Wednesday 10 March 2021
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Residential Leaseholders and Interim Fire Safety Costs
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Welcome to Westminster Hall from the Boothroyd Room. I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered residential leaseholders and interim fire safety costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall and to be able to debate such an important topic today. When I became the MP for Vauxhall in 2019, two and a half years after the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, I did not expect to find so many of my constituents still living in unsafe buildings, blighted by dangerous cladding and other fire safety defects. To date, I have received correspondence from and been contacted by more than 250 individual leaseholders living in 27 different unsafe building developments in my constituency. And that is just in Vauxhall. The sheer scale of the cladding scandal is truly shocking, and it has revealed the full extent of what can only be described as a systematic failure in building safety in this country. But because of the tireless efforts of campaigners and their supporters up and down the country, we know that safety is only one part of this story. Leaseholders who bought their homes in good faith now find themselves saddled with the financial responsibility and liability for problems that they had absolutely no part in creating.
Much has been said recently about this injustice, and I am grateful to colleagues across the House who have called for urgent action to protect innocent leaseholders. Understandably, much of the debate has focused on who should pay for the cost of the remedial works to remove and replace the cladding. However, I want to draw attention to an equally urgent but much less talked about financial aspect of this crisis. That is the eye-watering charges that are being passed on to leaseholders for compulsory interim fire safety measures while they wait for the remediation work to be completed.
Interim costs have life-changing impacts. The sheer feeling of hopelessness is shared by many leaseholders I have spoken to. One constituent wrote to me and said,
“I have worked hard. I have contributed to the communities in which I have lived. I have paid over £100,000 in taxes over the past three years. And yet I now find myself facing potential bankruptcy, homelessness and the collapse of my business through no fault of my own. My future is utterly bleak, and my life feels worthless.”
As soon as a building is assessed to be unsafe, residents are told that they must immediately introduce additional fire safety protocols or face an evacuation order from the fire brigade. The requirement for those interim measures can be met in two ways. One is by appointing a waking watch, whereby trained wardens continually patrol the building in order to be able to detect a fire. The second is the installation of specialist alarm systems. Faced with homelessness, leaseholders have little choice but to assume the costs for those measures.
Interim measures have become a frequent occurrence as the fire safety crisis has unravelled over the last three and a half years. Every week, new buildings have been discovered to be unsafe. Worryingly, a fire safety assessment is generally triggered only when the leaseholder tries to remortgage or sell, which in turn triggers the external wall survey or the now-infamous EWS1 process. It means that the true scale of the problem is still unknown, and it will only grow in the months and years ahead.
There is currently nothing in law to protect leaseholders from the financial responsibilities for such interim measures, which are typically passed on through increased service charges. The data on interim costs are patchy and incomplete. Government figures show that the average estimated cost of a waking watch in England is £17,000 per block, rising to over £20,000 in London. Per household, that translates to a bill of approximately £500 a month for each affected household. Alarm systems are not much cheaper as an alternative, with estimates ranging from £50,000 to £150,000 depending on the size of the building. Those figures are eye-watering, and they will recur month after month, year after year, until the cladding is removed and the building is deemed completely safe.
In February of this year, the Minister told Parliament that
“we are clear that waking watch regimes should only ever be used in the short term”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 690-691.]
On one development in the Kennington area of my constituency, however, they have been paying for a waking watch since July of last year, at a cost of £10,000 per flat. The remediation works are not expected to be completed before the end of next year, and the alarm system is deemed insufficient to meet the danger. The total cost of the interim measures for this one development is currently estimated to reach over £1 million. What really sticks in the throat for my constituents is not just that the interim measures are expensive and mandatory, but that their effectiveness has been called into question. One constituent told me:
“These guys add little practical value and sit around watching TV on their phones, and yet we have to pay for them under the threat of being evicted if we don’t. In a fire, they are not really going to be able to make a blind bit of difference through evacuating residents.”
We have to remember that such interim measures are a daily reminder to our constituents that the buildings they live in are unsafe. The amounts are unaffordable for most people at any stage in life, but many of those affected are young, first-time buyers whose dreams of home ownership have turned into an unaffordable nightmare, with their homes literally unsellable. Industry experts estimate that it will take between five and 15 years for all affected buildings to be remediated. The truth is that the costs are anything but interim.
Ministers have known about this problem for almost four years. They have repeatedly acknowledged that fire safety defects are not the fault of leaseholders, and yet it took the Secretary of State until December last year to announce any sort of help for interim costs. The waking watch relief fund, which offers a grant to pay for the installation of fire alarm systems, was a welcome step in the right direction, but it remains the only form of Government assistance that is available for interim costs. In their current form, the fund’s provisions are partial and insufficient. Leaseholders living in blocks below 18 metres are excluded from applying. The Government claim that this is because the risk of a life-threatening fire in lower buildings is smaller, but any building that faces an evacuation order if the interim measures are not established is, by definition, clearly not safe, regardless of whether it is 18, 15 or 12 metres.
One such block in Vauxhall, which is under 18 metres, failed its EWS1 assessment in October 2020, and its leaseholders have had to find more than £170,000 to pay for interim safety measures. It is estimated that the remediation work will cost in total £1.4 million. The developer of the building has gone out of business, and leaseholders were all excluded from any Government support schemes. I simply do not know how this situation can ever be fair.
Even if we focus our attention on just the buildings over 18 metres that can apply for the fund, the £30 million that the Government have allocated is drastically short of what is needed. The Government estimate that that will pay for a maximum of 460 buildings, but there are at least 560 eligible buildings in London alone. Lord Greenhalgh told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday this week:
“We recognise that the £30 million goes some way, but not all the way.”
Finally, the fund pays only for an alarm system purchased and installed after December 2020. That totally ignores the thousands of pounds that leaseholders have already spent on compulsory and expensive but ineffective waking watch systems. How can that be right or fair?
The Government, including the Minister, have repeatedly said in the House that no leaseholder should pay, so I ask the Minister whether he agrees in principle that innocent leaseholders should not be responsible for solving the problems that they did not cause. Why are we asking the same leaseholders to pay extortionate sums for interim costs?
I am grateful to the Minister for attending this debate today. I want to conclude my remarks by focusing on what can be done to fix this appalling situation. I have four questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer. Will the Government agree to the principle that no leaseholder should have to pay for interim fire safety measures to mitigate the problems that they did not cause? Will the Government commit to including provisions within the upcoming draft Building Safety Bill to protect leaseholders from such costs, and ensure that they are picked up by the people who were responsible for causing them in the first place? Will the Government immediately extend the waking watch relief fund to match the number of buildings that we know are affected, and make sure that all leaseholders facing these costs can apply regardless of building heights?
The Minister has previously said that interim measures should be used only temporarily,
“because they are an entirely inadequate substitute for remediation.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 691.]
With that in mind, will the Minister ask the Government to mandate a timetable for the completion of the remediation work in all unsafe blocks to make sure that the interim costs do not have to be paid by leaseholders for years to come?
The debate will last until 10.55 am. I intend to call the Opposition spokesman no later than 10.32 am and the Minister at 10.42 am. Florence Eshalomi will have two or three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are 16 Back Benchers seeking to contribute. I want to make sure that everyone gets in, so I am afraid that I will have to impose a time limit. If we aim for three minutes, everybody should have their say. All Members participating virtually should have a countdown clock on their screens. We will start with Stephen McPartland.
I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this very important debate. She spoke eloquently and movingly about some of the tragic stories that she has heard about in her constituency in London. Sadly, those stories are reflected in my constituency and in constituencies up and down the country.
The costs of intermediate waking watch measures and of insurance premiums going up by thousands of per cent are just heartbreaking. Even as we speak in these debates, people are going bankrupt, and the Government do not seem to be listening to the howls of pain from leaseholders up and down the country, as they beg for support and assistance.
We are almost four years on from Grenfell and we are not getting this matter right; we are not helping. Unfortunately, the Government are actually making the situation worse by not working with leaseholders and the relevant groups, such as the UK Cladding Action Group—End Our Cladding Scandal. A variety of brilliant recommendations have been made by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which is chaired by our wonderful colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who is taking part in this debate. It is imperative that we help these leaseholders.
When we look at insurance premiums as a measure, which a lot of people do not recognise, we see that they may have gone up by 2,000% or even 3,000%. The Government are taking 12% in insurance premium tax on those rises, so the insurance premium tax take on those insurance premiums is currently higher than the insurance premiums themselves were a year or two ago. That is astonishing.
On waking watch, the fire services have told us that they have almost no control over it. Waking watch is not new; it was introduced years ago and was used, for example, if a hotel fire alarm did not work. At the moment, however, waking watches are being used by management companies as the first resort instead of the last resort. As a result, our local fire services do not have any ability to go in and help the leaseholders, who are being told, “Well, you need to have a waking watch”. There are no other options for them. The fire services should be given some powers to be involved in a responsible waking watch, when it is needed, or to consider what other evacuation orders or measures could be put in place. And the costs are just staggering. I have constituents in Vista Tower in Stevenage who are paying £15,000 a week and they just cannot afford it; that sum is impossible for them to afford. They are paying almost as much as some of their mortgage payments and they are now going bankrupt.
I urge the Minister—please listen to the pain of leaseholders up and down the country. Stop talking and start doing. Start helping my constituents and those in a similar situation up and down the country.
I am always pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I look forward to doing so again today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate. My constituents in Edmonton who live in Prowse Court, Golden Lion Court and Brickland Court watched the Chancellor’s speech last week and were left feeling very disappointed. There was not one mention of cladding or fire safety in the Budget.
Leaseholders such as my constituent Jason and his wife moved into their flat in 2007 with their daughter. In January this year, a fire safety assessment concluded that the cladding on Jason’s building needed to be removed. Jason and his fellow tenants have no idea about how long they are going to be waiting for the removal of the cladding or who will meet the costs of that work. All they are certain of is that the interim safety measures must be put in place, including increased fire risk assessments and additional heat detectors. The freeholder of Jason’s building has already begun passing down the costs of these measures, in the form of increased insurance and service charge costs. That has left Jason in debt, unable to move and stuck in an unsafe building that is costing him more and more money. Jason goes to sleep every night knowing that his family is not safe and that there is no end in sight to his worry. To put it simply, Jason’s family are trapped.
I have raised identical cases with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask that the Government fully fund interim fire safety costs. In their reply, the Government seemed focused only on ensuring that remediation work is completed first. It is incredibly unjust to penalise those who did not cause this cladding scandal to have to wait for remediation work to be completed first, while allowing the property developer to walk away, bearing no interim costs and seemingly no long-term costs.
I hope that the Minister will carefully consider what has been said in this debate and will ensure that in the future the Government will not only meet their obligations and fully fund interim fire safety costs, so that not one leaseholder is left out of pocket, but will fully acknowledge that the cladding scandal needs to be treated as the national emergency that it truly is.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) in highlighting the concerns arising in the debate.
Given the circumstances, I want to concentrate on two areas. The first is cladding on tall buildings. I congratulate the Government on securing funding to help to remediate that cladding, but the problem is that the cost of removing cladding on tall buildings is often dwarfed by the cost of the fire safety measures that must also be implemented. It is quite clear, as things stand, that leaseholders will be saddled with the costs of the fire safety measures that are required, as well as the costs of the cladding. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would respond to the issue of what exactly is included in the remediation of cladding. At the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, there was some confusion when it was suggested that external areas that are not involved in the cladding, such as different balconies, will now be included in the grant scheme.
The other problem is that we are now told that once a fire assessment takes place, the remediation grants will not be available unless leaseholders sign up to fixing the fire safety issues as well, but those involve eye-watering sums of money. The arrangements, of course, are complex. I think we all agree leaseholders should not have to pay for the remediation, but the issue then is who should. I take the view that the taxpayer should not pay for it. The developers, building owners and indeed suppliers of materials should pay for the fire safety remediation, as well as the remediation of unsafe cladding. There is no doubt that the testing regime was unfit for purpose at the time in question, but emerging evidence from the Grenfell inquiry suggests that manufacturers deliberately decided to use the position on testing to cheat on the system. If so, they should be forced to carry out the remediation at their cost.
Equally, there is the challenge of insurance, mortgages and the values of the properties that are affected. Clearly, at the moment, leaseholders cannot be expected to wait for the introduction of the building safety Bill. It will take more than two years for it to come into operation, and leaseholders cannot wait. We need clarity on the point that the fees and costs will be picked up and that the leaseholders will not have to pay them. We also know that it will take an extended period to carry out the works.
I will rest my remarks there. I hope that we will get a response from the Minister on exactly what the scheme covers.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate.
In June 2019, a devastating fire tore through the timber balconies of Samuel Garside House in Barking. Residents lost their homes and possessions, and even their pets, and now live in fear, suffering sleepless nights and constant anxiety. Those residents were the first of many constituents impacted by the cladding scandal who have sought my help.
Leaseholders in Barking and Dagenham are not wealthy. Many live hand to mouth, and most cannot even afford contents insurance. Cladding has turned their dream of buying a home into a living nightmare. They face ongoing costs for interim safety measures, and cannot afford them. There are massive bills for waking watches, building insurance and EWS surveys, and the residents cannot sell or remortgage their homes.
At Academy Central, residents have paid £3,500 per household per year for a waking watch. Many cannot afford it and have been doing 24-hour control themselves, which places huge strain on their lives. At Rivermill Lofts, leaseholders have struggled to get an EWS survey. They have been quoted hundreds of pounds per flat, and only 70% of the households have paid up. In the meantime, their flats are worthless. At the Ropeworks, building insurance shot up from £70,000 to £650,000—that is 900%—in two years. At Barking Central, bills for interim measures have reached £6,500 per home. A third of leaseholders cannot afford that, and the cladding grant that they hope to get will not cover the costs of dealing with things such as flammable insulation or faulty firebreaks.
Many leases are buy-to-let, and the landlords often just do not care—at Arboretum Place, only five people turned up to discuss a way forward. The owner-occupiers cannot even begin to sort out the mess if the landlords will not engage. Responsibilities are diffuse, ownership is often shady and stakeholders shirk their obligations. I have had freeholders refusing point blank even to consider that they have a moral duty to help, developers refusing to turn up to meetings and insurers profiteering.
The Government said that leaseholders should not have to pay, but my leaseholders need Government action, not warm words. Developers, freeholders, builders, manufacturers and regulators should all contribute, but only the Government can force them to do so. The support package still has too many gaps—insufficient funding, arbitrary height thresholds, unaffordable loans and the ignoring of all the other defects. The issue will not go away—we will not let it—until the Government act comprehensively and thoroughly so that homes are made safe and leaseholders are not forced to foot the bills.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this debate.
The Government have done a great deal—I recognise that—with the money and funding made available. Equally, however, it is not enough, because the quantum of money available is not adequate and does not cover all the consequences of the regulatory failure that has put many people, including constituents of mine, in an impossible situation. It will be necessary for the Government to look again. Let me explain why that is important.
We have already heard about the dire position that many flat owners are placed in. Many of them have done the right thing in many ways—they have sought to buy their own homes—and they have done the things that my party has urged them to do. Now, they feel cut adrift. Many are people at the lower of the income scale, and many bought these properties as their entry into the housing market. Key statistics show, for example, that some 59% of the homeowners caught in this situation have an income of less than £50,000, and 33% of less than £35,000; when they are being hit with massive bills of tens of thousands of pounds, that is not very much—on properties that are unmortgageable or unsaleable.
In Northpoint, in my constituency, residents have collectively paid more than £0.5 million on a waking watch, on top of £120,000 for the installation of a temporary fire alarm. In some cases, the evidence shows that people are paying up to £50,000 a month. Also, as has been observed, insurance premiums have shot through the roof. In one London block, for example, the premium increased from £130,000 to £690,000. That is despite the fact that, in some cases, those buildings have been approved by the Department for the ACM remediation scheme and have put alarms in place. None the less, the insurance industry has, frankly, made unreasonable and unjustified levels of profit, and it needs to put its house in order, too.
We do need to pursue those at fault in the cladding scandal—the contractors and the builders—but that will take time, and it may take years. The leaseholders need help with cash flow. That is why the Government should be making available not just grants but loans to be recouped from those who are ultimately responsible. Only the Government have the cash flow to enable these people to move on with their lives. There is not just an economic cost but a massive personal and social one, too, for the victims of the cladding scandal.
I do apologise.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on talking so passionately, as others have, about the unaffordable cost to our constituents of waking watches and insurance bills. We all know that those costs are to pay for the symptom of the problem; they will never remedy the problem itself, but they will eventually end up bankrupting people.
My constituent Hayley Tillotson saved up for four years to buy her flat. She called it:
“The proudest moment of my life.”
Just before Christmas, she had to declare herself bankrupt and hand back the keys to her dream home. Why? Because the waking watch fee was the same as her mortgage, and she did not have the money to pay it. The point I want to make is simply this: despite the steps the Government have taken, without something else happening, these so-called interim costs will continue to be demanded in the months and years ahead because the buildings will not have been made completely safe. Why is that? Dangerous cladding is only part of the problem. The other part is that wooden balconies and walkways, flammable insulation and missing fire breaks have been discovered time and time again as innocent leaseholders learn that their block was not constructed even to the building standards of the time.
The Minister knows perfectly well that leaseholders do not have the money to fix those other fire safety defects. When the Secretary of State was pressed on that, he said that the taxpayer could not be expected to meet the cost of fixing any safety defect on any building of any height. That is a fair point, although successive Governments do bear some responsibility because they presided over the scandal. But the people who really should pay—the developers, the builders and the freeholders—should be asked for the money. The Government have created the means through the tax and the levy announced by the Secretary of State, so they should provide loans to fix the problem and recoup the money from those three sources.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply to my written question about whether works to remove dangerous cladding that are funded by the building safety fund will be delayed if insufficient funds are available to fix the other fire safety problems. A press report suggested that that could happen, but his reply implied that it would not. Could he clarify that in responding?
The fact remains that until sufficient funds are identified, the costs will continue to drain the resources and the spirits of all the leaseholders caught up in this nightmare. The question to the Minister remains a simple one: he knows that leaseholders cannot afford to fix the other problems, so what is his plan for getting them fixed?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing the debate. May I say how impressive her introduction was? It is a reflection of the immense talent she brings to the House.
I will speak briefly, because I promised my constituents who live at the Ballymore development at High Point Village in Hayes that I would take every opportunity I could to raise their concerns. Like other Members, I find it virtually impossible to describe the distress that my constituents have experienced and are going through. It started the day after Grenfell, when they were concerned about their own safety, but it then took a long time to get a thorough inspection under way.
The developer has behaved totally irresponsibly and is failing to communicate effectively with my constituents. In addition, we are only now into the application stage for Government assistance to tackle the cladding costs and removal, and we have discovered that, as others have said, large measures will not be covered by the Government’s grant. I find it intolerable that the developer is now coming back and saying that all these other defects, which it is equally responsible for, including the wooden balconies, will not be covered in those costs. Therefore, my constituents feel that they will not be made safe, or, if they are, that it will be at a high cost to themselves and not the developers.
In the meantime, like other Members’ constituents, my constituents are being hit with increases in their service charges, particularly around insurance. There is no way that they can afford the waking watch costs that are being imposed on them. Like others, they feel lost. They are trapped in their homes. They cannot sell on. They are growing families. People are trying to move around the country to get a job, as a result of the job losses in my area, but they cannot, because they just cannot sell on. Their whole lives are being put on hold.
There has to be a sense of urgency from the Government now—a clarity about what is covered by the building grant put forward by the Government, to ensure that there is comprehensive cover. Secondly, all the interim measures have to be covered. Thirdly, there needs to be action from Government on the control of service charges imposed on many of our residents by some of these developers, whom most of us have lost confidence in, even if we had any in the beginning.
I close by re-emphasising the distress that this is causing my constituents—distress to the point that it is affecting their health. I think we have a number of mental health crises now as a result not just of what has happened to constituents because of the development of buildings that were not properly regulated or inspected and that were faultily built, but because of the distress caused by the laggard way in which the Government have handled this issue. I cannot stress enough the sense of urgency that there should be at the heart of Government about addressing these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this important debate. She has long been a passionate supporter of all those who have been so terribly affected by this issue, and I have no doubt that we are all immensely grateful for her tireless efforts. I also pay tribute to our nation’s heroic fire and rescue teams, who put their lives on the line every day to keep us all safe.
The fact that we have been forced to have this debate at all is a matter of deep regret. Nearly four years after the Grenfell fire, the Government are still to learn the lessons of that tragedy and to take the action that is so desperately needed to ensure that everyone is safe in their home. Too many people remain stuck in unsafe flats that they cannot sell, pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the colossal costs of waking watches and cladding removal, and in fear of going to sleep each night. In Merseyside alone, there are 25 buildings with waking watches in operation, and there are 65 across the north-west.
With the Fire Safety Bill, the Government had the opportunity to draw a line in the sand, but that Bill failed to go far enough or fast enough, and will have done little to address the very real concerns of the many thousands of people stranded in unsafe buildings. Similarly, the £3.5 billion announced by the Communities Secretary simply will not address the scale of this crisis. While it may help people living in buildings over 18 metres, those stuck in smaller housing blocks still face being burdened with debts that many of them can never even hope to repay. Let us be clear: leaseholders should be not be forced to shoulder the costs of other people’s mistakes, but despite saying on no less than 17 occasions that leaseholders will not be forced to meet the costs of fire safety measures, that is exactly what the Government now expect thousands of people to do. The Government also said nothing about addressing the issue of non-cladding-related fire risks, such as wooden balconies, despite the considerable risks that these pose to tenants.
Finally, as we consider the Government’s failure to step up and ensure the safety of leaseholders, we must not forget the role that 10 years of sweeping funding cuts to frontline fire and rescue have played in the undermining of all our safety. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, 400 firefighters have been lost in Merseyside alone. Across the country, thousands more posts have been axed and hundreds of stations closed. The tragic consequence is that response times have fallen and our fire service’s ability to tackle incidents and save lives has been critically undermined.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this hugely important debate and for her fantastic contribution, and for her tireless work on these issues, including on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, on which I serve alongside her.
Residential leaseholders are the only group involved in the cladding scandal who have no responsibility for the danger they are in every waking minute and when they are asleep. The Government, the regulators, property developers, builders—I could go on and on—all have their share of responsibility for the cost of interim fire safety measures following Grenfell, yet leaseholders still have to pay ever-increasing bills to cover these interim costs. As we have heard in heartbreaking testimonies to the HCLG Committee, many are experiencing an unimaginable toll on their mental health, from circumstances out of their control and not of their making. The lack of clarity from Government is also causing significant distress, so I hope that the Minister will today provide the further clarity that Members and campaigners are asking for. After two hours at a Select Committee on Monday, I was left with more questions than answers about who is actually responsible for this current chaos and who will pick up the tab for sorting it out.
Waking watch is one of the fastest growing service industries in England, but with no regulation and no cap on costs, there has been an increase in bankruptcies and bailiffs up and down the country. These costs are being passed on to leaseholders and come at the same time as Action for Children reports that 40% of families are struggling to feed their children. I hope that the Minister will outline exactly what support his Department is giving to those having to choose between paying for waking watch or a hot meal for their children. I also expect the Minister to clarify what further support will be provided to those leaseholders who receive universal credit and face the costs of waking watch. The uplift of £20 a week pays for less than an hour of a waking watch once a week.
It is nearly four years since the Grenfell tragedy and we are still talking about interim measures. The toxic mix of the fire safety crisis and covid is causing a public health crisis, which should be recognised by the Government. This is not only about an industry that needs reforming; it is also about a health crisis that needs addressing. Unaffordable costs heaped on top of the mental torment caused by living in dangerous buildings do not feel interim for those facing them. This has already inflicted irreversible damage on the livelihoods and wellbeing of many leaseholders across the country. I expect the Minister not only to acknowledge this injustice, but to commit to providing the urgent and immediate support needed for those leaseholders.
It is a pleasure to contribute in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on opening it so powerfully.
I represent several blocks across central Sheffield that are affected by the cladding and fire safety scandal, with leaseholders being destroyed by the failure of the Government to come up with a solution that matches the scale of the problem. The Metis building has gained a lot of public attention, and last night there was a meeting of leaseholders there. Five weeks after applying for the waking watch fund, there is still no money. Alarms take some weeks to install, so they face substantially more waking watch costs on top of the £120,000 they have already paid. There is no plan yet for missing external cavity barriers or insulation, which they are told will not come this year because of the cost, estimated at £6.2 million, for which they have been rejected by the building safety fund, meaning that they will not get an EWS1 form, leaving their properties unsaleable and them facing bills of up to £50,000.
Replacement of ACM cladding for Metis is being funded, but I have been contacted by a commercial leaseholder with a small business operating from the building who faces a bill of £327,000 to pay the shortfall on ACM remediation because of the cash limits in the scheme. She fears that will drive her out of business, after many years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall described the impact of interim costs really well. One of those interim costs is insurance, as the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) highlighted. In the Metis building, they faced a 60% increase in insurance costs. The situation is worse for residents in the Wicker Riverside complex, who were evacuated before Christmas because of multiple fire safety failings. Their building has become uninsurable, exposing them to huge risk and potential breach of mortgage agreements. They met the Building Safety Minister last week and it appears that the Government are relying on a market solution. No market solution is forthcoming. There is a precedent for the Government underwriting insurance in such situations to enable a solution. Will the Minister consider such a way forward?
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said that the Government should not foot the bill for the failings of others. He is right, but only the Government can act to hold those responsible to account, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) pointed out. Only the Government can ensure that these issues are dealt with with the urgency that is needed. We should also recognise that the Government have much more responsibility than the leaseholders, because they oversaw the flawed system of building inspections that signed off so many of these unsafe buildings. These leaseholders are the victims of comprehensive regulatory failure and that is why it is the responsibility of Government to step in, own the problem and resolve it, without any costs to leaseholders, either now or in the future, through any loans scheme.
We are talking about unbearable pressure and unimaginable strain on the young people and families who are trapped in homes that are unsafe and unsaleable. The Minister knows that this is a grave injustice. He must assure us that he will remedy it.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing it. We simply cannot raise this issue enough, as it affects so many of our constituents’ lives across the country.
I have constituents who write to me, and parents and friends who write about their loved ones; about how they feel trapped, how they have fallen into severe debt, how they are living in overcrowded situations because they cannot move home, and how they are desperately worried about their safety. Residents have been paying waking watch costs. They have seen insurance costs rocket. They have seen service charges increase. They should not have to contribute to replacing cladding, when all of this is no fault of their own. What was once their dream home has become a nightmare. I have said this before, and I am saying it again: this nightmare is their reality. This experience is something they live with daily, in real financial and emotional terms.
The Secretary of State’s long-awaited announcement last month about support for residents in dangerous buildings fell short of what is needed for the people of our country who are affected. Why was the Minister so short-sighted? Why was this whole issue absent from the Chancellor’s Budget? If residents live with unsafe cladding and fire defects, that is through no fault of their own; the height of the building should not matter either. The Government are not meeting their duty, but they are protecting developers, freeholders and insurance companies. That is what we surmise from this gross inaction.
Financial support should not be non-existent for people and their families living in housing blocks beneath six storeys. The Grenfell disaster took 72 precious lives. I have to ask: what are the Government waiting for before they are motivated to act decently? The actions recommended by both the phase 1 report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry and Dame Judith Hackitt’s review are clearly not being carried out at pace. Where did the sense of urgency go?
This is not a situation where the Government can choose what to remedy and what not to remedy. In my constituency, residents of the Parkside development have been told by Peabody housing association that its remediation work will take approximately five years. In this half-decade, the residents will be made to pay for short-term solutions. I join my colleagues in saying that is entirely unacceptable. Leaseholders should not have to pay for any shortcomings that they are not responsible for, even for a short period.
I implore the Government not to allow my words and those of others to fall to the ground. This is about protecting lives, securing a home for people and families, and doing the decent thing up and down our country.
I am very grateful for the extra 30 seconds, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for organising this debate and speaking so brilliantly in opening it. In West Ham, we have the highest take-up of furlough and unemployment is up 240% since the pandemic began—it is grim. That is what people in Newham already face, and the costs and stresses of so-called interim fire safety measures come on top of that really difficult reality. Interim means that until the blocks of flats have been certified and, if necessary, remediated, people are in limbo, and that is proving to be a really long time. Because of these measures, residents are still living with the constant reminder that their building is not safe. It preys on their mind, and they are paying through their nose for the privilege.
Zain’s block was found to be unsafe, but the original developer of his building is now operating another company. It has refused to take responsibility, so the costs will inevitably fall to Zain and the other residents of his block. The Minister knows full well what I think about that. I would be grateful to him if he touches on what he can do to help Zain and other residents in similar circumstances.
Before the expensive remediation work even begins, Zain has been faced with massive bills. The insurance premium for the block has rocketed from £3,500 to £280,000. Unbelievably, Zain was asked to cover 2021’s bill with one day’s notice. Then there is the cost of the new alarm system, round after round of surveys, a new managing agency and even the dreaded waking watch. Overall, that could cost Zain £20,000—probably more. His building is not a high rise, so unless the Government change tack, the estimated £40,000 per household for the cost of remediation will not be covered fully either. Zain is terrified. He is going to have a bill of £60,000 and upwards in total.
I cannot emphasise enough what a strain this issue is putting on my constituents’ lives, their relationships, their ability to move on, and their mental health. It is so unfair. Time and again, Ministers have promised that leaseholders trapped in these situations will not have to pay to fix problems that they did not cause, but as I said before, with the interim costs, leaseholders are already paying. That is why so many people were bitterly disappointed when the Government rejected Labour’s amendments and the McPartland-Smith one-two. I really hope that today the Minister will provide us with fresh assurances that we can pass to Zain and the thousands of others that this seemingly endless awful situation will finally be resolved, and that the Government will step up.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for her powerful opening to the debate, and all colleagues from across the House, whose speeches reflect the frustrations, anger, mental health worries and financial worries experienced by my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth. I have many of these buildings with a huge series of defects—not just fire safety, but the wider building defects that have been referred to. My constituents’ experiences reflect those shared by other hon. Members.
I will give some examples away from the fire safety issues: compartmentation, cladding, foam inside the walls of the buildings, and balconies have been touched on already, but there are other issues. I discovered in one of my blocks issues with the foul water system. It had not even been connected in one leaseholder’s flat, and as a result, sewage flooded into her flat. It was found later that it had been propped up on a Starbucks cup. That is what we are talking about; those are the defects in buildings that people are having to put up with. It is completely unacceptable, and residents simply should not have to put up with the cost of remediation. It is not their responsibility; it is the responsibility of the original developers who built the buildings, as I have maintained throughout this. Government must step in to act because the time it will take is clear, as many colleagues have said.
My residents have also been hit with many interim costs, such as waking watches, investigations into materials and the state of walls, or insurance costs, which have been mentioned. I have met the Association of British Insurers and the wider industry to raise concerns about that. The Government must work with insurers to ensure that we do not get to a situation where insurers pull out and residents, such as those in one of my blocks, are suddenly hit with thousands of pounds in additional insurance premiums that they simply cannot afford, not least in the current pandemic. Many of these residents are key workers and are struggling. Some have retired and do not have the money to pay these bills.
I welcome the investment that the Welsh Government have promised to deal with these issues. In their Budget, in contrast to the Chancellor’s, there was a specific section on support for leaseholders. The Welsh Government are going to make an additional £32 million available to deal with fire and building safety defects, on top of the £10.6 million that they have already promised. They are very clear about their position and have been putting pressure on developers. I am pleased to say that in recent weeks we have seen some movement from Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey, which have both announced different funds. I am due to meet Taylor Wimpey in order to understand the full details in the days to come.
I want to come to the Minister. There has been a lack of co-operation with the Welsh Government, where there is need for co-operation across the UK because this is a UK-wide scandal. I have repeatedly asked the Minister for details on the new levy, the new tax and what new money will be made available for Wales, and I have had one-line answers from him. I hope he will get around the table with his officials and the Welsh Government Housing Minister, Julie James, who wants to work in a constructive way on the Building Safety Bill, as we have done on the Fire Safety Bill, so that we can get a solution that works for the whole UK, including my leaseholders and residents in Wales, and get them the answers they need.
At the moment they are left in the dark, with additional worries because they see the Secretary of State making big announcements and then brushing away anything to do with Wales. That is not the way to handle the situation. My leaseholders want answers, they want them now, they want justice and they want to work co-operatively across the UK, to find a solution to their terrible circumstances.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on bringing this important debate.
As the cladding scandal rolls on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Government are not concerned enough with the physical safety or financial security of my constituents who are living every single day in unsafe housing. The Government’s position on the waking watch measures are just one example of that. Committing to the use of waking watches, as the National Fire Chiefs Council suggests, would mean committing to temporary measures that would go on indefinitely. In its written submission to the Public Bill Committee on the Fire Safety Bill, the Fire Brigades Union stated that it was unable to support the use of waking watches in that way, for fear that it would become
“a de facto permanent state of affairs.”
Temporary measures such as those have been in place since the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017. The word “temporary” is losing its meaning and I would be grateful if the Minister would address that in his response, because constituents are now faced with bankruptcy, with the cost of waking watches placed at their door.
The other matter I would like to raise is the overwhelming financial burden being placed on leaseholders who are also legally freeholders. I draw on the example of the Limehouse West estate in my constituency, to bring the matter to the Minister’s attention. Limehouse West was owned by the Canal & River Trust until November 2019, when about 60% of the leaseholders got together to buy the freehold. They did that for a number of reasons. They wanted to take charge of their estate, as the Canal & River Trust was extremely slow to respond and do anything around the estate, and my constituents did not want to pay the ground rent.
In the context of the ongoing cladding scandal, for those constituents, being their own freeholders included some benefits. There was no risk of the Canal & River Trust choosing wildly expensive or unnecessary remedial works and then saddling leaseholders with costs, or the Canal & River Trust doing nothing for years and the flats staying almost unsellable while waiting for the EWS1 certificates.
Many of my constituents on that estate are both freeholder and leaseholder. The Government say that leaseholders should not have to pay a penny. Who pays for any cladding and remediation works at Limehouse West and similar estates in my constituency, including for interim measures? If it is the freeholders, 60% of my constituents on that estate will bear the cost of the work that will benefit all of them, without any means of recovering those costs. Many of my constituents who are freeholders-leaseholders feel that it is very unfair. If it is the original developers who should pay, there is the difficult legal problem of making this happen. In the case of the estate, the developer is the absolutely awful Bellway, which tells me that it will not pay for something that was completed over 20 years ago.
I would be grateful if the Minister could help distinguish where leaseholders are also freeholders in response to the costs of interim measures and the wider costs of remediation works. Does he believe there should be parity between the burden placed on freeholders-leaseholders and leaseholders only where the freehold has been bought out by a party that is not related to the original developer in any way? I really believe that the building industry should have to take a greater burden, but in the absence of that, it would be great to get clarification from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on the eloquent way in which she introduced the subject. She went through the eye-watering costs, and she powerfully made the point that the costs are there week in, week out, until the defects are removed.
I state for the record my co-chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and I am a patron of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which brings its expertise to the APPG and has helped to secure many of our experts, who between them have put together what I consider to be credible and fair proposals to try to deal with many of the issues that have been raised today. As things stand, what the Government are proposing is not credible or fair, and it will not deal with the plethora of building safety issues that leaseholders have been lumbered with.
When the Secretary of State made his announcement in the main Chamber, we were told that the Government’s plans would give certainty to leaseholders, but anyone who heard the Minister’s evidence before the Select Committee on Monday will have been left with the impression that certainty is one of the things that is clearly missing at the moment. We still do not know who will be the legally responsible body for the remediation, and it looks like there is still a huge risk that leaseholders will find themselves saddled with a debt that they have not consented to and should not be responsible for.
The reality is that we have moved from statements that Ministers have made in the past about the strong expectation on freeholders to put matters right, to the shameful position that we are now in, which is frankly a bit of muddle. However, it is looking more and more likely that freeholders will have their assets invested in and brought up to scratch at no cost and at no risk to themselves. I cannot put any other interpretation on Lord Greenhalgh’s statement on Monday to the Select Committee. He said:
“We are not asking any of the building owners to make any contribution to the remediation costs.”
I cannot take that to mean anything other than innocent leaseholders will end up picking up the bill. If that is where we end up, it surely means that the thousands of pounds that leaseholders are paying out to help keep themselves safe will be theirs alone to meet.
Despite two updates to the waking watch guidance and recommendations that interim alarms are installed, we have sites that have needed both a waking watch and interim alarms for years, costing the leaseholders a huge amount of money, which it seems they will never get back. After 44 months, there has been no impact assessment of the costs and benefits of such interim measures. Despite the Government producing data that they say would allow leaseholders to challenge the reasonableness of the costs, there is no evidence that leaseholders have been able to do so in the tribunal.
It is also worth pointing out that, in addition to the extra costs, leaseholders have found that their insurance premiums—even in buildings with no history of fire safety issues—have skyrocketed by an average of 400%, which is financially devastating. The money has to be paid by leaseholders every week, and they currently have no prospect of recovering it. These are people who, through no fault of their own, have been left in an impossible position. They deserve our support, and they deserve a solution. At the moment, they are having to pay three times: once for the property, once for the defects that we are talking about at the moment, and also for interim measures in the meantime. When the Minister responds, I want him to tell us where else people pay three times to get the same thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on her continuing fight for leaseholders across her constituency. I also thank her for focusing this debate on an aspect of the building safety crisis that has received less attention in the House but is equally financially crippling, as she has argued, for leaseholders up and down the country.
In fact, I thank the 16 Members who have contributed very powerfully to the debate today. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) referred to the astronomical insurance costs piling on to leaseholders in her constituency. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) argued that manufacturers that have gamed the testing system should contribute by paying for interim measures and more. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke about the nightmare that is the EWS1 system, and debt piled on top of debt in the midst of the covid crisis.
The costs for leaseholders have dominated the headlines over the past few years. We are nearly four years on from Grenfell, where 72 people tragically lost their lives, but today’s debate demonstrates the importance of breaking the costs down to expose exactly what constitutes the unimaginable debt being imposed on leaseholders for defects that they did not cause. People are literally going bankrupt.
Across the country, leaseholders are trapped in dangerous buildings. They are unsure of when their home will be made safe or how much that will cost them, but as soon as a building is judged to be unsafe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall pointed out, the costs start piling up. Additional safety measures, often in the form of 24-hour waking watches, are put in place, and leaseholders have little choice but to foot the bill—they either do so or become homeless—which is £174 million a year. Far from being temporary, as the word “interim” would suggest, there are waking watches that have now been in place for years, and they will probably be in place for even more years to come. The cost for each leaseholder is more than £500 a month on average and, in many cases, much, much more, as we have heard throughout today’s debate.
After refusing repeatedly to help leaseholders to cover these costs, the Government have now provided some—I say “some”—funding to fit alarm systems in some buildings, those that are 18 metres and above in height. That will reduce the need for a waking watch, but once again, the Government’s actions have come far too late and fall far short of what is needed. We know that waking watches are present in about 800 buildings, but the £30 million provided by the Government will cover at most 460—a figure far lower than the number of buildings with waking watches in London alone, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Does the Minister think that, when it comes to safety, this type of funding lottery is right? I am also concerned by reports that even after fire alarms are installed, evacuation managers are required in some blocks and, again, it is leaseholders who are left paying the bill. Can the Minister say whether he has looked into how many buildings this actually impacts?
Safety costs are, of course, not the only interim costs that leaseholders are incurring. A survey from the Association of Residential Lettings Agents—my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) referred to this— has found that insurance costs have risen on average by 400%. For one in 10 blocks, the cost of insurance is now 10 times or more what it was just a year ago. This is a picture that takes us from Sheffield, where a building is uninsurable, to Manchester, to Birmingham and to London. Hikes of 1,000%-plus are not uncommon.
Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister responsible for building safety, is due to meet insurers in yet another roundtable this week. Can this Minister confirm whether that roundtable will be the one that finally sorts out the problem and intervenes in the insurance market? Ultimately, the only way to stop interim costs continuing is to get buildings safe quickly. Some are still left worrying whether, when that day comes, they will be left with a bill not just for cladding, but for a host of fire safety defects not covered by the building safety fund, as pointed out by hon. Members in this debate today. Many buildings below 18 metres will now be saddled with an unwarranted and unwanted loan on top of interim costs—mortgages, service charges and much more.
We were promised details of the Government’s new funding at the Budget by the Minister himself, but yet again leaseholders were let down. The Chancellor did not even bother to mention cladding or the building safety crisis. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to do what the Chancellor did not do and provide us with details of the new arrangements, and how about updating my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on co-operation with the Welsh Government? Costs for leaseholders go far deeper than the financial cost. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, mental health and stress are taking a toll. These are all consequences of the scandal as the bills pile up.
Nearly four years on after Grenfell, the very first step that the Government should have taken, which they still have not done, despite our repeated calls, was to establish the extent of the crisis and properly prioritise buildings according to risk. They have not provided sufficient upfront funding to start getting dangerous cladding and other materials off these buildings immediately. They have not protected leaseholders from the costs, as promised over and again. It is about time the polluter genuinely does pay for the building safety scandal. I hope the Minister will answer the questions asked by me and other hon. Members today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and all other Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituents and contributed so passionately and eloquently to this debate on a matter that we all care deeply about. The consequences of the Grenfell fire were catastrophic for the people and the community involved, and have been complex and wide ranging for many people across our country as a result. That is why—then, since and now—we are taking clear and decisive action to provide an unprecedented sum of money, more than £5 billion of taxpayers’ funds, for building safety to protect those most at risk.
In the short time that I have I will speak to the issue of cladding remediation and also to the title of the debate, interim fire safety costs. I will answer as many hon. Members’ questions as I can. If I do not complete that task in the allotted time, I am happy to follow up and write to Members subsequently.
The biggest cost facing leaseholders affected by building safety is cladding remediation. It is unacceptable for leaseholders to face those unaffordable costs. That is why we committed £1.6 billion of taxpayers’ money to accelerate the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding on the highest risk buildings—those over 18 metres in height—after the Grenfell tragedy. That was driven by the remediation of the most dangerous form of cladding, as the House will know—aluminium composite material cladding. I am pleased to say that as a result of that disbursement, 95% of those high-rise buildings with ACM have either begun or completed remediation work. It is also fair to say that the private sector has stepped up to the plate with respect to ACM, as something like 50% of the privately held buildings with ACM cladding have had the ACM removed as a result of the buildings’ owners, the developers or the warranty holders acting to replace the cladding.
However, we have not stopped there. We recognise that there are other forms of dangerous cladding on high-rise buildings and we have acted to remediate those through the building safety fund. Something like 500 registered buildings with other types of unsafe cladding are now proceeding with a full application to that fund, but we have not stopped there, either. We have allocated £3.5 billion to remediate all buildings above 18 metres that have unsafe cladding, an investment that totals over £5.1 billion. I suspect that when all of the taxpayer funds are added up, significantly more money will be spent by the taxpayer to remediate this problem.
I would also like to explain why 18 metres is the threshold trigger. It is because it is right that we prioritise those buildings that represent the greatest risk to residents in the event of a fire. Home Office analysis shows that buildings between 18 and 30 metres in height are four times more likely to suffer a fire with fatalities or serious casualties than any other apartment building. Building standards become more restrictive over 18 metres; the presumption on firefighting tactics changes over 18 metres. It is a well-established boundary used by the National Fire Chiefs Council in its operational guidance, it is used by the Building Research Establishment, and it is used in the independent expert guidance that we have received.
Why cladding? It is because we know that it acts as a fire accelerant and that is of greatest risk in high-rise blocks. That is a fact noted in the independent report by Dame Judith Hackitt and the independent advisory panel, to which Dame Judith spoke in a newspaper article, again just a few weeks ago. That is why we focus on cladding and why we focus on buildings over 18 metres in height.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members asked questions during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) asked for some clarification on what is covered by the remediation package that we have tabled. I can tell him that the remediation package includes works that are integral to the safe remediation and removal of cladding on buildings that are at risk, so it includes such things as fire cavity barriers. They, too, are included in the package, if they need to be remediated as part of the safe removal of the unsafe cladding.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) asked whether I would clarify that no leaseholder will be required to fund additional works as a condition of receiving Government funding for cladding remediation. I was pleased to answer a similar question that he had tabled in written form and I am pleased to confirm here in the Chamber that, as I said then, no leaseholder will be required to fund additional works as a condition of receiving Government funding for cladding remediation. I hope that that answer helps the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked whether we are engaged with the devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales. Yes we are, and we will continue to discuss the Building Safety Bill with them; I think we meet them on a monthly basis to do so.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) asked about leaseholders who are also freeholders, and whether they would be able to benefit from the waking watch fund. The answer is yes.
As a result of the package that we have pulled together—as a result of the £5.1 billion in public money that we are spending, the tax and levy that we will impose on the developers, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ announcing a few days ago, in addition to its announcement last November, that the scope of the EWS1 form is going to be significantly reduced so that in total nearly 1 million households will now no longer have to face an EWS1 form and are effectively de-scoped from the risks that they had previously thought they might face—we are trying, I think successfully, to persuade the risk industry and the lending sector that they need to get risk, lending and valuation back into proper proportion. They must put aside the “computer says no” approach, properly assess the risk of buildings and their fire hazard, and properly ascribe value to them again, so that people living in those properties can get on with their lives. We are confident that as a result of that package the risk and lending industry will do that, and that we can begin to move on—and the people in those homes can begin to move on.
We have also discussed interim measures in the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vauxhall for addressing the point so eloquently. As I said, public safety is our first priority. We want to target funding where it is needed most, removing and replacing unsafe cladding to make the homes and the people who live in them safer more quickly. We have followed the National Fire Chiefs Council’s guidance to support the installation of waking watch or a common fire alarm where we need to ensure there are proper measures in place to guard against tragedy in the event of fire. However, we are also clear that those measures are a short-term strategy. They are a vital first step in ensuring that a building remains safe, but not an alternative—there is no alternative—to remediation. That is the reason we have spent so much time and are disbursing so much money to ensure that the problem is properly resolved.
As we have heard, too many waking watches have been in place for far too long. Leaseholders are being left to pick up often exorbitant bills. Data has shown that the most cost-effective means of protecting residents’ safety is through a fire alarm system. That, again, is evidence-based, and guidance is published by the National Fire Chiefs Council. That is why we are providing £30 million for the costs of installing an alarm system in high-rise buildings—again following the guidance of Dame Judith Hackitt and others—which have waking watch systems, where the costs are being passed on to residents; because those buildings have the highest risk and those residents face the highest costs. The fund opened on 31 January in all areas except for private sector buildings in Greater London. The deadline for applications is 14 March and the objective is to install those alarms as quickly as possible.
In contradiction to what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, we are moving quickly to disburse those funds: £22 million has already been delivered to local or regional authorities, because they are best placed to know the buildings that most need local support. In London, subject to a mayoral decision, the Greater London Authority will administer the fund in Greater London, and the fund will open to private sector buildings in London on 18 March. We felt it was wrong to delay the implementation of the fund and wait for London, which of course has the largest number of high-rise and at-risk buildings. We did not think that other areas should have to wait. In Birmingham and the west midlands, for example, Mayor Andy Street has been quick on the case, and other authorities have done the same, so I encourage the GLA and the Mayor of London to take advantage of the funds and disburse them as quickly as possible, to ensure that the people of London who are facing exorbitant waking watch costs can take advantage of this opportunity.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall also talked about the number of eligible buildings in London. We are taking sensible, clear advice, and the National Fire Chiefs Council has identified 400 buildings across the country that are at risk of fire and in need of support for waking watch remediation, 216 of which are in London. That is why we are confident that the £30 million we have allocated will be sufficient to deal with the challenge of waking watch in those high-rise buildings where the costs are being passed on to the leaseholder.
There is a shared desire across the House to ensure that residents are safe in their homes, and that leaseholders are protected from unaffordable costs. That is why we introduced the scheme and the generous financial package to support leaseholders in buildings less than 18 metres. I suspect that the announcements made by RICS in the past several months will also support them, and that the lending industry and risk industry, getting itself back into proper proportion, will also support them.
These debates are vital as we work together to protect leaseholders, so I thank the hon. Lady again for raising the issue and for speaking so passionately and eloquently in support of her constituents. I thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for doing the same. This is a crucial issue for us. We will continue to address it and we will bring forward the building safety Bill as soon as possible.
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; all raised excellent points. That highlights the consensus of all Members across the House.
I thank the Minister for his comments, but respectfully, his argument about prioritising the high cost of remediation work is a sideshow, a false economy and morally bankrupt. We need to look at how we can help our constituents now. These interim costs will not go away. I look forward to writing to him to highlight some of the questions I posed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered residential leaseholders and interim fire safety costs.
Automatic Computer-based Decisions: Legal Status
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the legal status of automatic computer-based decisions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I should apologise to a number of viewers of the debate for advertising its start time as 10.30 am, as opposed to 11 am. I would like to blame Microsoft Outlook, but in fact it was entirely my own fault.
I should also declare my interests. I am the chair of the Institute of Artificial Intelligence, which brings together legislators from around the world to discuss the implications of regulation of artificial intelligence. As Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I call attention to our currently suspended but still live inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, which I shall refer to today. Lastly, I draw attention to the fact that I used to be employed as a solicitor with a law firm now called Womble Bond Dickinson, which represented the Post Office on the Horizon issue, but confirm that I did not personally act for the Post Office on that issue. I should also thank Paul Marshall, a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers, whose note to me has underpinned much of my contribution today, and Stephen Mason, a research fellow at the University of London’s Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, and his colleagues for their analysis.
The Minister knows that I come to the debate as a technology evangelist—someone who advocates harnessing the potential of technology to modernise our economy and our public services. There is, of course, a much wider debate about the need to update our laws and regulations, and indeed how we run government, due to the technological revolution, but today I will focus on the specific and important issue of how the law of evidence applies to automated computer-based decisions. That has wide-ranging implications across the public and private sector.
The case of the Post Office’s failed private prosecution of more than 1,000 sub-postmasters for accounting errors created by a computer system and not by the sub-postmasters resulted in what looks to be one of the largest miscarriages of justice in our country—a tragedy for our justice system, but also a personal tragedy for the sub-postmasters involved and their families, all stemming from a computer system. I understand that one victim of the Post Office Horizon scandal pleaded guilty to false accounting merely because she had been overwhelmed by the errors and because she could not face the prospect of a jury trial for theft, which was being threatened by the Post Office at the time. Another was wrongly imprisoned when eight weeks pregnant. I stress this point because computer-based decisions can lead not only to not getting a credit card but to untold human suffering in the face of miscarriages of justice. That is just one example.
As the Minister knows, automated computer-based decision making is more and more widespread with every passing year. The problem is that computer systems are not continuously reliable; latent errors can occur frequently. Achieving reliability in a computer system in the first place is difficult; it is even harder to assess and assure that reliability on an ongoing basis. Indeed, artificial intelligence, in its capacity as a general-purpose technology across every aspect of our economy, means that the number of decisions coming from software-based systems will increase and increase, both in the private sector and in the delivery of public services. The Minister, of course, understands that. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which is part of his Department, published a report only last year on algorithmic decision making, which concluded:
“We must ensure decisions can be scrutinised, explained and challenged so that our current laws and frameworks do not lose effectiveness, and indeed can be made more effective over time.”
However, the fact is that, as highlighted in the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in the Post Office Horizon case of Bates v. Post Office, our laws are dramatically out of date. This is evidenced by the very nature of the dates of the legislation involved for criminal issues, such as the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. We all recognise, of course, that technology has moved on a great deal since then. That Act repealed section 69(1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which until its repeal meant that computer-derived documents could not be used as evidence unless it could be shown that, at all material times, the computer was operating properly. At the time, the Law Commission recommended the repeal because of concerns that it was increasingly difficult to meet that threshold—in other words, in 1999 it was increasingly difficult to show that a computer was operating properly at material times.
The change in the law left an absence of formal statutory guidance, resulting in the courts applying to computers the presumption of being properly functioning traditional machines. In practice, that means that a party can rely on the presumption that a computer was operating reliably at all material times—that is to say, that the computer was always right. It is for the objector—in the Post Office case, the sub-postmaster—to prove that the computer was not operating reliably. This is perhaps an obvious point, but in my view that results in an unacceptable imbalance of power.
The owners of computer-based decisions are usually big companies or the state. An advanced computer system is not the same as a factory-floor machine. In contrast, the objectors are employees, customers or citizens who have no real prospect of being able to prove that a computer system owned by a company or the Government was not operating reliably. That has very wide-ranging implications.
If people found it difficult to prove a computer was operating reliably in the early 1990s, we can only imagine how difficult it might be to do that today, not least when machine-learning algorithms come to conclusions for reasons even the computer programmer does not understand. If the Post Office had been required to prove that its computer system was operating reliably, it would not have been able to do so, because we now know that it was not, and sub-postmasters would not have been wrongly imprisoned. The legal presumption that a computer is always right is therefore unsafe and liable to cause significant harm and injustice.
I am not suggesting a return to the pre-1999 approach, but we need to find a new way to manage the risk and update our laws appropriately. As the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation said in its algorithmic decision-making report,
“we have a window of opportunity to get this right and ensure that these changes serve to promote equality, not to entrench existing biases.”
That is important, because if we are to harness the full potential of technology in our economy, the public need to have confidence in the way in which it is being used, and that there are appropriate rights of redress for those who fall foul of it.
I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has also been engaging with this issue and has referred the matter to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, in his capacity as chair of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee. The reason I asked for a debate with the Digital team is my belief that this is broader than an issue merely for the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee. I am therefore calling on the Minister to use the powers of the Government Department responsible for digital and technology issues to refer this matter to the Law Commission for formal consideration. I look forward to hearing his response.
I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee on securing this important debate. He is absolutely right to say that the potential of technology to enhance the decision-making process, in the public sector just as much as the private sector, is something that this Government are absolutely committed to not only getting the maximum out of, but getting right as well. He is also absolutely right to highlight that legislation from decades ago is perhaps not 100% where we would wish it to be.
First, let me say that I share the concerns raised by him and other Members about the specific example he has raised and the treatment of postmasters, who are vital members of the community, in this whole affair. I also acknowledge that it highlights essential legal issues. I will address those shortly, although I should perhaps start by saying that he has been comprehensive in his own circumnavigation of the issues at hand.
On Horizon, the Government recognise that the dispute has had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of the affected postmasters and their families. Its repercussions are still being felt today. Over the years, the Horizon accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash in branches. At the time, the Post Office believed that those shortfalls were caused by postmasters, leading to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some cases, criminal prosecution. Many hon. Members, me included, have listened to the stories of the postmasters affected and have been deeply moved by the impact on their livelihoods, their finances and often their health.
A group of 555 of those postmasters, led by former postmaster Alan Bates, brought a group litigation claim against the Post Office in 2017. In the findings of Mr Justice Fraser, it is clear just how wrong the Post Office was in its relationship with postmasters and that there were clear failings in the Horizon system. As I will explain, the Government are taking steps through an independent inquiry to ensure that lessons are learned and that a full analysis takes place.
The Post Office reached a full and final settlement with the group litigation claimants in December 2019 and apologised for its failings. That settlement was an important step towards addressing the wrongs of the past, but it was only the start of a long journey for the Post Office to repair and strengthen its relationship with postmasters.
As part of the settlement, the Post Office agreed to set up the historical shortfall scheme, open to current and former postmasters who may have experienced and repaid Horizon shortfalls but did not participate in the group litigation. That is an important step in ensuring that all those who were affected have the opportunity to seek resolution.
A number of postmasters with criminal convictions have applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to have their cases referred for appeal. To date, the commission has referred 51 cases either to the Court of Appeal or to the Crown court. The Government welcome the decision made by the Crown court in December 2020 to overturn six of those convictions.
However, a number of cases—42 in total—are still to be heard in the relevant Appeal Court at the end of March. It would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on those cases while the courts are still considering them, but I assure hon. Members that the Post Office is co-operating with the commission to the fullest extent.
More broadly, we must ensure that such a situation can never be allowed to occur again. In September 2020, therefore, the Government launched the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, an independent inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams. Sir Wyn’s inquiry will work to understand fully what happened, gather available evidence and ensure that lessons have been learned so that this cannot occur again. The inquiry will look specifically at whether the historical shortfall scheme is being delivered properly. The Government look forward to receiving that report in the summer.
In recent years, however, a lot has changed on standards and ethics relating to the management of algorithms and data in general. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) rightly pointed out the work of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Crucially, that centre has not only “data ethics” but “innovation” in its title—those two things go hand in hand.
The centre was established by my Department in 2017, but that is not the only area in which we have implemented change. Substantial steps have been taken to consider and address deficiencies in the application of algorithms where that lies within the remit of the DCMS and, crucially, beyond. I am confident that we are in a much stronger position than when the worst excesses of the Horizon affair took place, but there is more work to do.
If an automated decision is based on personal data, the UK general data protection regulation already applies. It provides regulatory tools to safeguard data subjects and identified or identifiable persons in automated decision making. Organisations processing personal data must also adhere to strong transparency requirements. Organisations, including public authorities, should ensure that the algorithms they deploy and procure, where based on personal data, generate sound and impartial decisions, and that that should be considered before such algorithms are used.
The UK GDPR contains provisions for protecting the interests of data subjects and their data. In particular, data protection impact assessments are mandatory for data processing that is high risk and require organisations to weigh up the impacts on privacy of data processing activities, including automated decision making.
In addition, the Government have introduced non-legislative tools that will be important as we move towards a world where not just algorithms but the ability for computers to amend algorithms—artificial intelligence—become more commonplace. Let me run through some of them. We were the first Government to publish a data ethics framework, which is a set of principles to guide the design of appropriate data use in the public sector, aimed at anyone working with data in the public sector. We published an ethics, transparency and accountability framework for automated decision making, and we have commissioned the Government Digital Service to deliver the review of artificial intelligence adoption in the public sector. We have also published an AI guide for Government.
There are also published guidelines on AI procurement in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will inform and empower buyers in the public sector, helping them to evaluate suppliers and then confidently and responsibly procure the right AI technologies for the benefit of citizens. We have also published, along with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Alan Turing Institute, “Explaining decisions made with AI”. This guidance gives organisations practical advice to help them explain the processes, services and decisions delivered or assisted by AI to the individuals affected by them. That is a crucial action that the hon. Member for Bristol North West mentioned.
Those various documents are updated with new thinking and insight from our public sector, civil society, industry and academic partners. We have also launched the new AI dynamic purchasing system, which is a framework that offers public sector customers a direct route to AI services in an emerging market, addressing ethical considerations when organisations buy AI services for use in the public sector.
The new and independent Regulatory Horizons Council has been appointed to scan the horizons for new technological innovations and provide the Government with impartial, expert advice on the regulatory reform required to support their rapid and safe introduction. More broadly, the Government are always monitoring how algorithms and data affect people’s lives. As they grow in importance in all our lives, we will consider what more we can do. That is why we are active in the international debates on algorithm and artificial intelligence regulations at the Council of Europe and, beyond that, at the OECD and in the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence.
The hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether the status of algorithms in the courts might be referred to the Law Commission, especially given the role played by the commission in first adjusting the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 on this topic. It is a suggestion worth very serious consideration, and my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and I are grateful for it. He will know that it is not in the Law Commission’s current three-year plan of work, and it will take considerable time to establish the necessary work in order to address the underlying legal issue.
While we consider that route, the Government are also investigating whether there may be faster methods that we can use to address the legal status of algorithms in a court of law—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that himself. For example, once the Court of Appeal has made a determination in respect to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the judiciary Criminal Procedure Rule Committee could consider making changes in this area. The courts are expected to make their determination shortly, after which I look forward to taking up the matter with the Ministry of Justice and the Lord Chief Justice, the chair of that committee.
To close, I thank you, Mr Hollobone, and the hon. Gentleman. This is the beginning of the next phase in an ongoing debate. It is a hugely important issue, and seizing these opportunities for the benefit of citizens and everyone around the world is in all our interests. It will be a complex and involving conversation, and I look forward to having more conversations with the hon. Gentleman.
Maternal Mental Health
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, First Report, HC 526, and the Government’s Response, Second Special Report, HC 770; e-petition 306691, entitled Extend maternity leave by 3 months with pay in light of Covid-19; e-petition 331261, entitled Issue urgent guidance and voucher scheme to save baby and toddler activity sector; and e-petition 551612, entitled Access to specialist mental health support for bereaved parents after baby loss.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive for the start of Westminster Hall debates and are expected to remain for the entire debate. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically are asked to clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered maternal mental health.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and indeed to have Members participating virtually in this afternoon’s debate. Maternal mental health should be among our principal concerns. Pregnancy and birth can be the trigger for poor mental health among those who did not previously suffer from mental health problems, and they are a major factor in the escalation of existing ones. The first two years of a child’s life are vital in their development, and the right support and guidance for families at this time can make a big difference to their long-term outcomes.
For many women, becoming a mother presents psychological challenges. They might have experienced conflict or abuse in their own childhoods, which resurface when they contemplate the reality of becoming a parent themselves. They might be used to setting high standards for themselves and derive their sense of worth from their ability to meet them, but find that their baby does not comply with their drive to meet their parenting targets. They might simply be overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility of having another human being entirely dependent upon them, and fear that they do not have what it takes to be able to be an effective parent.
Because everybody has had a mother at some point in their lives, we all, knowingly and unknowingly, have formed a picture of what a mother is and what a mother should do. These assumptions about motherhood crowd around every new mother, complicating her own feelings about her new baby and her new role. New motherhood can be extremely lonely, especially in the dark, still hours of the early-morning feeds, and that loneliness creates a fertile space for doubts and anxieties.
Lockdown has exacerbated so many of these issues. I asked for today’s debate so that we can talk about the impact of covid on the mental health of new mothers, and to urge the Government to prioritise this as we come out of lockdown. Loneliness has been a major issue for almost all of us during the past year, but the lack of contact has been particularly acute for those who have had babies during this time. I am enormously grateful to the parliamentary digital engagement team for organising a survey in advance of this debate to ask members of the public for their experiences. We had more than 11,000 responses, with some extremely moving testimony among them. I thank everybody who took the time to share their experiences, but especially those whose experiences were difficult and painful.
The overwhelming theme of the responses was how difficult isolation had made the experience of giving birth and caring for a newborn. I was particularly struck by the experience of Zilia from the south-east when she told us:
“All appointments attended alone and in sterile conditions. Childbirth alone, no visitors in hospital, no family able to meet your newborn and help you out thereafter. Just the most isolating and lonely experience I have been through.”
Reflecting on my own experiences, I overcame the early challenges of motherhood with a combination of a supportive partner present at the birth, a delighted family who rallied round with practical help, professional health support delivered through home visits, and a peer group of other new mothers in the neighbourhood. To have been denied any one of those would have made the job of adjusting to motherhood considerably harder. We now have thousands of mothers battling through the early months of motherhood without having had any of those essential forms of support, and this has taken its toll on their mental health.
This is how Emily from Scotland describes the impact on her:
“My mental health is awful. I have never felt so lonely or isolated. I shielded from March until June last year and saw nobody for my second trimester other than my husband. My husband’s family are yet to meet our baby, who is our first, and he is coming up to six months old. I have developed post-natal OCD, which is horrendous, and I am still waiting for professional help to cope with this.”
Other covid-19 factors that have worsened the experience for new mothers in lockdown are financial uncertainty, lack of access to childcare, and bereavement. The industries worst hit by the lockdown employ a large proportion of females. Some 20% of mothers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, compared with 13% of fathers. The closure of schools has left many mothers trying to juggle home schooling for older children with looking after a newborn, and many families are dealing with the trauma of losing family members to covid.
The impact of the pandemic has changed the way that we all access healthcare, as resources are prioritised towards emergency admissions and efforts are made to reduce contact. In some parts of our healthcare system, it has led to an increase in digital and telephone consultations. In many parts of the country, this has included perinatal care. Many of the respondents to the survey reported receiving follow-up care in this way, including Jennifer in the west midlands, who reported:
“Very limited midwifery care. I didn’t see a midwife at all until I was 28 weeks. No health visitor service whatsoever. Apart from one very brief phone call, I have had no contact from a health visitor. My baby has not been weighed since 10 days old, and they are now almost six months. Overall, my pregnancy experience has been unnecessarily stressful and left me feeling constantly anxious and unsupported.”
In my conversations with new mothers in my constituency, many of them brought up how difficult they found the lack of professional support. They were unable to access guidance about breastfeeding or sleeping, and unable to ask questions or seek reassurance. Many of them found that they experienced much greater anxiety about their babies as a result. I have at least one case in my constituency where the lack of a physical examination led to a major genetic condition being missed—one in which, tragically, early intervention can make a significant difference to the quality of life.
The survey we conducted found that, of those mothers who had received an online consultation, 60% said they were not affected, compared with only 3% who said they were affected. I have spoken to the Institute of Health Visiting and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and they have confirmed to me how vital such face-to-face support is for new mothers in the first weeks. The value of the home visit is that the mother does not need to identify the need for help and then go out and seek it for herself; someone comes to her and asks her how she is. A trained and experienced health visitor can observe mother and baby and identify whether additional support is needed. That kind of support cannot be replicated on Zoom or over the phone. Furthermore, as the Royal College of Psychiatrists has highlighted to me, it is much harder to identify whether there are issues of domestic violence or coercive control between a mother and her partner when contact is one-dimensional.
The impact of perinatal mental illness can have long-lasting impacts on families. Stephanie from the east midlands told our survey:
“I have previously not had any mental health issues, but I have really struggled with my mental health since having my baby. I have severe anxiety and now perinatal OCD. I have intense fear and stress about leaving my child, and I am not receiving anywhere near enough support.”
The long-term societal cost of perinatal mental ill health is estimated at £8.1 billion annually for each one-year cohort of births, and about three quarters of that is the cost of the impact on children. The financial value of early interventions to support struggling families is clear, and there is also the very human value of building loving and supportive families.
We already have the structures and mechanisms to provide support through the health visiting service. I should declare an interest here: my mother was a health visitor for many years, so I have learned at first hand from her about the times when a friendly knock on the door made all the difference to an overwhelmed new mother. However, it is a service that was already chronically underfunded and understaffed before the pandemic took hold. There has been a 31% decrease in the health visiting workforce since 2015, and many local authorities target their scarce resources at those deemed most at risk.
I believe that only a universal health visiting service can properly identify and support mothers who are suffering from poor perinatal mental health, and that the Government should allocate sufficient resources to enable this to happen. We need better mental health support for all ages and stages, and better training throughout our health service to identify and support those who are struggling, but providing support to new mothers should be a priority, because of the long-term impacts that their poor mental health can have on the development of their children and on the rest of their family.
The first step is to address the shortage of health visitors. There cannot be quality service provision when 65% of health visitors have case loads of more than 500 children each. We also need to urgently address the staffing shortage among midwives, who have a critical role to play in supporting women’s emotional wellbeing during pregnancy, childbirth and beyond. The Royal College of Midwives has found that there is currently a shortage of 3,000 midwives. Alongside that, we need to increase training and specialist mental health support for midwives, so they are well equipped to deliver the necessary support.
The pandemic has forced us to use digital tools in every area of our lives. We may find that we continue to use some of them even after face-to-face contact is possible again. If I could make one plea to the Minister, however, it would be that we should not allow digital and telephone perinatal check-ups to become the new accepted standard. The Government should fund and resource home visits by health visitors to all new mothers so that we can properly address the issue of maternal mental health.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, in this new Chamber, which is a first for us all. I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing the debate. It is good that we have had a number of debates in recent months about maternal challenges during the pandemic, the impact on families and the impact on the mental health of parents and children. There is little that is more important, frankly. It is something that we will have to spend a lot of time concentrating on as we build out of the pandemic in the coming months.
Let me declare my interests. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for conception to age two: first 1001 days. Given the hon. Lady’s comments, I think we have a new recruit. If she is not already one of our members, I would be delighted to welcome her along. It is a very active group. I also chair the all-party group for children, and until recently I was the chairman of trustees of the Parent-Infant Foundation charity, which concentrates on the initial 1,001 days and the attachment between parent carers and their children.
I was impressed by the response from the digital teams in the House. It was a very good exercise. As the hon. Lady said, 11,265 responses is not to be sniffed at. Alas, the responses were all too familiar. We have heard similar anecdotes from our constituents about what has been going on during lockdown. There were responses about parents, and particularly mums, feeling lonely. They feel isolated in hospital, particularly if they have to stay in for any length of time because of complications. They have problems even getting their partners—the fathers—to be able to visit them. They feel isolated from family support networks that we normally take from granted. They feel isolated from new mum and baby groups. One of the respondents to the survey called them a safety valve where completely new mums, in particular, learn from other mums—either new mums or experienced mums—and the babies interact too. It was interesting that, for colleagues who gave birth during the lockdown, it was several months before their babies were actually able to meet another baby, and there was a bit of a shock factor there. We perhaps underestimate the impact of that social contact from the very earliest stages after a child is born.
In particular, as the hon. Lady mentioned, there is the isolation from health professionals on a face-to-face basis. I know that there have been a lot of substitute virtual visits, but they are not a substitute and they must not become the norm. We need to build back our health visitor numbers, as we did so well in the coalition Government between 2010 and 2015, when we produced 4,200 additional health visitors, who were absolutely invaluable. They are the friendly face that new parents will welcome across a threshold, where they may be more suspicious of a social worker or other care workers. They are also an early warning system for problems that may be going on with a new parent and ultimately any safeguarding issues.
A report that the First 1001 Days Movement produced last year, called “Working for babies”, said that services supporting nought to twos were highly depleted during the first spring lockdown last year. The majority of services for nought to twos did not bounce back quickly as lockdown measures were eased. We need to make sure that mistake is not made again this time.
This lockdown has been especially stressful for first-time mums, single mums, and families having to balance working remotely, new forms of working and working covid-safely, and juggling home schooling if they have other children too—thank goodness all my children are above school age and we have not had that additional challenge. Even before the covid pandemic, at least one in six mums suffered from some form of perinatal mental illness—commonly anxiety disorders and depression. We know that the pandemic and lockdown have impacted on the mental health of just about everybody, but particularly on that cohort of mums.
A survey by the excellent baby charity Bliss found that, among its members who had received neonatal care during the pandemic, 90% of parents said they felt more isolated as a result of having a baby in neonatal care during the pandemic; 70% said their mental health was negatively affected as a result of the experience; 56% said the mental health of their partner and wider family had been affected; and 47% said they were not offered support for their mental health while their baby was in neonatal care. We know that, in extremis, suicide is the biggest cause of maternal death. We must do so much more to ensure that women do not get in that position and that support is there and accessible.
The shortage of health visitors is a false economy. I have always said that; we had a debate specifically on that last year. I pay tribute in particular to Cheryll Adams, who set up and has led the Institute of Health Visiting. She is retiring at the end of the month. The service she has given to that area has been extraordinary and has informed many debates in this place. I put on the record our thanks and gratitude to her.
There is also the whole issue of increased domestic abuse during pregnancy. The figure that I always find hard to take on board is that a third of domestic abuse happens during pregnancy as well, and we know that domestic abuse has gone up during the pandemic, so all the additional pressures on women who are about to give birth or who have just given birth are extraordinary.
The cost of perinatal mental illness, as calculated by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance some years ago—it still holds true, and today it is probably an underestimate—was £8.1 billion each and every year. On top of that, the cost of child neglect is £15 billion, so we as taxpayers are paying £23 billion-plus into the health service to get it wrong. To prevent us getting it wrong, if we spent a fraction of that on the support services—the health visitors and those networks—being there in the first place, that would be money well spent and well saved.
Of course, the key is good attachment between babies and their parents or primary carers from those very earliest stages and during conception, hence the founding of the First 1001 Days Movement. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) launched the 1,001 critical days manifesto back in, I think, 2012, which was signed up to by colleagues across parties, the royal colleges, clinicians, academics and children’s charities alike. It is still relevant today.
To quote research by the First 1001 Days Movement and the Parent-Infant Foundation—I pay tribute in particular to Sally Hogg, who does so much of the good work there—it is estimated that 10% to 25% of young children experience significantly distorted relationships with their main carer or carers, and from that a range of poor social, emotional and educational outcomes in childhood and across the life course can be predicted. Maternal mental illness in pregnancy and the early years of a child’s life can have adverse effects on the child’s brain development and long-term outcomes. Maternal mental illness can affect children both directly and indirectly. For example, exposure to stress hormones in the womb is thought to affect the child’s developing stress response systems, and mental illness after birth can affect a mother’s ability to care for her baby, her parenting style and her developing relationship with her baby. Even relatively mild mental illness, if untreated, can inhibit a mother’s ability to provide her baby with the sensitive, responsive care that they need.
This, again, is a statistic that I always use. If a 15 or 16-year-old teenager is suffering from some form of depression or low-lying mental illness, there is a 99% likelihood that that child’s mother suffered some form of perinatal mental illness—the connection is that close. So why are we not doing more to support the mother before and soon after she gives birth? The implications of not doing so will be with her child and her for many years to come, and often into adulthood for the child.
It is also important to note that although perinatal mental illness increases the risk of disruptions in early relationships, they are not inevitable. Some mothers can continue to give their babies the sensitive, responsive care they need, particularly with the right support—and good, effective support can be had, if it is available. That is the problem: it is not always there, or not always there at the right time or in the right place.
Other risk factors put early relationships and infant mental health at risk, including families where fathers or other care-givers have serious mental health problems themselves. Again, we underestimate the impact of becoming a father, particularly for the first time, on the mental health of dad. In most cases this is a joint partnership, but fathers often get overlooked. They often get excluded from the whole neonatal process within hospitals, as well. They need looking after too, because if they can be looked after, they can look after their partner and there is a mutual benefit from all of that. We need to do more for fathers.
The NHS long-term plan includes a commitment to expand access to evidence-based parent-infant interventions within specialist perinatal mental health services, which is indeed welcome. It will ensure that attention is given to the parent-infant relationship alongside the mother’s own mental health when mothers have moderate or severe mental health problems. We must not just look at the child or the mum in isolation; we are looking at the bonded family.
However, access to mental health services for babies should be dependent on the risks to their mental health and not contingent on other factors, such as their mother’s mental health needs. So, the NHS long-term plan for England also committed to improving access to specialist services for all children from 0 to 25, but delivering that commitment requires specialist provision for all babies who need it, as they are children, too. Such provision would need to be delivered by parent-infant specialists. However, the NHS long-term plan says nothing explicitly about specialist mental health services for the youngest children in their own right.
The solution is that we need specialised parent-infant relationship teams providing therapeutic support where a baby’s development is most at risk due to severe, complex and/or enduring difficulties in their relationships. Such teams focus on the relationship between a baby and his or her parents or care-givers as the main way to improve infant mental health. However, there are fewer than 40 specialised parent-infant relationship teams in the whole of the UK, and most babies live in an area where these services just do not exist; vast areas of the country have no provision.
One of the aims of the Parent-Infant Foundation charity, which was set up by the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire, is setting up parent-infant projects around the country, where practitioners are available, to work on the attachment of parents and their children. We just need it to be mainstream across the whole of the national health service.
As the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said, the need for more perinatal psychiatrists to work in these services is crucial. These specialist services need a highly trained specialist workforce, but the workforce census in 2019 showed that 13% of consultant and perinatal psychiatrist positions remained unfilled. Without more psychiatrists, ambitious plans to transform and expand services will be put at risk.
We are soon to have the Leadsom review, if I may call it that; it does not really ring true as “the South Northamptonshire review”. The right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is producing the review; hopefully it will be published later this month. I have been privileged to play a part in it, and chaired a parliamentary advisory group.
Absolutely key to that review are a joined-up support service between the NHS, local government and other key professionals, to give that wraparound service to parents in those crucial early months and years; a digital record, so that all those professions are working from the same information, rather than every visit to mum being a new visit; and a national template of the quality that we need to reach, but with local implementation, so that a service in Richmond, although it may look a bit different from a service in my part of the world on the Sussex coast, is none the less required to produce quality outcomes and clear the same threshold.
We look forward to that report in the coming weeks and months, and I very much hope that the Government will take it on board and produce the goods, because little, if anything, is more important than the welfare, good health and good mental health of our children. And a child is given the very best opportunity—the best start in life—if their parents are in a safe and stable place as well.
I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate today.
Maternal mental health problems are prevalent and are not talked about often enough. One in five women will develop some form of mental health problem during their pregnancy or in the year after giving birth, and research suggests that as many as seven in 10 mothers will underplay the severity of their feelings, due to stigma surrounding mental health.
Sadly, all of this has been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic. As someone who has spoken in the House about prenatal depression while pregnant with my first child, this is an extremely important issue for me.
From a personal perspective, my second child was only four months old when we went into the first lockdown. My plans for baby yoga, music classes and meeting other mums for coffee to get through the sleep deprivation were suddenly out the window. Instead, the ensuing weeks were spent with him mostly in a sling while I home-schooled the eldest. With much of his little life spent in lockdown, his one-year check was done on the phone, he has not been weighed since he was six weeks old, and I cannot remember the last time he saw a health visitor.
Yet I feel lucky: lucky that he was born just before the pandemic hit, so my husband was able to be there the whole time I was in labour; lucky that he was my second child, so at least I had a vague idea about what I was doing; and lucky that we had those four months together before going into lockdown. For many of my constituents, having a baby during lockdown has been incredibly challenging. One of my constituents, Nina, wrote to me last autumn:
“I was pregnant for the entirety of the first lockdown and had to attend all scans for the twins I was carrying alone. This was bearable when I looked around and saw everyone making huge sacrifices.
When I gave birth to the twins in August, continued restrictive rules meant that my husband could not be with me on the labour ward. Add to the mix a fast-moving induction and I ended up giving birth to my babies with only midwives I’d never seen before in the room.
My husband simply wasn’t able to make it in time. If he’d been able to stay on the ward I would have had his much needed support through labour. As it was, I have had to recover mentally from a fairly traumatic experience.
And yet...I brought the twins home while everyone was still ‘eating out to help out’. How can this be right? Why do women’s and particularly mothers’ needs fall so far down the Government’s priority list?”
Nina’s story and many others show the profound impact that the pandemic has had. In September, the Government allowed families with a child under one to form a support bubble and the NHS now allows the birth partner to be present during labour and the birth, but for many families those changes came too late. The Government must be ambitious in their plans to support the babies born in lockdown and their families. That will be a huge task. For example, if health visitors are to catch up with the huge backlog in missed face-to-face appointments and provide a full service, proper funding will be needed. They provide an amazing service and invaluable support to parents, but about one in five were lost between 2015 and 2019 due to public health budget cuts.
As a result, in February, before the pandemic hit, almost a third of health visitors reported that they were responsible for between 500 and 1,000 children. The Institute of Health Visiting considers the optimal maximum for the work to be fully effective to be 250 children. Similarly, since 2010, cuts of 66% have led to the loss of over 1,000 Sure Start and children’s centres, which provide huge support to families, particularly those who are vulnerable or hard to reach. Funding needs to be restored, so that there is a one-stop shop for parents to get support for themselves and their children.
Early years and nursery providers provide huge support for parents, but according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, they ran at a significant loss during the first lockdown, receiving less than £4 of income for every £5 of costs. In addition, playgroups and baby activities are often run by small businesses, and restrictions mean that their doors have largely been shut. I would like the Government to look urgently at sector-specific grant funding for early years, to maintain the viability of the sector as we come out of the pandemic.
It is clear that the added stresses of lockdown and the pandemic have exacerbated maternal mental health problems. A recent UK-wide study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that during the first lockdown, 43% of new mothers met the criteria for clinically relevant depression and 61% met the criteria for anxiety. Given the consistent evidence that shows that postnatal depression and anxiety are linked to a range of negative outcomes for children’s health, development and behaviour, it is imperative that the Government do everything they can to protect maternal mental wellbeing.
That begins with many of the measures that I have outlined, but also by improving and maintaining access to perinatal mental healthcare. Although NHS resources and staff are under huge strain, investment is needed to ensure that mental health interventions can be timely and effective to prevent the escalation of symptoms and the formation of a larger burden on the NHS and other public services. That is not beyond our capabilities, and we owe it to the babies born in lockdown and their families to put that at the top of the agenda.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate.
We have heard some of the shocking figures on maternal mental health and we have heard about the evidence that new mothers have experienced poor maternal mental health as a result of the pandemic. “Maternal mental health and coping during the COVID 19 lockdown in the UK” from the covid-19 new mum study found that more than half of new mothers reported feeling down, lonely or irritable, and that 71% reported feeling worried since the beginning of the first lockdown.
Mental health service guidance from the Royal College of Psychiatrists sets out that perinatal mental health care continues to be essential during covid-19, and that face-to-face contact will be necessary in some circumstances. The Government and the NHS have said that mental health services, including the specialist perinatal services, remain very much open for business during the pandemic, and that providers have looked to how they can maximise the use of digital and virtual channels. I agree that that is not ideal, but I acknowledge that hospital trusts in difficult circumstances have worked extremely hard to reach out to mums.
In Cornwall, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust looks after 4,000 babies and mums every single year. I thank the midwifery team at the RCHT for looking after me and both my babies, one surviving and thriving and one whom, unfortunately, we lost. The trust has been reviewing visiting continually throughout the pandemic, and the latest arrangement of their services is that birthing partners are now available, that both parents may be in neonatal units at any time, and that partners may now attend the 12-week and 20-week scans. If other scans are required, they may also arrange that. That has come on from where we were during the first lockdown, so things are improving.
International data, from high, middle and low-income countries, suggests that perinatal illness is more prevalent among rural women. That is the second dimension that I would like to add to today’s debate, if I may. Cornwall is predominately rural, and the pandemic has absolutely exacerbated an already hidden issue, bringing it into the limelight.
For a new mum who lives rurally, it is very difficult to access baby groups and other new mums, to share stories and get peer support, mostly because of transportation issues. I agree that all new mums are suffering those difficulties in lockdown, but it is particularly an issue for rural new mums. Often, socioeconomically, rural new mums are on a lower income, so they cannot afford to get anywhere. It is also difficult for health visitors to get out and visit them.
When I was a brand-new mum, I did not get a midwife follow-up appointment; I had a phone call. My notes, I think, stated that I was well supported and absolutely fine, and yet eight months later I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. I did not know that I had postnatal depression; I thought I was tired, that I was not doing it properly and that I was not living up to being a real mum, and I did not know who to talk to. Even though I had close family support, I felt that I was not doing it right, until I broke one day. I saw my GP, and at that point I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. Luckily for me, not being in lockdown, I was able to go to group peer support and to meet other mums who were feeling exactly the same way, so I realised that I was perfectly normal and that it was something I would work through.
It is important that we recognise that that will be a growing problem because of covid. For a new mum, it is all about talking—we want to speak to other new mums, and when we cannot do that, we can get lost in our own head and everything feels a bit worse.
I have been working cross-party, and with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on the early years review, which I am privileged to be a part of at this late stage. It started its life, as we know, as the review into the first 1001 days. I will not repeat the words of my hon. Friend, who articulated this work wonderfully, but I look forward to the review coming, hopefully later this month.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire was quoted as saying that the fact that babies have had little social contact during the first lockdown is clearly a bad thing, and that the repercussions are not yet known. Tackling some of the awful experiences of babies during lockdown and looking at how families can benefit from some of the positive experiences will be at the heart of the review. I look forward to its findings and hope that we can improve conditions for new parents and new babies because of it.
It is my sincere hope that when the new review’s findings come forward and policies are formulated, all parties will take a long-term view of all the important issues that we are discussing today, and that will come out as part of the review. I want to ensure that policy makers cease to use something as vital as the best start in life for babies and the mental health of mothers as a political football. Hopefully we can formulate something wonderful, so that when we look back at it in 20 years’ time we can all see how successful it has been and be very proud of it.
I commend the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing the debate, because the three quarters of a million women who have given birth during this pandemic have not only experienced all the challenges that every woman experiences when they give birth, but have had those problems magnified. Other Members have already set out issues around isolation, anxiety and the need for proper, professional support, as identified by the excellent piece of work done by the Digital Engagement Team for the hon. Lady, which all of us who have been new mums can really relate to. I can only imagine how much more these issues can affect people when they have no family members to call on and no mothers’ group to allow them to pick up personal experience from others who have gone through it before them.
Outside of the pandemic, around one in five women experience perinatal mental health problems, which impact not only them but their children, and as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, that can cost the economy some £8 billion every year. I will add to the debate the conditions that create a higher likelihood of mental health problems emerging in the first place, which according to research is particularly stressful life events.
We know that, during the pandemic, people have been highly anxious—far more than they might have been otherwise. Indeed, some research suggests that around three in four pregnant women have had significant anxiety, and up to 40% have experienced depression. One of the biggest anxieties for any new parent has to be money—finance, income; making sure that they can care for their new family. Most families now have two working parents, and families depend on both incomes, so the fact that more than 50,000 pregnant women a year suffer discrimination that leaves them with no option but to leave their job should sound alarm bells, not only for our economy, but for its potential to trigger mental health problems, depression or anxiety.
Work by organisations such as Maternity Action and Pregnant Then Screwed shows worrying increases in reports of pregnant women losing their jobs during the pandemic, and we know that more women have been impacted, in terms of job loss, during the pandemic than in other similar economic events. The reported figure of 50,000 pregnant women each and every year leaving their jobs is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, because as well as those reporting leaving their jobs, there will be many more who are silenced from speaking out by non-disclosure agreements.
My right hon. Friend the Minister has done so much to support new mothers, but some women are still let down in the workplace, so as part of this debate I urge her to consider employment policies too, particularly given the impact of coronavirus on women’s employment. No matter how good my right hon. Friend is at her job, in terms of putting support in place, if pregnant women are concerned about losing their jobs, even if they do not do so—and being pushed out of work is not uncommon in the workplace when women become pregnant—the job of the Department of Health and Social Care will be severely undermined if these issues are not addressed.
Other countries have looked at this closely, and I believe we can learn from their experiences. Germany, with a similar economy to ours, prohibits making pregnant women and new mums redundant, for the good of women, their children and their families. I have put into a ten-minute rule Bill the idea of adopting the German laws here in the UK, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at it to see whether she could lend it her support.
My final point is that mental health problems on the arrival of a child do not just impact women. Up to one in four fathers may experience mental health problems in the year after the birth of a child. It can be difficult for fathers to manage the transition, and we need to ensure that support is there. In other countries, shared parental leave policies, on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, have been proven to help fathers with that transition. Will the Minister look at why we are still awaiting action following the review in the UK of this policy, which would explicitly help fathers to tackle these difficult issues?
My hon. Friend the Minister has done so much, but she needs her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to do more. It is no good saying that we have good maternity protections when the Government know that probably 50,000 women a year lose their job because of how they are treated in the workplace. I ask the Minister to speak to her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look at effective broader policies impacting on pregnant women at work, because one of the most effective maternal health policies that the Government could adopt is stopping women being made redundant in the first place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate, and I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing it.
Most mums look forward to having a baby, and the birth of a child to family, friends and people we know is something that we all greet with joy, pleasure and anticipation for the future of the child. We know that for some women, however, pregnancy and the time after birth can, sadly, be difficult. They may not have been able to talk to people about it when everyone imagines that they are having a happy time. This year, it may have been more difficult than ever as a result of covid-19 and the social isolation that it has brought for so many. They have not had the support of, or been able to share the joy and workload with, family and friends, and it has been difficult to get the face-to-face support that they really need. Let us not forget that many have lost out on financial support that has been offered to others, as the campaigning organisation, Pregnant Then Screwed, has evidenced.
Low mood, anxiety and depression are common mental health problems that occur during pregnancy and in the year after childbirth. The pain that these conditions cause women and their families is significant, as is the negative impact on their health and wellbeing. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that up to one in five women develop mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth, and around a quarter of all maternal deaths between six weeks and a year after childbirth are related to mental health problems.
Sometimes, hearing in this House the lived experience of constituents really brings home the issues that we are discussing, and the need to address them. A constituent of mine has asked me to tell her story.
“In 2017 I became a Mum for the first time, I knew that I needed to provide for my child but I felt no more attachment than for someone I had just met. I started to Google ‘how to have my child adopted’ and felt like I was a failure as a woman.
I started to have panic attacks, I’d imagine walls falling on my child, people grabbing her and running away. I would lock myself in the house and was terrified to be alone.
It was when I started to record the times that the trains went past my house that realised that I was seriously contemplating suicide. I went to the GP who made an urgent mental health referral although it was five months after my child was born that I actually got any help…and…anything was done. I was diagnosed with severe post-natal depression and have been receiving help ever since.
When my second child arrived, I realised just how traumatic my first experience has been. The shame and anguish have been replaced by joy and love, and I was finally able to have those special moments with the newborn that people romanticise.”
Since that time, the local Newcastle Gateshead clinical commissioning group has invested in a specialist perinatal mental health service. That provides support, advice and planning of care and treatment following delivery, reducing the risk of significant illness and the potential for in-patient care. However, many women are not seeking the help they need, and the pandemic has had a huge impact on loneliness, making those early days so difficult.
This is an important debate and we must do much more to support women struggling with their mental health, before and after the birth of their child, to allow parenthood to be the joyful, if challenging and tiring, experience that it should be.
I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for introducing this debate. I declare an interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cerebral palsy
Maternal mental health has been one of the hidden impacts of the pandemic. Being a new mam is a special time for any woman. However, it can also be overwhelming and generally challenging. In normal times, many women receive support from their family and friends, who are there to offer invaluable guidance. However, for the past year, the public health restrictions needed to tackle covid-19 have meant that many women have had to make this journey on their own.
I had my first child, Maria, at 21. The advice from my mam was crucial in spotting the missed stages in her early development, which enabled her cerebral palsy diagnosis to come much sooner than it otherwise would have. I cannot put into words how valuable her support was following such heart-rending news. It was thanks to my family and friends that I felt confident enough to go on and have two more children.
It strikes me that if Maria had been born during this pandemic, the personal support I received from my mam and health visitors would have been much more limited. My heart truly goes out to those who have become mothers during the pandemic. I cannot imagine the impact that isolation is having on their mental health. I worry that sadly some may choose not to extend their families in future.
The pandemic has particularly affected those whose babies have received neonatal care, with more than 90% of parents who responded to a Bliss survey saying that they felt more isolated due to having a baby in neonatal care during the pandemic, and 70% saying that their mental health was negatively impacted as a result of their experience. The situation has not been helped by the fact that Bliss research also found that psychological support for parents experiencing neonatal care was inconsistent at best. Around half the parents said they were not offered mental health support during or after this care.
The impact of negative maternal mental health goes beyond the parent and is not limited to the short term. As we have heard, the first 18 to 24 months of a baby’s life are critical in their development, and the stress and trauma of poor maternal mental health has the potential severely to impact a child’s life chances.
In parts of the north-east, where my constituency is located, existing health inequalities mean that some children begin their lives with inferior life chances to those from less deprived regions. We simply cannot afford to place further obstacles in the way of their development and risk losing a whole generation. As a result of the pandemic, we are facing a potential mental health crisis in Britain and maternal mental health is significant.
It is unreasonable to suggest that, as a society, we could experience a collective trauma on this scale without it impacting on mental health. Inevitably, that will be challenging, especially when the existing foundations of mental health care in the country are already weak. It was therefore incredibly disappointing that health services were absent from the Chancellor’s Budget last week. He could do with learning that the damage to public health from the pandemic will not fix itself.
It seems fitting that the debate is happening in the week in which International Women’s Day falls. Not only have women consistently stepped up to the plate during the pandemic, with little to no reward, but they have shown resilience in coping with one of life’s toughest challenges—becoming a mam. We owe it to the women in our constituencies to have the best mental health support out there, for what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful yet challenging life experiences they will face.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate.
It was during a recent Zoom call with friends that the real, current issues affecting maternal mental health struck home for me. [Inaudible.] All of us on the call with her that evening were both upset for her and inspired by her attitude. As an expectant mother, I had my family round me—mother, sisters, husband, friends—antenatal classes and the knowledge that there would be ample post-natal care and support; but in covid-19 that is simply not possible. The impact is the exacerbation of a problem that already, in the best of circumstances, will affect one in five women who give birth. Those women—it could be any of us—will experience anything from anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. I am sure that each one of us in the debate has personal experience of a close friend or relative who has experienced those problems after giving birth—perhaps we have even experienced them ourselves.
We have come a long way as a society from the time when post-natal depression was described almost dismissively as the baby blues, and talked of in hushed tones. We now acknowledge the scale and widespread nature of what many women have to cope with. We have heard many stories in the debate. However, I do not believe that we are adequately responsive, or that we provide correct and sufficient care. In the pandemic, we know that as with many other issues things are much worse. Women going into labour at the moment have not had the benefit of face-to-face antenatal classes, forming bonds with other expectant mothers for common support. They have not had the assurance that their partners can be there, or that their closest family and friends can visit within a few hours—or take part in baby groups or have post-natal visits. All of that is against the background of lockdown—perhaps a feeling of isolation, financial worries or keeping other children amused, cared for, or home-schooled.
A mother’s poor mental health can affect the future outcomes for the child, as we have heard, and that knowledge must be uppermost in our minds. We have heard stories in the debate of the disruptions to life, and the impact on the mental health of both mother and child. It is clear that we need to listen to all that, and act. Listen to the mothers now and in future, about how they are struggling; listen to those who have struggled in the past. With no support network, and delays for treatment, we need to ensure that there is support from healthcare professionals with sufficient training. We need funding. We need a system that provides robust, integrated physical and mental healthcare for new mothers. Maternal mental health must be a priority for the Government, not only for the future wellbeing of mothers, but for all our children.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for bringing forward what is an important issue, and all the right hon. and hon. Members who have made valuable contributions, setting the scene very well. The matter has been a great concern of mine for many years and I have raised it in the House on several occasions. I have probably spoken alongside my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), among others who are here, on almost every occasion when it has been brought forward.
Covid has been difficult for my family, with the loss of a much-loved mother-in-law; but we have been blessed in that time with sunshine in the rain, as we have two beautiful new grandchildren, Max and Freya—both born during lockdown. It is important to have that opportunity, as a grandparent, to have grandchildren—and new grandchildren. We are up to five now, so I could have a five-a-side mixed football team of boys and girls—I look forward very much to that.
There was no joyful visit to the hospital. Indeed, the first view was through the living-room window and I have not seen the youngest one at all, even from a distance. It has always been on the wife’s video. Video calls are wonderful, but there cannot be anything sweeter than holding your grandchild. As tough as it is for grandparents, it is even more difficult for parents. That is what we have been trying to say today in the contributions that we are making. No mum or auntie is allowed to come round to help the new mum get sorted and into the routine; there are no mums or toddler groups to reassure her that she is doing a phenomenal job, that everyone struggles and that sometimes mum just needs someone to share that with; there are endless days in the house with a baby that she is too frightened to take out into this uncertain world. The impact on mums and dads has been vast and we will probably not know the full extent of it in the years to come.
My parliamentary aide, Naomi, who is a busy girl because she does all the speech writing for me, had two children in a short time. I remember them well. She told me—and she refers to it as her mummy guilt—that her eldest had little opportunity to enjoy her own time before she became the big sister, almost right away. She also talks about the mummy guilt of working full time. Although her parents are able to mind the children, who are well taken care of, the guilt remains that she is not the one picking them up from school, which is what she wants to do.
While I can look on objectively and see two lovely, well-adjusted girls, she sees only the things that she feels she did not do right and which she thinks she did wrong. I do not believe that is the case, but she feels that. All mums will be able to sympathise with the fact that lockdown babies are not able to see or interact with others—that is important. When my children were growing up—this is true of my grandchildren too, from what I have seen of them so far—I saw their interactions with their wee colleagues at school, and they made friends well; they would often hold hands with them in P1 or P2. That is what children do—they need interaction. They are more likely to be parented by the person who is at home with them. I can only imagine the feelings of isolation and guilt at what the child has missed out on and what would have been felt.
I was pleased to receive correspondence from one of my constituents, who wrote to me expressing the feeling of being robbed of her maternity leave and calling for an extension. I can do nothing but support her in that call. The experience of lockdown for new parents has been difficult; no music classes, no parenting groups, no one to reassure them face to face and see if they are truly okay. In addition, we must consider parents whose children went to a neonatal unit. The baby charity Bliss has conducted a survey of parents whose baby received neonatal care during the pandemic. I am not going to repeat the figures cited by the hon. Gentleman for East Worthing and Shoreham, but I remind everyone, including the Minister, to look at them.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and his early-day motion. In conclusion, I am pleased to stand with parents asking for the help and support that is needed. Give them the support that has been lacking for so long, and let them know that, even when socially distanced, they are not alone.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I commend the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on bringing this absolutely vital debate to Parliament. It is crucial and could not be more timely. Before I begin, I refer to my entry in the register as a clinical psychologist, and thank the British Psychological Society and the Maternal Mental Health Alliance for the work that they have done in this field, among the many other charities and organisations already referred to.
I thank everyone who has spoken so thoroughly today on many issues, including the first crucial 1,001 days, and the importance of digital records, which are essential in ensuring continuity of care. I understand that the Government is bringing in support for family hubs in future, so I am interested to hear from the Minister more about that and how it will support this work. Other issues that have been raised go to the core of mental health stigma and the impact of coronavirus on labour and prenatal care.
Members have spoken eloquently about their own personal experiences. It is absolutely crucial to ensure that we normalise wellbeing and mental health issues, particularly during this most crucial time in people’s lives, and also give due cognisance to the importance of ensuring that people can access services when they need to do so.
The first weeks, months and years of parenthood were absolutely some of the most difficult that I have experienced—fraught with sleepless nights, anxiety about the future and overly high expectations that I placed on myself about the responsibilities of being a new mum. Support is absolutely crucial at these times, and that has just not been available during covid-19.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than one in five women experienced mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first post-natal year and, as is true of so much of our lives in the past year, covid-19 has exacerbated those issues. The Baby Loss Awareness Alliance, led by the charity Sands, found that isolation increased during lockdown, with feelings of loneliness impacting 63% of new parents—compared with 38% before the pandemic—and those who had experienced extreme difficulties during birth. If symptoms are allowed to spiral, more severe perinatal mental health issues can be significant and can have long-term effects on mother, baby, father and different members of the family.
Research evidence suggests that the long-term cost of perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis in the UK is £8.1 billion per year, equivalent to roughly £10,000 for every single birth in the UK each year. While the financial weight of the failure to help new and expectant families is stark, the reality of families having to cope with perinatal mental illness is also heartbreaking, with maternal suicide one of the leading causes of death for women during pregnancy and in the first year after birth.
In summing up, I want to highlight two areas to the Government where I think the situation can be improved. First, pharmacological interventions really have to be matched with high-quality specialist psychological therapies during the perinatal period. Significant steps have been taken towards integrated care across the UK and in the devolved Governments in the past few years, but much more needs to be done to ensure that maternal mental health needs are met in whatever context they first present. That might be in maternity services, adult mental health services, drug and alcohol services, learning disability services or child and adolescent mental health services that are supporting the whole family. Wherever families show signs of needing help, they must be able to access specialist psychological therapies as quickly and easily as possible if we are to ensure the best possible outcome.
That must also apply to specialist perinatal community teams. In many circumstances, these home visit teams are the first and sometimes the last opportunity to spot maternal mental health issues, and they must include individuals with specialist training in clinical psychology. The British Psychological Society has recommended that every specialist perinatal mental health team should include clinical psychology and that every woman identified as requiring a psychological intervention should be offered an assessment and treatment with a clinical psychologist within 28 days. I highlight that recommendation.
In 2020, the Scottish Government invested £1.4 million in specialist community perinatal mental health services, with an additional £1.5 million for infant mental health and maternal and neonatal psychological services across Scotland. I urge the UK Government to set out additional support to what has already been promised in the NHS long-term plan, in the light of the additional and compound need that we have heard about in the debate today, which has set out the impact of covid-19. The need has been exacerbated, and it is crucial that we do not fail families at this time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and it is an honour to respond on behalf of the Opposition in this vital and incredibly moving debate. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing the debate. All contributions have been incredibly valuable and have highlighted the urgency of focusing attention on maternal health. Debates such as these can go some way towards breaking down the stigma that still persists around mental health and the often harsh reality of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. It is simply heartbreaking that suicide is the leading cause of maternal death. More people are starting to speak up publicly about their experiences, but we need action from the Government.
The coronavirus crisis has had a disastrous impact on many women. I was honoured to listen to colleagues sharing their heartbreaking experiences of baby loss in a recent debate. My heart breaks for all the women who have had to go through that alone at any time, especially during the pandemic. It is simply inhumane. Will the Minister outline what mental health support will be offered to women who have experienced baby loss without their partner by their side? Such tragedies have a long-term impact on partners and families, too. Will any support be extended to families? We heard described today, very eloquently, the importance of also considering fathers and other partners in such circumstances.
Within maternity services, there are huge inequalities. Black women are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth. Pakistani women are more likely to have a premature baby or a neonatal death in the UK compared with their country of origin. Women from all ethnic minority groups in the UK receive fewer home visits from midwives and are more likely to give birth by emergency caesarean sections. What are the Government doing to address those discrepancies and to ensure that culturally appropriate mental health support is provided? Such racial inequalities are deep rooted and are further entrenched by covid-19. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be adversely impacted financially by the pandemic, and the risk of death is much greater.
The Government’s only response so far to those shocking statistics has been to commission further research, but we need action now. The evidence is already clear that there are persistent inequalities in maternity outcomes and experiences, and that discrimination bias and a lack of cultural understanding are driving that. What action are the Government taking to eradicate these gross examples of health inequality? The five-year forward view for mental health made a recommendation that by 2020-21 in England 30,000 more women each year should be able to access evidence-based specialist mental health care during the perinatal period. During Monday’s statement on women’s health, I asked the Minister if she could tell us whether that target had been met. We did not get an answer, so will she provide one today?
Furthermore, the NHS long-term plan outlined that an additional 24,000 women per year with moderate to severe perinatal mental health difficulties and a personality disorder diagnosis would benefit from evidence-based care by 2023-24. Will the Minister please outline how many women are now benefiting from that? We also know that Health Education England was provided with £1.2 million of funding to increase skills and awareness around perinatal mental health. Will the Minister outline the progress on that and tell us where training initiatives might have been hampered by the pandemic?
The pandemic has had a profound effect on people’s mental health. We know how difficult and stressful pregnancy and birth can be at the best of times. Even outside of covid-19 it is vital that perinatal mental health services should promote prevention, early detection and diagnosis of mental health problems. Many women have been struggling to access the services they need during pregnancy, leaving them having to go through A&E. That is hugely distressing and can cause a great deal of anxiety for expectant mothers and their partners. It is therefore vital that those most at risk get the support they need now. Will the Minister outline what delays there have been during the pandemic in accessing perinatal services?
Working in a hospital, I have seen the fear that so many people present with: fear of contracting the virus, fear of taking the virus home and fear of wasting NHS time. Preventive measures around mental illness are crucial, especially now, for those most at risk. With more than half of new mothers having reported feeling down, lonely or irritable, and 71% reporting feeling worried since the beginning of the first lockdown, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that new mothers know where to go to seek help?
A University College London report found that, during the pandemic, there was a redeployment of up to 80% of health visitors in some areas. That prevents the much-needed visits that we heard about earlier. Face-to-face visits are crucial in recognising issues early and in providing assistance. Will the Minister tell me what delays families have faced at this time and whether any additional resources will be offered to those who missed out on face-to-face visits?
As a mother of two under two at one point, I know how desperately stressful it can feel to have one baby already and have a new one arrive. I know what it is like to feel as though you are failing at motherhood and at being a working mother. I know just how challenging it can be, but I cannot imagine for a moment what it would have felt like to do that through the pandemic. We rely so much on being in playgroups, having other mothers and fathers telling us we are doing okay, and phoning the breastfeeding helpline at 2 am worried that you cannot make enough milk for your baby and having someone say, “Don’t worry. We can get a health visitor to come and see you tomorrow.” These are normal things, but for so many mothers they have been lacking throughout the pandemic. I fear for the effect that that will have on them, their families and their children in the long term.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) asked last year about the additional counselling and support being provided for those who gave birth during lockdown. I noted that there was no clear answer on the proactive work that the Government have done to provide support to new parents. I ask the Minister whether that was because no additional resources have been provided. Does she recognise that maternal mental health has been overlooked in this crisis?
Pregnancy and childbirth can be such a beautiful time in people’s lives, but I know what it can feel like when it goes wrong. I know the fear of stepping into a hospital afterwards—the memories come flooding back. Your heart rate goes up, and you cannot even imagine what it would be like to be pregnant and to go through childbirth again. These things can be overcome, but not without the specialist help that people really rely on. I cannot imagine what it must be like for women going through this during covid, and yet it is another barrier in the way of getting the help that they and their families desperately need.
I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for bringing forward this important debate. We have had a number of debates about maternal health over the past year, but this is particularly important, given the timing.
Pregnancy and motherhood are a period of great change for everyone. It has been particularly difficult for new mothers during the past year, while they have been in the middle of lockdown. I want to pick up a couple of points that the hon. Lady made. She cited a case study, which I cannot respond to because it is from Scotland, and, as she knows, health is a devolved matter. She asked about the number of midwives that we have, and that was mentioned by a number of Members. There has been an increase of 14.6% in full-time equivalent midwives in trusts and clinical commissioning groups over the past 10 years.
Let me answer a few quick questions that came up. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) brought up workplaces. We need a call for evidence to gather the data that we need about what is happening to women in the workplace, both when they are pregnant and to do with their health. On Monday, I mentioned issues such as endometriosis, menopause and the musculoskeletal issues that women suffer from more than men. We need data about all that, which is why we made the call for evidence, and I do so again. It is very easy to click on the link and for women to let us know what is happening to them in terms of their health, both in the workplace and in healthcare settings. The number of respondents was in the thousands within a few hours of it going live, and we hope that it will give us the data we need to develop policies for the workplace.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whom I spoke to last week. We await with great excitement the early years review. It started at the first 1,001 days. This has been my right hon. Friend’s life’s work. I have known her since she first came here as an MP and before, and this is something that she is absolutely passionate about and committed to. The cross-party review will be illuminating, and we are excited to see it launched, which I think will be later this year.
Although the perinatal period can be a time of celebration and joy, for some it can be a time of considerable anxiety and worry. Indeed, like the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), when I became a mother for the first time I was actually alone, because when my baby was 14 days old my husband had to go and work abroad for six months. So I was completely alone, and I absolutely remember waking up in the middle of the night, having nobody with me and being entirely alone trying to breastfeed a baby, totally struggling and not being able to do it. So I remember how hard it is.
Actually, I think I am allowed to say that I am about to become a grandmother for the first time, and I really hope that I can be there for my daughter. I hope that we are over this pandemic and out of it by the time that my daughter gives birth, so that I can be there for her, to help her through what will be difficult times, because every new mother feels that difficulty.
I would like every new mother to know that support is there. Increasingly—indeed, at a rate of knots—we are expanding services, and there is no shame in seeking help, including through the pandemic. Specialist and in-patient perinatal mental health services have remained open during lockdown. There have been restrictions, but services have been providing digital and remote support. For those with severe needs or those who are in crisis, perinatal or otherwise, all mental health trusts have set up new 24/7 crisis helplines—I remember the call on 4 April last year when we decided that we would do this, and those helplines rolled out and were open. I have spoken to the chief executive officers of mental health trusts, and one told me yesterday that the volume of people using those 24/7 helplines has been tremendous. They have been set up and they have been used, including by new mothers.
In the 2020 spending review we also announced up to an additional £500 million for mental health services. That was on top of the £2.3 billion a year that we are investing to address waiting times for mental health services and to give more people the support that they need.
We have also taken action to ensure that mothers can continue to have broader support throughout the perinatal period, both from statutory services and from family support. Health visitors, who are ideally placed to support families, and the health visiting service continue to provide an opportunity to identify families who may need support. The health visiting service has remained in contact with families throughout the pandemic and it will continue to do so and to prioritise very young babies and vulnerable families.
Recognising the support that a father or the mother’s partner can bring, we published guidance in September to reintroduce access for partners, visitors and other supporters of pregnant women in English maternity services. We also launched a campaign to ensure that people continue to access services and get support early.
We have continued to deliver on the ambitions for maternity and mental health services that we had before the pandemic, to ensure that mothers get help earlier. From April 2020, we have invested an additional £12 million per year for every mother to be offered a six to eight-week post-natal check by her GP. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham campaigned on this for some considerable time. Through the post-natal health check, every mother can now expect to have the opportunity and the time to discuss any concerns that she may have about her physical or mental health and wellbeing.
We remain committed to making perinatal mental health services a priority through the NHS long-term plan. There is now—this point is very important—a specialist community perinatal mental health service in every area of England, and we are further increasing access to perinatal services, so that at least 66,000 women will be able to access perinatal mental health services in 2023-24.
I went to see one of these perinatal services at the beginning of my time in post, 18 months ago; they had just begun to roll out. I have been to see one of these perinatal mental health teams working, and it was just tremendous. The nurses had only been in place and operating for a matter of weeks, but they had already had something like 120 referrals and mums they had seen. That demonstrated the need for such a service and almost endorsed the reasons why they were there, as well as highlighting the services that they were providing to those young mums.
Importantly, we are extending the length of time for which specialist perinatal mental health community services will be available, so those services, which currently run from preconception to 12 months after birth, will be available from preconception to 24 months after birth. We are also developing and implementing maternal mental health services or maternity outreach clinics, which bring together maternity and reproductive health and psychological therapy for women experiencing mental health difficulties directly arising from or related to the maternity experience.
As the hon. Member for Richmond Park can see, we have put a huge amount of work into maternal mental health. She is quite right. I cannot remember who highlighted the fact—it may have been the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan)—that suicide is still the biggest cause of death in the period from, I think, eight weeks post delivery to 12 months. It is still the biggest cause of maternal death. That is why this issue is so important to us. To reduce the figures and ensure that suicide is not the biggest cause of maternal death, we have to put the services in earlier. We need to ensure that both at an antenatal stage and at the time of the check with a qualified GP at six to eight weeks, those perinatal mental health services, which are now available in every area of the country, are in place. We have done that through the funding that there has been from the £2.3 billion that has been allocated to the long-term plan.
Many mothers who experience mental health problems in the perinatal period are treated in the community, but a very small number will need hospital admission for their mental health, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park will know. It is right that, where possible, we keep mother and child together. That is why—this is also an announcement; a fact that I am proud of—NHS England has expanded the capacity of mother and baby units in England, with additional four to eight-bed units now providing specialist care and support to mothers who are experiencing severe mental health problems during and after pregnancy. I checked just before I came into the room for this debate, and we are now up to 152 beds across England, which represents a tremendous increase in the number of those units. It is so important in those first days to keep mother and baby together as much as possible.
The units support women with serious mental health issues by keeping them together with their babies and with specialist staff who nurture and support the mother-infant relationship on the ward at the same time as the mother is treated for her mental illness. That is a huge step forward from how things used to be not so long ago. Mothers who are at that severe stage of mental illness post delivery can have that treatment in those beds; they can be treated by those specialists. Mother and baby are together, and there are psychiatric services at the same time. That is a huge leap forward.
We recognise that maternal ill health can also have an effect on the child’s father or the partner of the mother. We are therefore also offering partners of women accessing specialist perinatal mental health services and maternal mental health services evidence-based assessments for their mental health and signposting to support as required. In the future, partners of expectant and new mothers who are seriously unwell will be offered a range of help, such as peer support, behavioural couples therapy sessions and other family and parenting interventions.
We are also taking forward work to ensure that all babies and young children in England receive the best start in life. I will come on to the early years review. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Prime Minister jointly commissioned in the summer of 2020 the early years healthy development review. It is important, so I will say this again. The review looks across the first 1,001 critical days. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), also spoke about the importance of the first 1,001 days, from conception to the age of two. This is about ensuring that babies and young children in England can be given the best start in life. Phase 1 of the review is in its final stages, and the vision for brilliance, setting out policy actions for the Government, will be published shortly.
I hope that my response goes some way to assuring all hon. Members that this Government remain committed to supporting mothers throughout the perinatal stages and up to 24 months after giving birth and ensuring that we can reach out to mothers who may need help coming forward about their mental health.
I would like to end by talking about women’s health more broadly. Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are just some of the stages of life that many women can experience. Throughout the course of our lives, the physical milestones, the changes to our bodies and our experience of the world have an impact on our health. I reiterate that we are having our International Women’s Day debate tomorrow, and I hope that the call for evidence will be mentioned, so that we can better understand women’s experiences of the health and care system but also, as I said at the beginning, their experiences of health, including motherhood and maternity, in the workplace. Without that evidence from women, we do not have the data and the information that is necessary in order to adapt and develop policies moving forward.
I will finish by urging all women to share their experiences through the call for evidence. It will form the basis of a new women’s health strategy—the first of its kind. This is the first time any Government have called on women for evidence, so that we can set an ambitious and positive new agenda to improve health and wellbeing and to ensure that health services are meeting the needs of women everywhere, especially in perinatal mental health.
This has been a really fantastic debate, and I am so grateful for the contributions from Members, both in the room and on Zoom. I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and all the work that he has done, particularly as the chair of the APPG for the first 1,001 days. He has highlighted the work of the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), and I am very much looking forward to reading her review, which will be really interesting. He also highlighted the importance of fathers, and I am really grateful to him for raising that important aspect of the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for mentioning grandparents. Some of the most distressing correspondence I have had during this pandemic has been from grandparents who have been unable to see and hold their new grandchildren, so I thank him for raising that issue. I congratulate the Minister on her impending grandmotherhood and hope that all goes well.
I am particularly grateful to Members who have shared their own experiences throughout the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), whose experience highlights what I was saying about the inadequacy of telephone and digital follow-up appointments. She spoke of her experience of post-natal depression, and I am really grateful to her for sharing that. If I could stretch out a virtual hand, I would like to say to her that we share the experience of baby loss, and I know what that is like.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for highlighting another really important aspect: babies who are born with additional needs, the particular needs of their families and how they have been affected during this pandemic. I really hope that their needs can be prioritised going forward. I also want to mention the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). It feels as if a mother’s financial experience is almost an additional thing, but she is absolutely right in saying it is central to mothers’ mental health to know that they have economic stability. I thank her for raising that.
I want to pick up on the Minister’s comments. I am really pleased to hear about the call for evidence. As I say, I am looking forward to the early years review. I want to push her on the point about not allowing digital and telephone consultations to become the norm in perinatal mental health, because those face-to-face visits are so important to mothers everywhere, and I really hope that can be embedded. I thank everyone for their time this afternoon, and thank you, Sir Edward, for your chairing.
Noise Pollution and Military Aviation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered noise pollution and military aviation.
Thank you, Sir Edward, for the opportunity to raise a matter of long standing in north and west Wales but which is particularly difficult at present. There is a long history of training pilots locally at RAF Valley, and I want to say right at the start that this is not about pilot training as such. Some of my constituents argue that the purpose of that training is unacceptable, but, given the narrow scope of the debate, that is something for another day. The debate is about the current level of noise and the future prospects for peace and quiet for my constituents and others across our extraordinary natural environments in north and west Wales, as well as for the future of our outdoor tourism industry, which so depends on the tranquillity of the national park and the areas beyond. I note the huge pressure on the outdoors industry with this lockdown. The last thing we need is for outdoor centres to reopen but find a drop in their historical level of business because visitors are put off by aircraft noise.
I thank the senior officer at RAF Valley for meeting me at Westminster some time ago to discuss the matter. I also thank the Minister and his staff for answering my many written questions over the last few months. However, I assure him that my pen is poised should the debate not elicit full and satisfactory answers.
It is well over a year since I raised this matter with the Ministry of Defence and senior personnel at RAF Valley, but constituents continue to report frequent and unacceptable noise levels from the Texan T1 despite assurances that steps were being taken to equip the aircraft with what was necessary to allow them to fly over the sea, which would reduce the impact on populated areas.
I will proceed with my understanding of the genesis of the issue—of course, I stand to be corrected if I have got something wrong. The Texan, as I understand it, is a sophisticated new training aeroplane able to mimic the characteristics of a range of other aircraft in service and is therefore very valuable to the RAF in training. The Texans are now based at RAF Valley on Ynys Môn. “Ynys” in English is “island”, a point to which I will turn immediately. For safety reasons, the new aircraft cannot be flown over the sea without special precautions. Of course, Ynys Môn is surrounded by the sea on three sides. I have been told many times that the necessary safety equipment—a particular harness, a lifejacket and a life raft—is being developed, that the restrictions are temporary and, of course, that this is a priority for the MOD. I quite understand that, given how it now has these new and very useful aircraft available. However, in the meantime, the Texan is being flown over a restricted area of north and west Wales—restricted because of other flying activity. I understand it is also being flown over the Isle of Man and the English Lake district. Both of those places are, of course, over the sea from Ynys Môn and, as I said, precautions have to be taken before flights over the sea.
In a letter of 7 December, the Minister wanted to stress that although my constituents might perceive that the restrictions on Texan flights result in a disproportionate concentration of overflight in their areas, that was not the case. He then referred to flights over the Isle of Man and the Lake district. These are my first questions to the Minister. What proportion of Texan flights take place respectively over the three areas? Is that proportion as planned, even if the number of flights are greater? That is, of course, if they are greater; I am not sure. I contacted a colleague from the Lake district and asked about flights over his area. He said he was unaware of any flights by the Texans.
I understand that the Texan is noisier in some respects than the jet aircraft that usually overfly our area, even those that have flown over what is notoriously called the Mach loop near Machynlleth, which generates a large number of complaints. The reason the Texan is noisier, as I understand it, is that it is a turboprop plane.
My next three questions to the Minister are these. First, is there some further way of lessening the noise in the short term, for example by varying the height at which the aircraft are flown? I was told by RAF personnel, and I think by the station commander at RAF Valley, that they fly at around 5,000 feet, which means the noise generated is distributed very widely. Has that been considered? I am sure it has.
Secondly, what are the possibilities of halting, varying or even reducing the manoeuvres performed in training, noticeably what I believe is the dive and climb? That manoeuvre produces the characteristic, rather chilling howl that the aircraft make. There might be a fairly loud background hum a lot of the time, but that is interspersed with this howl, which disturbs many people.
Thirdly, and importantly, whatever changes are made to the operation of the Texan aircraft, can the Minister assure me that any such changed procedures would not lead to a reduction in work for ground staff at the Valley? The Valley is a significant and valued local employer, whatever one might think about the activities there. As I said, my constituents’ views of the training at the Valley are mixed, to say the least.
As I said earlier, the Minister has assured me that the safety work is being undertaken. I know nothing of the technical aspects of that safety work and I am sure the work is extremely complex. Of course, I would not want the safety of our air personnel to be compromised in any way by a rushed job, but it does seem to my constituents to be taking a very long time. I picked up this issue about a year ago and have been given repeated assurances that the work is being done and that it is a temporary measure. What progress has been achieved so far? Can the Minister give me an idea of an end date?
I now come to a broader set of questions that have sometimes got lost in concentrating on the noise problem. First, what was the process of approval for the purchase of this aircraft? They seem to have been bought and then later had their use restricted because of safety concerns. It seems strange that new aircraft were bought but were then deemed not to be suitable for use where they are located.
Why was the safety problem not foreseen before the aircraft were acquired? I hope that the safety problem was not foreseen but disregarded. Would the Minister throw some light on that matter? Were those who assessed the safety of the operation over the sea not part of the process? My understanding is that there was a sequence whereby the aircraft were acquired and then the people responsible for safety stepped in and said they cannot fly over the sea. Now, perhaps I am wrong in my understanding, but I would be grateful if the Minister could explain.
I come next to a question that I have already referred to: the aircraft were located at the Valley on Ynys Môn, surrounded on three sides by the sea—it is an island, after all. I know that locating them at Valley is very useful for the RAF. Certainly, for my constituents in Arfon, and more so for people in Ynys Môn, Valley is a vital economic interest, not least because the prospects for large-scale employment locally, such as Wylfa B, have subsequently disappeared. Some explanation of the decision to locate them at Valley would be helpful, if that is possible. I can appreciate that there might be some security or confidentiality considerations.
I come on to the cost of change and modification. Has that been budgeted for? Was that budgeted for in the initial costings of the Texan? Or is that an additional cost? If it is an additional cost, who is paying it?
The Minister might be relieved that I am coming to the end of this long series of questions, but I have a few more, which are about assessments before the new machines were purchased. I think the arrival of the Texans was something of a surprise for my constituents and for the local population throughout north and west Wales—I understand they are flown over the Ceredigion constituency as well. What assessment was made at the start of the acquisition process of the health and wellbeing effects on local populations that would be overflown? I cannot say that I recall being informed or contacted or asked my opinion about this as a local MP. Is there a standard procedure or does the RAF and the MOD act off their own bat? Given that this area is a national park, what assessment was made of the possible effects on wildlife?
There is also the economic impact on tourism in general, but particularly the effect on outdoor tourism. This is an area that depends on tourism. People come here because of the peace and quiet. That is particularly so for outdoor tourism. The area sells itself, very successfully, on the basis of peace and quiet, on the extraordinary natural environment and the beauty of the area, of course, and in some ways on the remoteness of the area, although of course we are not remote from the large conurbations of north-west England. The remoteness is disturbed by aircraft flying over—there is a paradox there. There is a question around whether that was assessed at all. I do not know what the procedure is in the MOD or in general, but if such assessments were made, were they public documents, so that people in north and west Wales could see for themselves that proper care was being taken of their interests?
When and if these aircraft are modified so that they can fly over the sea, should we assume that they will continue to be flown over the land? I take it that they will be, from the letter I received from the Minister, dated 7 December. If so, can he indicate the proportion of overland and oversea flights, or even their number? Are we going to have more or fewer of them? Will many be over the sea, or just a few? Will there be changed safety procedures for oversea flights? Will that lead to increased flights over other areas, such as the Isle of Man and the English Lake district? In other words, will the distribution be different?
In the very last of my long list of questions, I understand that there is an intention to bring in night flying. I have not heard those aircraft at night myself—it is possible that they have not flown over my part of the constituency —but I would like to know the MOD’s intention in respect of night flights. I understand that, at present, the intention is that 5% of all flights will be at night. I worry that those flights might be more intrusive, just because of the absence of other noise at night. Again, any information that the Minister can give to me or my constituents would be greatly appreciated.
I realise that I have posed many questions. I accept, of course, that the Minister might only be able to respond to some of them at this point, but I would hope for oral or written answers to them all. The people whom I and my right hon. and hon. Friends represent deserve no less.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to see him, albeit virtually. He is a constant advocate on this point for his constituents.
The hon. Gentleman was not wrong in saying that his speech contained many questions. He has already put many to me, to which I have responded with written answers, as he generously made clear. I have written to him in some detail on a couple of occasions, and will do so again. Try as I might to cover as many of his questions as possible, I may need to come back to him on some of the points of detail that he referenced. This is an important debate and I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to it.
For more than a century, the Royal Air Force has defended the skies above the United Kingdom and projected Britain’s power and influence around the world. Today, the RAF remains at the heart of the Government’s approach to conflict and crisis management and remains heavily committed to operations at home and abroad. Of course, our aviation branch is not just the RAF; our Royal Navy and Army aviators play a vital role, too, in ensuring our security at home and around the globe.
The fact is that our aircraft may be required to scramble at a moment’s notice to defend our airspace, in defence of our allies or to participate in operations, as they have done so often over the past 20 years. That is what makes the importance of their training so acute. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman absolutely said that in his remarks and that he does not wish to compromise safety. I know that he appreciates the importance of that.
Since 2012, we tragically have lost seven aircrew in accidents, at home and overseas. Our thoughts remain with the families, friends and colleagues of all those who have died in service. Sadly, we will never prevent all deaths, but our duty is to ensure that our pilots are as well trained as possible, to reduce such fatalities. The ability to train effectively in the benign and friendly environment of the homeland they protect keeps them safe for the dangers they confront on operations.
Flying skills, in particular for low-level flying, are highly perishable and the risk of skill fade cannot be underestimated. Those skills can be achieved and maintained only through practice in a range of environments. I understand what the hon. Gentleman would say, and I was going to make a bad pun involving “Hywel” and the howling that can be a factor of those aircraft. I do not know the straightforward answer to his questions, but I know he will appreciate that we need to be able to have that tactical manoeuvring agility, to test the pilots and to make certain that they are competent in all areas of manoeuvrability. However, I will take up his question with the RAF.
The planes are new, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and they were cleared as perfectly safe by American and European regulators. When those planes come into service, we want to ensure that they are absolutely right for our requirements of them, because we place such a high premium on the safety and security of our crews. Particular problems were identified, for which we wished to enhance security, and I will come on to those later in my speech.
The point that I want to make is that, in terms of decibel levels, this plane is quieter than the plane that preceded it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in the beautiful part of the country that he represents have noted that there is a low hum, which can perhaps be heard over a longer distance, even though the decibel level may be lower. I recognise that problem.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s other points. Even with vital live training, we take measures to ensure that disturbance is as limited as is practicable. The amount of low-flying training carried out, to which he referred, is strictly limited to that which is essential to achieve and maintain operational effectiveness. Military aircraft are subject to stringent restrictions on heights and speeds, and their operating procedures are designed to minimise disturbance. We ensure that most low-flying training takes place during daylight hours on weekdays, and wherever possible flying units will publish details of upcoming activity online, in local newspapers and on social media platforms. I should add that we sometimes have to do things differently, owing to the vagaries of the British weather, with which we are all familiar, but that is our intent.
I am saddened by the fact that there was a significant increase—by about 50%—in complaints about low flying in 2020 compared with 2019. The only small silver lining I take from that is that it is perhaps indicative of the amount of flying done on weekdays and during working hours, and that, given the amount of home working over the course of the past year, it is only now that this has become more apparent to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others. It is indicative of our attempts to schedule flying in such a way as cause minimum inconvenience, avoiding evenings, night-time and weekends where possible. However, we need to train at night, as the hon Gentleman referred to. I believe he is right in saying that 95% to 5% is the approximate differentiation between the two; if that is not the case, I will write to him to correct myself. It is critical, as he will accept, that we have proper training in night-flying skills. Where we do that, we try to ensure that night training is completed as early in the evening as possible, to minimise noise and inconvenience at night.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly particularly focused on training and noise pollution around RAF Valley. He knows, and generously remarked on, the fact that night-flying training has brought with it to Ynys Môn a sizeable part of the £3.5 billion of investment currently set aside for military flying training, and that the base is the second largest employer on the island. However, just as the RAF is important to the area, so the local community is important to us. We always wish to act as good neighbours.
I have three specific points on RAF Valley. First, where possible, we use synthetic training, which has a valuable role to play. It is environmentally positive and clearly eliminates noise pollution entirely. We cannot go wholly synthetic, because we cannot divorce flying training from real cockpits, but we use it where we can. That is a growing trend in our training programmes.
Secondly, while those living in the vicinity of flying units will inevitably see more military aircraft activity than other areas of the country, we make efforts, as the hon. Gentleman knows from my letters, to spread that activity as widely and as equitably as possible. He is right that pilots from RAF Valley also fly elsewhere in Wales, over the Isle of Man and into Cumbria. I do not know the exact proportions, but that is something I can look up. I will see what I can do and come back to the hon. Gentleman. There are occasions when pilots will fly elsewhere, refuel, engage in further operations and then return to RAF Valley. I will look into that. He will appreciate that, even if we have a perfect scenario, in terms of programmes, that will always be affected by weather conditions and the practicalities on the day, but I will see what I can do to give more comfort to the hon. Gentlemen’s constituents about how we look to share the inevitable noise around the country.
Thirdly, I know that the new Texan aircraft and training has been of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman. I responded to his parliamentary questions and, more recently, to a letter about safety equipment. There are three aspects to that safety. The first is to ensure that it can operate safely over water. To be absolutely clear, the Texan can operate over water, and does. As the hon. Gentleman rightly observed, it would not get far away from Ynys Môn if it could not go over water, and it does indeed go over the sea. The issue we have is the kinds of sea states that it can operate over to our satisfaction. We are doing our utmost to protect the crews should an accident occur.
There are three issues. On the life preserver and making certain that a light comes on automatically if it hits the water, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that that has now been sorted. My understanding is that the harness has now been sorted. The remaining issue is to ensure that an automatic life raft deploys in the event of it coming into contact with the water. That has not yet been fixed. Technically, it is difficult. It is a simple bit of kit, but the slot that it has to be placed into is smaller than on most of our other aircraft, so that needs to be addressed. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the timescale for that at the moment, but it is actively being looked into.
What does that prevent? It does not prevent the aircraft from flying over water, but it does mean that we do not fly over water when we have very rough seas—we are talking about the highest level of sea states. The changes we have already made have already significantly increased the amount of flying that has been conducted over water, so the problem has already diminished, and I hope to see it diminish further over time. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that there will always be a certain proportion of training that has to be conducted over land, for obvious reasons to do with the efficacy of the training programme. In any event, the areas immediately to the north of the base, over the Irish sea, contain some of the biggest civil airways, with stringent civil air traffic control procedures that limit our ability to fly in that environment.
We are doing what we can to address the safety concerns about flying over water, and progress has been made. We try to spread the flights further beyond that beautiful part of north Wales that the hon. Gentleman represents, and I will write to him further on that. I recognise that some people find the sound of military aircraft disturbing, and we are always keen to hear from the public about their concerns. That is why we have the MOD’s low flying complaints and enquiries unit, which is the first port of call for members of the public who wish to complain about low-flying military aircraft. Every complaint and enquiry is examined. Nothing is ignored; we investigate properly. Where members of the public allege that military flying regulations have not been followed, a full military police investigation will be conducted into the incident by the defence flying complaints investigation team. Disregard of military flying regulations is not tolerated, and the punishment for those found to have done so is severe.
The hon. Gentleman also asked some questions about the process of acquisition. It is very hard to draw widespread conclusions, but if anything, the decibels emitted from aircraft are falling over time. I think I am right in saying that the old VC10 would, amazingly, have to be 34 miles away from the listener before the noise would finally go. For the Voyager, which replaced it, it is 3.4 miles. That is one example. I hope that, by and large, military aircraft are getting quieter over time, but there are swings and roundabouts in that. As I say, in decibel terms, the Texan is quieter than the aircraft it replaced. I do not know whether there are technical means to quieten the engines beyond what has been proposed. I doubt it, but it is a fair question from the hon. Gentleman. It is a fair challenge, and I will certainly ask that question.
The Texan went through a normal acquisition process, as would be expected in the Ministry of Defence, going through the assets that we need to train our pilots to replace a 30-year-old aircraft and to ensure that it provides value for money. That would all have been undertaken. In parallel with that, we look at the more exacting requirements that we need to place on our aircraft, and again that would have been undertaken on this aircraft, hence the requirement for additional safety measures.
I have probably not heard the last from the hon. Gentleman on this subject. I look forward to further engagements. On the points that he raised that I have not been able to reply to in this debate, I will endeavour to write to him with answers. I recognise the sincerity of his concern on this issue. I trust that he and his constituents recognise the value that is placed on having incredibly good, highly trained, highly experienced pilots, who do the work they do in support of our country and to keep us safe. I thank him for the debate, and I look forward to writing to him and hearing from him again in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Household Overcrowding: Covid-19
I beg to move,
That this House has considered household overcrowding and the covid-19 outbreak.
Eleven years ago, I was contacted by a family who were very overcrowded. The father, mother, and four daughters aged from one to 10 were living in a one-bedroom council flat. In the four years that they had been applying to move, Newham Council had been unable to provide anything larger. Nine years after that, in 2019, I received a letter from the youngest of the four children, who was by then aged 11 and had a younger sister. There were now five daughters, all still living in the same one-bedroom flat. The letter from the 11-year-old said:
“Since I was born, I have not even had a good day, because all this flat does is bring back bad memories. I sleep on the floor with my two older sisters. Every night when my dad gets up to go to work, he always has to turn on the light so he doesn’t step on us. Due to this, I don’t get enough sleep. I can’t concentrate. I’m so scared, because I want to pass my SATs, but I’ve got no place to revise. I’m falling behind in class, and it is because nobody cares about me. Nobody wants to see me happy. I feel like you don’t care, because if you did, you’d help me. All of my friends invite me to birthday parties. However, I am unable to come, because I feel that if I come, they should be invited to my birthday, but I can’t, because I have no place in my house. I have never got to celebrate anything. Every day, I see my mum cry and it makes me cry.”
The family is still in that flat today. With 27,000 people on Newham Council’s housing waiting list, it is not unusual for families to wait 15 years to be housed, as that one has.
Until the 1990s, the average number of people per household in London had fallen steadily since the end of the 19th century. Now, the number is going up. Nationally, the English housing survey showed overcrowding at the highest rate ever in the social rented sector—it was 9% in 2019-20, just before the pandemic. In both the social and private sectors, the rate has roughly doubled in 20 years. I am sorry to report that in my constituency, the overall rate of overcrowding is the highest in the country, at 27%, according to the 2011 census. It will be a good deal higher than that when the data comes in from the census that is under way at the moment.
Some 34% of all Bangladeshi households are overcrowded. The figure for Pakistani households is 18%, black African 16%, Arab 15% and mixed white and black African 14%. All face high levels of overcrowding, compared with 2% for white British households. Dr Haque, who was the then interim director of the Runnymede Trust, told the Women and Equalities Committee last summer that
“there will always be multigenerational homes where people decide to live with multiple generations—maybe their mothers as well as their grandparents—but they do not ever choose to live in overcrowded housing.”
Recognising those different impacts, the Women and Equalities Committee recommended that, by the end of this summer, the Government produce a strategy to reduce overcrowding. If the Government are serious about addressing racial inequalities in public health, they must tackle overcrowding. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether the strategy that the Committee has called for will be produced by the end of this summer.
We know from studies such as the Marmot review that housing is a social determinant of health. Poor housing can lead to lifelong poor physical and mental health. There is a higher risk of accidents in overcrowded homes, and there is more condensation and mould. Research has established a link between overcrowding and poor child health due to infections and respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. There is consistent evidence of poorer mental health for people in crowded homes—depression, anxiety and stress as a result of living in cramped conditions. Poor quality of sleep is one of the reasons for that. Lack of space to play or study holds back children’s development and education.
Overcrowding is associated with interrupted schooling and behavioural problems at school. It can harm family relationships and lead to fighting and arguments between children. All of that was true before the pandemic, but covid has shone a bright light on all of these problems, and overcrowding has made coping with covid much harder. Transmission within households has spread the virus. In overcrowded households, infection has spread faster. Social distancing and self-isolation can be impossible. The stress of overcrowding—long-term and familiar—has been transformed by the pandemic into a catastrophe.
Last May, Inside Housing magazine published a graph plotting local authorities’ rates of overcrowding against their covid death rates. The correlation is remarkable. Overcrowding might well partly explain the disproportionate mortality rate among ethnic minority groups. Public Health England’s review into why black and ethnic minority groups have been so badly hit by the pandemic identified poor housing and household composition as key factors.
Severe damp and mould, much more common in overcrowded homes, cause chronic respiratory problems, making people more vulnerable if they contract coronavirus. For children, the onset and worsening of asthma in overcrowded conditions is well documented. For those who have to live, learn and work in one room, the psychological impact of lockdown has been extraordinary. On a video call last month with a family in my constituency —mum, dad and another family with five daughters, this time in a two-bedroom flat—the girls pointed out to me how infeasible it was for them all to study at the same time. That family was clearly teetering on the edge. More people in overcrowded households have reported psychological distress in the lockdown.
Sometimes in Parliament when we talk about the housing crisis, we are referring to young people not being able to buy homes until they are a bit older, and that is a problem. The Government have taken various steps to try to address it by subsidising first-time buyers with starter homes, Help to Buy ISAs and the 95% mortgage announced in the Budget last week, but there was nothing at all to tackle the real housing crisis—people trapped at the bottom end of the rental market with unaffordable rents in overcrowded, poor quality homes. The heart of the problem has been the failure to replenish the social housing stock, so families in social housing are twice as likely to be overcrowded now than they would have been decades ago.
I welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission report last month, with its ambition and vision. It states:
“A good home is a place…where we feel safe, it enables us to put down roots and belong to a community, it is a place we enjoy living in and which is a delight to come home to.”
That should be what we aim for. The report calls for Government action on a
“coherent, long-term housing strategy, focused on those in greatest need.”
It calls for a long-term housing affordability policy with new housing, greater public subsidy, reinstating capital grants, reducing land prices, a new housing affordability definition in terms of household incomes rather than market rents, and a review of social security to strengthen housing support.
I am old enough—just—to remember the furore in the 1960s over the housing crisis around the television play, “Cathy Come Home”, which was about a family destroyed by inadequate housing. That furore led to the foundation of Shelter and a wave of council house building. We are there again now. Families are being destroyed and lives blighted. The impact during the pandemic in the part of London that I represent was well documented in Anjli Raval’s powerful article, “Inside the ‘Covid Triangle’” in the Financial Times magazine last weekend. We need that moral outrage again and a new wave of investment in council house building. We need an alternative to private renting—a decent home where people can live and plan for their future. We have done it before; we can do it again. Councils are finding creative ways to build, such as the Red Door Ventures initiative in Newham, but we need them on a much bigger scale. The Government need to step up, and after the pandemic we need a new programme to build affordable and secure social homes.
Social security needs to tackle overcrowding. Welfare cuts over the past decade have mostly hit tenants. Freezing local housing allowance means that support is not tied to real rents and families cannot afford homes suitable to their needs. This year, thankfully, local housing allowance has been relinked to the 30th percentile of rents. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the Work and Pensions Committee, which I chair, that that change was permanent. She was unfortunately mistaken. The Chancellor has frozen rates again from next month, and the gap will start to widen all over again. The benefit cap also makes it impossible for families in London to afford the housing they need. Many households have had no benefit at all from higher housing support over the past year, because it has been immediately capped.
The Work and Pensions Committee has recommended maintaining the increases in support provided in the pandemic, including keeping local housing allowance at the 30th percentile, and conducting an annual review of rates to keep them appropriate for each area. The Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community recommended that it be tied to 50% rather than 30%, and that the Government should urgently review the operation of the local housing allowance.
Having seen the impact of household overcrowding during the pandemic, I want to ask the Minister what prospect there is of a new wave of investment in social house building on the scale that we need—or are we going to have to wait again for a Labour Government, for the overcrowding crisis to be addressed? Will he prioritise building affordable family homes with three bedrooms and more? Why have we started down the road of freezing local housing allowance again, after that policy has done so much damage over the past decade, and what response, if any, do the Government plan to make to the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). The voice of those in cramped, uninhabitable or overcrowded housing is louder in this place thanks in no small part to his tireless campaigning. The pandemic has impacted us all—every family and house, and everyone in society. However, the impact has not been equal. The stark inequalities of our society have been laid bare by a virus that thrives on that very inequality. Those in the worst health are the most likely to fall ill. Those in the lowest-paid jobs are the most likely to be unable to work from home. Those children furthest behind in school are the most likely to be without the internet connection that is required for remote learning.
Perhaps the starkest examples of what I have been describing are in housing—the constituents who contact me every single day, who are without the outside space that makes lockdown more bearable; the children living on the top floors of tower blocks, who are unable to open windows for ventilation, because of the danger of living on the skyline; the families trapped in temporary accommodation, who do not register with a GP for the vaccination because they have no idea how long they will call that hostel or B&B their home; or, as my right hon. Friend so powerfully explained, overcrowded households, or houses in multiple occupation, where there is a family living in every room.
How can a person possibly self-isolate when they live in one room with four children, like Mrs B in my constituency? The simple answer is that they cannot. Families like hers live across our capital in houses in multiple occupation that have a single bathroom and a household in every room. Sanitation is a pipedream for these families, who share facilities with people in the next room, many of whom disproportionately head out to the frontline each morning. And those in the most insecure work simply cannot afford to self-isolate without the support that the Government seem so reluctant to provide. It is the pandemic paradox—the impossibility of ensuring the safety of those on our frontline when they are the least likely to be able to self-isolate. It is a problem baked in by a decade of austerity, housing crisis and low pay, and the Government’s shambolic treatment of our nurses shows that the lessons are simply not being learned.
I invite the Minister to my Friday advice surgery, where we will hear from Mrs C, who has two bedrooms on the second floor of a property that she shares with her three young children. For the last few months she has been joined by her disabled mother, who unfortunately has cancer and who she wishes to nurse to her end. Her mum is unable to leave the flat and quite frankly—given the impossibility of social distancing in that situation—neither are the rest of her family, if they are to ensure her mother’s safety.
So when the Government huff and puff about isolation payments or celebrate another Budget bereft of social housing policy, I say to the Minister that they simply do not know how the poorest and most vulnerable are living—like Mr F and his twins, who live in one small room in a shared house, or Mr D, who is in a single room with his son, following the sad passing of his wife. Try telling them that the pandemic is the great leveller.
The reality is that coronavirus has shone the strongest spotlight on the importance of having a safe and suitable place to call home. With 1.15 million households on social housing waiting lists across the country, the housing crisis cannot be solved by tinkering around the edges. It needs political will, it needs to be at the heart of Government decision making and it needs a bit more than the 6,556 new social homes that were delivered last year.
Perhaps the £20 billion that has just been announced to look at building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland could be better spent on building the social housing that our country so desperately needs. Maybe then I could finally offer some hope to the families at my advice surgeries that they may one day get a place to call home.
I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for setting the scene. Obviously, I will give the Minister a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that he personally does not have ministerial responsibility for Northern Ireland, but I just want to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate, and to add my support to the right hon. Gentleman for what he does, and to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) as well.
The hon. Lady mentioned the bridge. I understand what the Prime Minister is talking about, by the way; it is about connectivity and it is about the Union. But yes, I agree with her 100% that the money could be spent on better things. I say that very respectfully. The bridge is not what this debate is about, but if I had been asked to make any comment on it, that is what I would have said. I would have taken the Prime Minister down to the roads in Strangford and told him to spend a whole lot of money on them, to address the issues that I referred to. However, that is not taking away from what the Prime Minister is saying. But the bridge is not the subject of this debate; it is the subject for another debate.
I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on healthy homes and buildings, so I have a particular interest in this issue. One of our interests in the APPG—indeed, it comes up all the time, and I suppose the clue is in the title of our group—is how we can have healthy homes and buildings. It is about homes that are suitable for today’s modern lifestyle, and how we can move towards ensuring that any new homes built are built in a style that would satisfy the needs of a modern family, but it is also about addressing the issue of homes that perhaps are not built in that style. In the past, we have had an inquiry and we have brought out the results, so it is quite an active APPG, I am pleased to say.
May I also say how pleased I am to see the Minister in his place? I was saying to him beforehand—you probably heard me saying it, Sir Edward—that he has shone in the main Chamber and now is his chance to shine in Westminster Hall.
The Minister and I have been good friends ever since he came to this House and I value his friendship; I hope that he values mine. His kindness to us all in this House is beyond doubt. Every Christmas, he is the man who brings the Quality Streets into the Members’ Tea Room; every Easter, I look forward to a creme egg, because of him. So let us put on the record our thanks to him. By the way, I am a diabetic, so I should not eat any of the Quality Streets or any creme eggs, but temptation sometimes gets the better of me.
My own constituency has a huge waiting list. What I will say will replicate what the right hon. Member for East Ham and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden referred to; their constituencies have not cornered the market in housing problems—we have them as well.
Indeed, we have multiple daily problems in our office back home in Newtownards with the waiting list for appropriate social housing, largely made up of people in overcrowded accommodation who cannot afford private rent, or to pay the difference between housing benefit and rent in the real world. They have no alternative whatever but to move themselves and their children into their mum’s spare room—or worse, the living room, which takes away from where everybody lives. We often come to the problem of multiple families living in houses that may have been built for a two-person family but which have maybe six or eight people living in them, which becomes difficult. To have what should naturally be two separate households living together in such circumstances makes covid difficulties clear on so many levels.
The title of the debate is “Household Overcrowding: Covid-19”. We have learned about many things from the coronavirus situation and how we have responded to it, and one is certainly overcrowding, with people living almost on top of each other. I will give an example in a short minute. If just one person in a house gets covid, everybody has to self-isolate, which has implications, including whether an employer will actually furlough them. By the way, I understand that there is some choice in whether the employer may do that.
This is not the Minister’s responsibility, and I am not asking him to answer on it, but one of the biggest issues in my constituency is securing houses big enough for families. A single family may get a four-bed house. They probably have three or four children. One of those children is autistic, and they have maybe one girl and three boys, so right away an ordinary three-bed house will not be sufficient for them because of their physical circumstances and the disabilities of their children.
Sometimes a family has more than one child who is autistic, or they might have one with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well, which means they need a single bedroom for each one. The right hon. Member for East Ham referred to some issues. Some issues that I face every day in my constituency relate to those who are disabled and how the implications of that then multiply the housing issues.
I was not surprised to learn from the Health Foundation that, going into the covid-19 pandemic, one in three households—32%, or 7.6 million; what a figure—in England had at least one major housing problem relating to overcrowding, affordability or poor-quality housing. Poor-quality housing is one issue that we are trying to address in the APPG. I see that replicated, to scale, in Northern Ireland and in my constituency.
It is clear that housing problems such as these can affect health outcomes—I believe that, and I see it when talking to people—including physical health, directly from poor-quality homes, and mental health, from affordability or insecure housing issues. I understand that the Governments both back home and here are trying to address poor-quality homes, I am pretty sure the Minister will give us some positive answers on the quality of homes and what the Government are doing, and also—I am not putting words in the Minister’s mouth—some idea of what the Government are doing on new building to address demand.
While fewer homes are classed as non-decent compared with 10 years ago, overcrowding and affordability problems have increased in recent years. The pandemic has highlighted the health implications of housing. Poor housing conditions such as overcrowding and high density are associated with a greater spread of covid-19. We have learned that, when one person gets it, we all have to self-isolate. I had to self-isolate from this House because of contact with an hon. Member, and I had to self-isolate a second time because I had contact with somebody on a Sunday, which I notified the House about. So I have had to self-isolate on two occasions.
People have had to spend more time in homes that are overcrowded, damp or unsafe. The economic fall-out of the pandemic may lead to an increase in evictions. The Government have helped a wee bit with that. The implications for people potentially facing evictions from poor-quality homes with rents that are just too expensive, and with their jobs on furlough—or perhaps even lost—are massive. We should all be worried and concerned about that.
These housing problems can be focused on in multiple ways, including the increase of supply to the detriment of other objectives and sustained reductions in housing benefits. There is not a day when we do not do a housing case for someone back home and deal with their housing benefit as well. We deal with other things, but more often than not the housing benefit comes off the back of that.
I could give examples of issues for an entire day, but I will give just one: people in low-income care jobs going to work in a nursing home and coming home to a house with two families because they could no longer afford the £750-a-month rent on their low income. It is the issue of low incomes and very high rents that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady referred to. People had no other option but to move in with someone else but it meant that two nursing homes were affected by a diagnosis of coronavirus. I know that happened back home. A number of people were working in a nursing home, but when one person came in with coronavirus, everyone in that home had to self-isolate as a result. Coronavirus therefore has effects far beyond people’s living locations. It is definitely a disease that is seeking them out.
I finish with this. Covid has merely put a lens on the problem of affordable housing that has existed for some time. The right hon. Gentleman was right when he said in setting the scene that it was a problem beforehand, and it has been exacerbated by where we are. We need to take steps to address it. Mental health, family relationships and now physical health are at stake.
Mental health comes up in every debate we have because it is real and everyone deals with people affected every day. The hon. Lady asked whether the Minister was available to come down to her surgery and meet some of those people. I am sure the Minister is meeting those people in his surgery, just as we are. I do believe we must act, and I look to the Minister to see his plan of action to provide more social housing, more support for private rental and greater ability for people to be removed from unhealthy living conditions throughout this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to participate in this important debate on household overcrowding and the covid-19 outbreak. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing the debate forward. As we have heard, there is no doubt that housing and health outcomes are inextricably linked and that those living in poor housing are more likely to suffer from poor mental and/or physical health.
Covid-19 has indeed thrown into stark relief the existing and ongoing housing challenges that need to be addressed. It seems self-evident that household overcrowding is associated with greater risk of transmission of the virus because self-isolation, as we have heard, becomes much more difficult, as does shielding. That may well have contributed to a higher death rate.
Analysis carried out by Inside Housing shows a clear correlation between overcrowding and covid death rates. In addition, lockdown forces us to spend much more time at home, and doing so is much more challenging for those living in those overcrowded conditions. One study shows that nearly 20% of those in overcrowded conditions during lockdown have experienced mental or physical health problems due to a lack of space.
To return to the overcrowding example given by the right hon. Member for East Ham in his constituency, I know all too well what that is like in normal times: I grew up in a small three-apartment flat with my seven older siblings, my mother and my stepfather as my mother waited an astonishing 28 years for the council to allocate her suitable accommodation. It finally did in 1982, on my 14th birthday.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not have to wait quite as long as my family did for suitable accommodation, because I know the damage caused by living one on top of the other with no space and no privacy in such overcrowded conditions. However, even I cannot imagine how people can possibly cope well with such overcrowding during lockdown and how much more challenging lockdown makes such terrible living conditions.
We cannot change the past, but the focus now must be to ensure that more affordable homes are built. In Scotland, the SNP Government have built 97,000 affordable homes since 2007. In the four years to 2020, the SNP Government in Scotland have delivered over 75% more affordable homes per head of population than in both England and Wales. The Scottish Government have recognised the positive social and economic impact that investment in social housing brings, and remain committed to expanding the social housing stock.
In Scotland, the £30 million rural and islands housing funds support the delivery of affordable homes and are to be continued beyond March 2021, with the affordable housing supply programme having already delivered 5,000 affordable homes in rural and island areas in its first four years. There is still more to do.
In its “Building more social housing” report, the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government recommended that
“A social housebuilding programme should be top of the Government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of Covid-19.”
The report went on to say:
“The crisis has exposed our broken housing system. Families in overcrowded homes have faced worse health outcomes.”
In the first instance, the Government need to help those living in overcrowded accommodation. Investing in more social housing is an obvious way to do that. It is also vital to reverse effective cuts in local housing rates and scrap poverty-inducing policies, such as the hated bedroom tax, which the Scottish Government have completely mitigated in Scotland.
The decision to maintain local authority housing rates in cash terms in 2021-22 represents a freeze for private renters and puts at risk all the work done by the Scottish Government to support homeless people, and it potentially makes private sector tenancies unsustainable for some. Indeed, there are examples where the temporary restoration of local housing rates has facilitated moves out of temporary accommodation. The freeze on local housing rates for a Government who want to be taken seriously on tackling homelessness was not considered in last week’s Budget.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government have an estimated spend on the discretionary housing payment for 2021-22 of £82 million—an important tool used by councils to safeguard tenancies and prevent homelessness—with £71 million of that used to mitigate the bedroom tax for more than 70,000 households in Scotland, to help them sustain their tenancies, with another £11 million spent on mitigating other cruel welfare cuts, such as changes to local housing allowance rates.
Long before the pandemic hit, the policy of no recourse to public funds was pushing working families into abject poverty, forcing them into unsustainable debt and into homelessness, or unsafe, overcrowded and insecure housing. The Children’s Society highlighted last year that families with no recourse to public funds, without access to housing benefit or social housing, find it immensely difficult to shelter their children properly. That matters because covid-19 is no respecter of immigration status and everyone needs help to get through and survive this crisis.
The Scottish Government cannot change those policies because 85% of welfare expenditure and income replacement benefits remain reserved to Westminster. All the Scottish Government can do is try to mitigate the worst impact of those policies, bearing in mind that they are required to present a balanced budget every single year, so that the huge sums of money spent trying to protect Scots from the regressive policies of this Government mean that less money can be spent on other areas. I hope the Minister will reflect on that.
We know that there are real housing challenges across the UK. The Scottish Government have a demonstrable record of trying to tackle them; the UK Government, not so much. Covid has thrown those challenges into stark relief. The Minister knows that the solutions here are not brain surgery. We know what needs to be done to tackle overcrowding, which, there is little doubt, is directly linked to people catching and dying of covid in this pandemic.
I urge the Minister to be more ambitious about plans for building social housing—not just through announcements, but through actual building. The Government also need to abandon the effective freeze on local housing allowance, to facilitate more secure tenancies, and help more people move from temporary to more settled and suitable accommodation, which we have seen can be done.
In addition, the UK Government need to abandon their bedroom tax, which in effect prices people out of their homes. They also need to look afresh at the inhumane policy of no recourse to public funds and at the real damage that that has done and continues to inflict on families. That has not been the case just during the pandemic, but it has certainly shown a clear vision of what that policy means.
We have suffered a global health pandemic, and it is not over, but we can already start to learn the lessons of how we can do better in order to tackle deep-rooted and long-standing housing challenges such as overcrowding and poor living conditions, which have a genuine impact on the mental and physical health of too many people. The word “home” should indeed conjure up images of safety and warmth—a place you want to be. For too many families, poor and overcrowded conditions mean that that is simply not the case. We know what the challenges are and what measures are needed to tackle and mitigate those challenges. I hope that the Minister today will tell us how he and the Government intend to just get on and get down to that important work.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for this debate, Sir Edward, and to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), the SNP spokesperson. First, I send heartfelt congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on initiating this vital debate. He set out eloquently and in clear and moving terms just what is wrong, why it is so relevant to the impact of covid and what we need to do to solve it. He also gave the truly human consequences by reading out a very upsetting letter from one of his young constituents, who is spending years in overcrowded conditions.
I also welcome the characteristically well informed and passionately expressed speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is such an inspiring campaigning MP, and the speech from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who does such excellent work with the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings.
The English housing survey found that 4% of households in England are overcrowded. That is about 829,000 households—just think how many children that comes to. Overcrowding is more common for renters than owner-occupiers: it affects 1% of owner-occupiers, compared with 9% of social renters and 7% of private renting households. Overcrowding is at the highest rate in both the social rented and the private rented sectors since records began.
From my own constituency, I can give numerous examples of the real hardship—the reality—of overcrowded homes. People have been waiting for years and struggling for so long, and this last year has been truly awful. Covid has exposed the consequences when people do not have decent housing. Living in overcrowded homes hampers people’s ability to self-isolate when they have covid-19, but even before this time, overcrowded housing had been associated with respiratory illness in children. Now, it is so much worse.
The National Housing Federation found that 85% of overcrowded families have seen their mental health negatively affected by the overcrowding. Adults in 81% of overcrowded families—four out of five—have seen their personal relationships negatively affected. And it is no surprise, if we try to imagine that.
The former Children’s Commissioner found that poor housing conditions disrupt children’s education, affect health and wellbeing, and leave children with no safe space to play. That compounds the existing inequality between children who are in overcrowded housing with parents struggling to make ends meet and those who have had plenty of space throughout the crisis and good facilities and whose parents have been able to manage well financially. There has been suffering on all sides, but that inequality and the inability to make up that gap have been devastating for so many families.
The Resolution Foundation reported last July on the impact of housing circumstances on people during this crisis and identified how the risk increases for lower-income and ethnic minority families—often, the working poor. I am sure that the Minister will have read that report, but if he has not, I hope he will.
Increased covid risks for black, Asian and other ethnic minority people are compounded by poor housing. As Baroness Lawrence said in her recent review for Labour, not only are black, Asian and minority ethnic people dying at a disproportionate rate; they are also over-exposed to the virus and more likely to suffer the economic consequences, and that is multiplied, as others have said, by poor housing.
The Government response has been inadequate. The Women and Equalities Committee found a lack of clear guidance for those trying to self-isolate in overcrowded accommodation. That has been remedied just today, but the focus has been entirely on the individual rather than any sort of Government support. High rents in insecure housing, with poor living conditions, put millions of people in debt just when their income fell. Local authorities did all they could to support people in challenging living situations throughout the pandemic. The Government promised to do whatever was necessary—whatever it takes. How often did we hear that phrase? They said they would support councils during the pandemic. I am afraid to say that the Prime Minister has not kept to that promise. His council tax hike is an example of that.
We need a vision for our country. We need a vision that is better than what we had when we went into 2020. It is unacceptable that we came into the pandemic with so many people exposed through overcrowded housing. It would be unforgivable if the Government did not learn from this and rebuild better, but the only references to housing in the Budget speech were about a stamp duty holiday and 95% mortgage schemes. These short-sighted interventions do nothing to build the kind of good quality, truly affordable homes that we need to tackle overcrowding, and also to boost jobs and growth. There was no mention of the massive increases in council housing that we need now to deal with overcrowding. There was nothing about dealing with the crisis in the private rented sector, with so many people struggling with drops in income as a result of the crisis, and nothing to create more truly affordable homes. Proposed changes to permitted development will only make it worse. A Government-sponsored review of permitted development found that it leads to a higher risk of overcrowding—a Government-sponsored review.
As we all know, overcrowding causes both physical and mental health problems. That situation has been getting worse rapidly over the last few years and now we are in a health crisis, so there is also a cost to the NHS—a significant cost. As the Government have failed to deal with the gaps in financial support or the impact of a flawed universal credit system, too many families have been forced into arrears this year. The fear of losing their home and increased debt has pushed many into overcrowded conditions.
Decent, affordable, warm, healthy, net zero carbon homes should not be too much to ask for everyone in this country at any time. Covid has shown up starkly not only that that does not happen, but what happens as a consequence when such homes are treated as optional by the Government.
The then Children’s Commissioner wrote to the Secretary of State one year ago:
“The government needs to provide local authorities with the resources to source these homes and combined with a clear expectation that homes need to be sourced quickly. I would like to see this combined with clear messaging to landlords: co-operate or the government will act. It would be a particular disgrace to have closed down apartments – many run by businesses which will be receiving government funds in the next few months – while close by families are homeless. I would urge you to commit that any hotel or property business receiving government support, or wage subsidies, in the next few months will have to commit to housing families at cost. If local authorities are supported by the government with both resourcing and clear messaging I believe we can get these families a decent home to call their own – at least for the next four months.”
Those were the words of Anne Longfield a year ago.
In December, the Woman and Equalities Committee said:
“The guidance that the Government has produced for those in overcrowded housing is substandard. There was no clear guidance in one place from the Government on how to overcome the practical challenges of living in overcrowded, and in some cases multigenerational, accommodation. This continues to be the case nine months after the country first entered lockdown. We recommend that the Government should, within the next four weeks”—
bear in mind, this was in December—
“publish clear, culturally competent guidance with practical recommendations on how to self-isolate for people living in overcrowded, and/or multi-generational, accommodation…We further recommend that the Government by the end of summer 2021 produce a strategy to reduce overcrowding due to its poor health impacts.”
Just today, the Minister has produced guidance on overcrowding and covid. I am not surprised, but I am saddened, to see that the Government’s emphasis is solely on what individuals need to do—individuals forced to live in overcrowded accommodation. That reflects the answers to other parliamentary questions. There is no sign of any Government strategy.
The Confederation of British Industry, the Local Government Association, trade unions, the Church of England, housing and homelessness charities, numerous think-tanks and other specialists all agree that we need massive increases in publicly owned, truly affordable housing. Why do the Government not believe in that? Where was that in the Budget last week? It would boost the economy and give us jobs that we really need—good, secure jobs—as well as dramatically improving living conditions, education and the health of hundreds of thousands of our citizens.
I ask the Minister: why have the Government not taken a public health response to overcrowding in housing? How and when are they going to do so? Does he acknowledge that allowing a large number of people, including children, to live in overcrowded and unhealthy accommodation is detrimental to their health, education and socialisation? Does he agree with the former Children’s Commissioner when she challenged the Secretary of State at the start of the crisis or not? If not, why? If he does, what plans does he have to meet some or all of her recommendations now? It is not too late.
Has the Minister read the briefings from the Resolution Foundation that were published last July? What lessons does he intend to take from them? Has he met the foundation? Has he read the report by the Women and Equalities Committee? Has he discussed it with the Chair? How will he implement the recommendations, and on what timescale? Will he commit to the timescale recommended by the Committee—the end of summer this year—for a clear strategy? Will he consider asking the Office for National Statistics to collect data on overcrowding, because we do not have the data that we really need?
Will the Minister acknowledge that if the Government want to solve that problem, they have to ensure that there is a massive increase in truly affordable and secure council and housing association homes? Will he address directly the young person whom my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham quoted at the start of his speech? Will the Minister explain directly to that young person why the Government have not acted for her so far? My right hon. Friend is correct: now is the time for a moral imperative to ensure that there is decent housing. Everyone should have a decent home. The covid crisis has reinforced that, and the Government must commit to end overcrowding and do it today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, not least because, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, this is my first debate as Minister. It will possibly be more memorable for me than for you. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing the debate and other hon. Members for their important contributions to it.
Covid-19 has brought unprecedented changes in how we live and work, with people’s experience of their housing conditions brought into strong focus as never before. Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided unprecedented economic support for households and businesses up and down the country. In the Budget, the Chancellor set out a £65 billion three-point plan to support jobs and businesses as we emerge from the pandemic and forge our recovery. Housing is a key part of that picture, from protecting tenants and landlords to ensuring that our house building sector remains open and active.
For many people, the pandemic has been made tolerable, at least, by a good home and garden shared with the people they care about, but for too many people—examples were movingly set out by the right hon. Member for East Ham—in cramped and substandard accommodation, or unable to walk to shops, green spaces or services, their experience of the pandemic was exacerbated by their housing conditions. Spacious, well-equipped homes that offer green space and access to vital amenities must be the standard if we are to recover from the social as well as the economic effects of covid.
As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the evidence suggests that housing conditions can play a role in the transmission of the virus and in people’s ability to self-isolate safely, including those living in overcrowded conditions and multi-generational households. We know that black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions and are disproportionately impacted by the transmission of the virus. The Government are hugely grateful for all the research that has been undertaken—by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Public Health England and the Women and Equalities Committee—which demonstrates that. The Government are absolutely steadfast in our determination to make the housing system work for everyone, including by tackling overcrowding and supporting vulnerable people to live in safe and decent homes.
Members have rightly spoken today about the prevalence of overcrowding. Between 2019 and 2020, as the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, the recorded state of overcrowding across all tenures in England was 4%, and that rate requires action. In many parts of the country, including in the constituency of the right hon. Member for East Ham, the situation is far worse. Newham has the highest level of household overcrowding in England, with 28,000 households on the waiting list in the overcrowding “reasonable preference” category, as of 31 March last year. We know that for some of those people in substandard housing conditions—especially in built-up areas with high deprivation, such as Newham—the pandemic has been particularly difficult.
The Government have responded at pace since the onset of the pandemic to provide a range of guidance to support and advise people who live in poor housing conditions, including overcrowded housing. We have kept our guidance under continual review in response to the latest available evidence, stressing the importance of ventilation and cleaning. We have made information available on people’s rights as tenants, and on how to work with landlords and local authorities to address hazardous issues.
I believe that our measures are the right ones. Where vulnerable tenants are living in overcrowded accommodation, local authorities can use their enforcement powers to require a landlord to remedy a serious overcrowding hazard. For shared houses and flats occupied by people who are not related—homes in multiple occupation—the Government have clarified the minimum room sizes in shared accommodation, making it illegal for landlords to let out a bedroom that is smaller than 6.51 square metres to one person.
HMOs are at increased risk of overcrowding, and the occupiers are likely to be vulnerable. That is why we require that all larger HMOs—those with five or more tenants—must be licensed with their local council. Under the HMO licensing scheme, a local authority can set conditions that landlords must follow to improve the quality of the accommodation, and the local authority has the power to inspect properties without notice and order improvements to conditions and any health hazards, including gas and electrical safety.
We are determined to crack down on the smaller number of unscrupulous landlords who neglect their properties and exploit their tenants. We want such landlords either to improve the service that they offer, or to leave the business. This is why we have strengthened local authority enforcement powers, introducing financial penalties of up to £30,000 and extended rent repayment orders for landlords and agents who break the rules, with banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders.
Local authorities also have a duty to take enforcement action if they find seriously hazardous conditions. That is why we are overhauling and simplifying the housing health safety rating system, which is the tool used to assess hazardous conditions in rented homes. If a HHSRS assessment identifies a serious hazard, which includes overcrowding, the local council must take enforcement action against the landlord. That includes banning orders for the worst offenders, and it applies to all privately rented properties. We also brought forward legislation on letting homes fit for human habitation, empowering tenants to take their own action against landlords who let unfit properties.
The Government are already doing things to tackle overcrowding, not least with our substantial investment in new house building. The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of points in his speech, and I will cover some of them. He asked if we expect a new wave of investment in social house building. We need house building of all tenures, and the Government have demonstrated their commitment to increasing the affordable housing supply. We are investing more than £12 billion in affordable housing over five years—the largest investment for a decade. That includes the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme, which will provide up to 180,000 homes across the country; and a further £9 billion for the shared ownership and affordable homes programme, running to 2023, which will deliver 250,000 new affordable homes. The affordable homes programme will deliver more than double the social rent of the current programme, with around 32,000 social rented properties due to be delivered
Are the Government committed to co-ownership—to helping those who want co-ownership homes, and supporting the building projects? The co-ownership scheme enables people who have maybe 50% of the value, or a small portion of it, to get a home earlier. Are the Government committed to that?
I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific scheme that he is talking about. The Government are certainly aiming to do things to help people. For example, we have 95% mortgages to make sure more people have the opportunity to buy their own home. I will come back to him on the scheme that he mentioned.
The right hon. Member for East Ham asked about prioritising the building of three-bed properties and above. When the national planning policy framework was revised in July 2018, it set an expectation that local planning authorities must put in place planning policies that identify the size, type and tenure of homes required for different groups in the community. We have not changed that, and we would therefore expect it to be a key consideration when planning housing at a local level.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about local housing allowance. During the pandemic, the Government increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile, which meant that 1.5 million people were able to access that additional payment, which averaged £600 annually.
I appreciate that we are unrelentingly miserable in our stories about our constituents’ terrible housing circumstances, but will the Minister join me in thanking Channel 4 and journalist Jackie Long for helping one of my families? Jackie Long visited my constituent, who was going out to be a carer, to see the circumstances in which she was living during the lockdown—in one room with her son. Jackie Long and the viewers were so moved by my constituent’s story that they collected a deposit, and that woman is now in a flat of her own with her son.
I will move quickly.
We welcome the report from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission, and we will continue to work with all organisations, such as the Church of England, to develop affordable housing programmes. The Government are reviewing our own land ownership to ensure that it is put to good use.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned people in temporary accommodation who have not registered with their GP for a vaccine. I urge them to do so urgently. We are doing great work to ensure homeless people have access to the vaccine across the country, and I want to ensure that those in temporary accommodation have access. Regarding the invitation to her advice surgery, I have good examples in my own constituency of cases such as the ones she raised.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind comments at the start. I was lucky enough to attend a number of meetings of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings, and I value the great work it does.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned a social house building programme. As I said earlier, I feel that the Government are already committed to a strong investment in building houses of all types and tenures.
The hon. Member for Bristol West mentioned the idea of the Government doing whatever it takes. I feel that councils up and down the country will be incredibly grateful for the investment that this Government have made—we have provided un-ring-fenced money for councils to use at their own discretion. Finally, we have the £50 million social housing decarbonisation fund through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which will be looking at ways of not just decarbonising social housing, but reducing the cost of fuel and therefore fuel poverty.
I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a characteristically powerful contribution, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am grateful to them both, and to the Front Benchers.
The real housing crisis is about people trapped at the bottom end of the rental market, paying unaffordable rents in overcrowded, inadequate homes. As we have been reminded, there was absolutely nothing in the Budget to help. It may well be, as it was in the 1960s, that we have to wait for a Labour Government, and for my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) to become the housing Secretary, for us to get the programme of investment that we need.
I would just say to the Minister, as he takes up his role—I know that he is very enthusiastic—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).