline what the SNP Government are doing to tackle drug deaths in Scotland, given the alarming figures that we have seen for Scotland—they are higher than average—and given the prevalence of such deaths in the homeless community.

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am a Glasgow MP and the drug death figures in Scotland are totally and utterly unacceptable. More action is needed on that and I will not hide from that fact. If the UK Government are unwilling to take action on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, they should devolve those powers to the Scottish Parliament—that would be very helpful.

Politicians not just in Scotland, but right across the UK, have got to have a very difficult conversation. It is a brave thing for politicians to stand up and say, “Perhaps look at moving to safe consumption rooms, as they have done in many parts of the world.” If we want to tackle the drugs issue, it should be above party politics. UK Government Ministers are going to have to come to the very difficult decision about something like what we see in Portugal, Australia and Germany. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) is right to put that on the record. The drugs death issue has been forgotten about during this public health crisis.

The covid-19 pandemic has proven to us all just how utterly tragic this Government have been at handling a crisis. With the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on the horizon, I dread to think how much worse it could get for the poorest people in our society.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I commend the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on her commitment to ending homelessness and on the skills and knowledge evident in her speech. We have had a thorough and impassioned debate, rightly so, but I hardly know where to start. We have had these debates before and I am sure the Minister can already guess some of the things I am going to say—but I think they bear repetition.

Government MPs made my point for me when they called for better funding for mental health and for drug and alcohol addiction services. The fact that those services are lacking and that we need to fund them is a sign of what has happened over the last 10 years. It is also an illustration of the fact that acts have consequences. When Governments take decisions in—let’s just pick a year at random—2010, the consequences can be felt 10 years on. They still are. They are outside the door here and they are on the streets of Bristol, Rochester and Strood and Westminster. They are on the streets in all our constituencies, but they are also—it is related—in temporary accommodation across the country. The two things are related; it should not be either/or.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) said, living in temporary accommodation is a bad way to live. It is bad for children and it is bad for children’s education. Across the country today, 130,000 children will be living in a place where there is not only usually nowhere suitable to cook a safe, healthy meal, let alone a celebratory one, but where there is no way to do homework, where there is no wi-fi signal, where they will fall behind in school. That will hurt us all.

That child who is falling behind in school because of their time in temporary accommodation could be the child that develops a cure for cancer, or comes up with some radical way of improving environmental cleanliness, or something—anything. We are going to lose out on their potential, because they are falling behind because they are homeless. That is a consequence of Government decision making.

I will touch briefly on rough sleeping and then on other forms of homelessness. First, I have some questions for the Minister. How much exactly of the Protect programme and the cold weather fund has made it out of the door, as of today? As I understand it, although the £15 million Protect programme was announced and a £10 million cold weather fund was announced, on Monday only £9.8 million of the Protect programme had been allocated. Why not the rest of the money—the other £5.2 million?

Have councils actually got the cold weather fund in their hands? It is cold already. The Government worked well with councils and charities in March to bring everybody in, but it is colder now and there is less money, and my council and councillors across the country are telling us of their struggle to keep going.

Rough sleeping is the tip of an iceberg; I know the Minister will expect me to say this, but I believe it to be true—it is the sharp end of a broken housing system with escalating private rents, widening inequality of income and people in insecure jobs who get into difficulties the minute disaster strikes because they have never been able to save money because their income is so unstable.

There is a chronic lack of supply. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) mentioned, there is no way of solving homelessness without addressing supply and, equally, there is no way of addressing supply without addressing social housing—truly affordable housing, council housing or housing association housing, with support. The system we have at the moment is being exploited in cities across the country, where exempt accommodation, although sometimes run very well, is often run badly. It is paid for from the public purse. This is not just an issue of morality. There is also the issue of cost.

I am very aware of time, because I know the Minister has a lot to say. I will continue, if the hon. Member will allow; he has intervened on various speakers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) rightly highlighted the number of people who die while homeless. Pioneering work in my city of Bristol by the journalist Michael Yong showed the humanity behind every one of those stories as well as, I am afraid to say, showing that they were preventable deaths. A policy failure lay behind almost every case.

Too often homelessness, particularly street homelessness, is seen as a sad but inevitable fact of life or a moral failing on the part of the person who is homeless, and it is neither. It is a consequence of decisions taken by Governments. It can go up, but it can also go down. We must make it go down and end it. I am talking about not just street homelessness, but making sure that the underlying causes of wider homelessness are tackled.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her work and passion in this area, which I have felt strongly in the couple of months that I have been in post. I also pay tribute to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), whose direct experience in the area—he probably has more than many hon. Members present—and long-standing passion to target work on the issue is inspirational.

I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for his work with the APPG. As he knows, I look forward to working with him on some of the challenges. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken the time to speak on behalf of their constituents for the passion with which they have made their arguments, particularly the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), with whom I have had several conversations already about a number of issues. Again, I commit to working with him on the things that concern him.

I know that many of these issues are close to hon. Members’ hearts. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) rightly highlighted the release on Monday of death stats of people who have sadly and tragically died in emergency accommodation or on the streets. Today’s debate is key because in 2019, two in five of those poor individuals, which equates to 289 people, lost their lives due to drug poisoning, and 112 people lost their lives due to suicide. I will not name the individual, because I have not checked with his mother before speaking, but I lost a primary school friend last year for that reason. For many years, he had been part of the rough sleeping fraternity in my community that I have worked with. I am not ignorant of the challenges that those individuals face on the streets, which is why I am pleased to be in this role in Government.

It is unacceptable that people should be without a roof over their head during the cold winter months. Winter poses a number of new challenges for rough sleepers and for those who work tirelessly to support them. That is why we have put in place measures to ensure that local authorities can protect vulnerable people this winter and meet the challenges of the coming months.

In October, we announced a comprehensive winter support package for rough sleepers, which gives local areas the tools that they need to protect individuals from life-threatening cold weather and covid. It included the £10 million winter fund, which is available to all local authorities to protect rough sleepers. Those vital funds are being used to bring forward self-contained accommodation to support rough sleepers off the streets.

We understand the role that faith and community-led accommodation plays in local authority pathways out of homelessness during winter. Like the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and others, I pay tribute to the voluntary sector and our faith and community-led organisations that do so much to support the work of Government and that work directly with those individuals. That is why we have been working with Public Health England to provide the operating principles that enable shelters to open as safely as possible. We have been clear, however, that night shelters should be used only where absolutely necessary—based on a detailed covid-19 risk assessment, to protect against the risk to health and life of individuals remaining on the streets—and when there is no alternative: in cold weather, for example.

Local authorities and shelter providers have been working together to offer self-contained accommodation options to users. We expect to see a reduced number of shelters opening this year. To address that, we have created the £2 million homelessness winter transformation fund, to help the faith, community and voluntary sector groups move away from their traditional communal models. They have been providing more innovative solutions, and I am pleased to update Members about how there have been some innovative and exciting bids from the voluntary, faith and community sector. Homeless Link has also been able to add £1.3 million to the fund from the national lottery and Comic Relief, increasing the budget to meet demands. The successful applicants will get notice of their grants ahead of Christmas.

In response to national restrictions, the Protect programme was launched. It provides £50 million in targeted support to address the housing and health needs of rough sleepers during the winter months. Local authorities are already delivering those key services. The Protect programme involves intensive work with a number of local authorities, including Westminster and the Greater London Authority. The additional funding is bringing forward new provision, including additional off-the-street emergency accommodation and a pan-London covid-care facility, which will save lives.

To answer the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) directly about allocations and whether those funds are with authorities, I should say that we are working with the areas in most need. We are working with them to agree forward plans, and those funds will be issued as soon as we are able. Ultimately, however, the authorities that we are having those conversations and agreeing those plans with have the assurance of the delivery of that work. We are working with councils up and down the country. We have asked local areas to update their rough sleeping and severe weather plans, so that the measures will ensure that the wider sector has the resource to protect rough sleepers not only from severe cold weather but from the risks of covid.

I remind Members that such programmes do not sit in isolation. Many have mentioned the success of the Everyone In campaign, so I will not restate the figures, but we supported more than 29,000 vulnerable people during it.

Sorry, but I want to make some progress and tackle some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol West.

In October, we announced allocations to local partners for move-on accommodation—3,300 new long-term homes—building on the assets of local councils to deliver accommodation into the future. That is part of a broader package to deliver 6,000 homes.

As has rightly been mentioned today, rough sleepers require specialised wrap-around support, with stable accommodation on top of that. That is why on Monday I announced the allocation to the substance misuse programme, which will deliver £23 million to the 43 priority areas with the highest level of need, including three pan-London projects. Those vital funds will provide the specialist support needed to enable people sleeping rough with substance misuse to rebuild their lives off the street and to move towards longer-term accommodation.

Here, I will say that I absolutely understand the link between mental health and substance misuse with regards to dealing with the impact on some of our most entrenched rough sleepers, and the challenges not only for the people who work with rough sleepers but, obviously, to the long-term success of being able to get those individuals into accommodation. That is why I am pleased with the work, and looking forward to the outcomes, of the Housing First pilots, which are operating around the country, and their continuation. We hope to build the strong argument in this country in order to make that argument across Government, so that we can roll out as much of it as we can.

I will speak quickly about no recourse to public funds. Obviously, we know that rough sleepers’ immigration status is an issue. The rules in relation to the legal position have not changed. Local authorities must use their judgment in assessing what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis, considering the person’s specific needs and circumstances. We know that local authorities regularly make such judgments on accommodating individuals, when, for example, there is extreme weather or a risk to life. Of course, I understand that that is an issue for many local authorities and for hon. Members. I have had conversations already with the leader of Westminster City Council in relation to this particular challenge, and they are continuing. I am also speaking to the Home Office, and will continue to work to build clarity in the system for councils.

I want to touch quickly on substance misuse. I sent a “Dear colleague” letter to colleagues across the House on Monday, including the results of a survey on rough sleepers—the first of its kind, where we got data directly from rough sleepers. It showed that 82% have a mental health vulnerability, and 60% are affected by substance misuse. Obviously, that is not a complete picture, but it is the first data that we have had directly from the individuals who are suffering.

We announced the £23 million on Monday, but next year that will be supported by £52 million. I absolutely understand the link between rough sleeping and some of the health challenges, and in my role I cannot say I have all the answers now, but I can give a commitment to work across Government with colleagues to tackle some of the issues. Mental health is a major part of that, and obviously we already have £30 million of funding for mental health services that is being delivered by the Department of Health and Social Care.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is a complex issue, of concern to many Members. We know from our engagement with stakeholders that there are diverging views about the necessity for and relevance of the Act, which is why the Government believe a review is the right course of action. We are looking at options including retention, repeal, replacement and amendment. I have already started to look at the issue in detail, but at the heart of the review will be the experiences and perceptions of a range of stakeholders, including the homelessness sector, the police, local authorities and business representatives. Work is ongoing, and the Government will be giving updates on the findings in due course. I look forward to working with Members, but I reiterate that the Government continue to be clear that we will not criminalise, and do not want to criminalise, individuals who are rough sleeping. We understand the complex individual circumstances that can lead to rough sleeping.

If I have a couple of minutes, I would like quickly to touch on social housing. It is absolutely something that the Government care about, and that is why we have launched the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme. It is true that we need to move on temporary accommodation and that is why we have the Next Steps funding. That is exactly what we are doing about getting individuals moving on from Everyone In.

I am running out of time. I shall write to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark about the data, because it is too complex to talk about now.

I thank all the hon. Members who took part in this vital debate. We have heard from Members representing places across the country how homelessness can affect our constituencies.

I take the point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made about Housing First. We could have spoken for hours about that, but it is the entrenched rough sleepers who concern me more, because I do not believe that they have the mental capacity to respond to the outreach work that we offer.

I thank the Minister for her pledge on the Vagrancy Act 1824 and the fact that we will be looking at welfare rather than criminalisation. The word “vagrancy” should be taken out of the Act, anyway. I thank everyone, and hope we can work together to end rough sleeping.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered support for the homeless during the winter months.

Sitting adjourned.