Tuesday 25 May 2021
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
Oral Health and Dentistry: England
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered oral health and dentistry in England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I was compelled to call for this debate after an NHS 111 call handler contacted me to describe the hardship that they experienced in trying to get patients in severe pain emergency dental appointments—too often without any success. Dental practitioners and lab technicians have also approached me, detailing the many obstacles in their profession that are preventing them from giving the care that they so desperately want to give their patients. The different perspectives make it blatantly clear that dentistry in this country is in crisis and patients, including children, are not getting the care that they need.
There is a lot of work to be done to fix what has long been a broken system, so let me start with thanks to all my colleagues who are contributing to this debate and to all those organisations, including the British Dental Association, the Association of Dental Groups, the Faculty of Dental Surgery and Healthwatch, and dentists in my constituency, who not only briefed me for the debate but have been working day in, day out, for years to raise the serious issues that I will go on to mention and who have the solutions, if only the Government would listen.
I hope that the Minister will come to the table today with a response that matches the gravity of the situation, because access to dental care in England is in a parlous state. A constituent employed by the NHS 111 service first got in touch with me in September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, to tell me, in his words,
“about the woeful state of the dental service or more precisely the lack of a dental service”.
He covered Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex, but was aware that his comments applied nationwide. He told me that he spent the majority of his day speaking to people who were literally crying out for an appointment and even emergency treatment, but he had absolutely nothing to offer them. He told me that if someone is lucky and already registered with a dentist, they might be offered an appointment at some future date, often weeks in advance, but if not, they had no chance of being taken on. He said that that applied to everyone, including children and pregnant women. That was of course during lockdown, but many of the barriers to finding appointments persist.
I contacted the constituent again in February and he told me that, if anything, the situation was worse. He worked almost exclusively on dental calls; they were coming in relentlessly. He described it as a Catch-22 situation. If people are not registered at a practice, NHS 111, virtually without exception, can only tell the callers that practice books are closed to new NHS patients for the foreseeable future. If a patient is registered, they will be told that their practice cannot offer treatment—often for weeks ahead. Let us remember that patients call 111 only as a last resort and are mostly in considerable distress. They mistakenly believe that the NHS runs the dental service, and have nowhere else to go. Many turn up at A&E in desperation, which only adds to the pressure on NHS hospitals which do not have the capacity, expertise or tools to fix dental problems.
My constituent told me it was heart-wrenching to have to listen to these calls for six hours a day. Last week, when I asked for his permission to raise his concerns in this debate, he told me that
“there is real anger and desperation brewing.”
I hope that the Minister is listening carefully to my constituent’s experience, because this is the situation on the ground. I am sorry to say that he has now decided that enough is enough—he will leave his role because he says he
“can see no possibility of any improvement this year.”
NHS dentistry is facing an unprecedented backlog in care that will take years to clear. The BDA estimates that a staggering 30 million NHS dental appointments have been lost since the start of the pandemic, and a report published yesterday by Healthwatch found that 80% of people struggled to access timely care during lockdown.
Even before the pandemic, only enough NHS dentistry to cover just over half of England’s population was commissioned. Over a quarter of people either struggle to or cannot pay, so they avoid dental treatment altogether. Capacity is severely limited by infection control measures, and access problems have now reached an unprecedented scale in every community, with deep existing inequalities set to widen even further.
If the Government are serious about levelling up, tackling health inequalities needs to be at the top of the agenda. Healthwatch found that, among people living in the north-east of England, those on low incomes and ethnic minority groups were hardest hit by the twin crises of access and affordability.
The Care Quality Commission’s “COVID-19 Insight: Issue 10” report published last week rightly questions whether enough NHS dental capacity is being commissioned, and challenges NHS policy leaders to deal with the demand and ensure that everyone—especially the most vulnerable—has equal access to NHS care.
The system has long suffered from chronic underfunding. Even if you factor in the income from patient charges, which have been increased by an inflation-busting 5% in each of the last five years, the total NHS dental budget was lower in cash terms just before the pandemic than it was when Labour left power in 2010.
The dental contract introduced in 2006 is structured with ridiculous, counterproductive targets which do not make things any easier. Totally discredited and unfit for purpose, it is incompatible with providing safe and sustainable services for patients, both during and after the pandemic, and must be reformed. The peculiar Units of Dental Activity system effectively caps the number of patients a dentist can see on the NHS and actively disincentivises dentists from taking on new NHS patients, especially in poorer areas where a new patient is more likely to have large, unmet dental care needs.
I am grateful to the Parliamentary Engagement team, who ran a survey in relation to this debate. When asked what key changes would enhance their ability to do their job every single respondent, 78% of whom were oral health professionals, wanted to abolish what one described as
“the aberration that is the UDA system.”
Another said that they would have no problem committing to provide 100% NHS dentistry if they were paid for the work they did. However, under the current system, a root canal treatment—which can take up to three hours of highly technical and skilled work—is renumerated the same as a little filling that may take 30 seconds to place.
Why can the Government not understand that a work- force work best when they are respected and incentivised? We need to get more patients through dentists’ doors, but aggressive and punitive activity targets are not the way to go about this. The targets have been the driving factor behind the recruitment and retention crisis in NHS dentistry. While the Minister is keen to point out that the headcount of dentists providing NHS services has been pretty stable, when dentists need to do only an hour of NHS work a week to be considered an NHS dentist, that is meaningless smoke and mirrors.
In reality, many dentists have been reducing the NHS work they do, and the Minister’s written answer last week revealed that the number of practices providing NHS dentistry in England fell by 1,253 between 2015 and 2020. As in other parts of the NHS, the pandemic has brutally compounded the pre-existing problems in the dental system.
I appreciated and welcomed the Government’s support for NHS dentistry in the early stages of the pandemic. The Minister quite rightly decided to pay dentists their historical contract values when they were told to close their doors to patients in the first lockdown. After dental practices reopened last summer, dentists were asked to work their way through the backlog, prioritising patients on the basis of need, instead of focusing on delivering units of dental activity.
Just before Christmas, however, the Government changed course. Despite standard operating procedure continuing to severely limit the number of patients that can be seen safely, the Government expected dentists in England to deliver 45% of their historical activity between January and March or face financial penalties. This target was further increased to 60% in April. The BDA members survey suggests that a large proportion of dentists managed to meet the target only by taking extraordinary measures, such as cancelling all annual leave and working beyond their contracted opening hours—all of this while working many hours a day in heavy-duty personal protective equipment.
Dentists in my constituency tell me the same story: the situation is not sustainable. To put this in context, the Labour Government in Wales have not introduced any such targets, recognising that chasing activity measures is good for neither patients nor dentists in the context of a pandemic. I would welcome the Minister’s explanation of the extreme difference in approach between England and the rest of the UK, and I urge her to follow the lead of the Administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland, who have committed capital funding towards buying high-capacity ventilation equipment, which can drastically cut down the fallow time required between treatments. This sensible investment allows dentists to see more patients safely and will pay for itself in increased patient charge revenue.
Morale in the profession is at an all-time low, and there is a real danger that the pressures will turbocharge the flight of dentists from the NHS, driving them into private dentistry or early retirement, and making the problems with access for patients a permanent feature of our dental health service. That is on top of the significant loss of overseas dentists as a result of Brexit. The backlog created by the pandemic cannot be tackled if we have no workforce left to do it. Dental practitioners must urgently be added to the shortage occupation list. I hope that the Minister will outline the Government’s road map out of the current high-intensity infection prevention and control measures.
There can be no more kicking the can down the road when it comes to contract reform. It is now a matter of urgency. I would welcome the Minister’s assurances that the new system will be rolled out more quickly, and certainly without any further delays, and that it will decisively break with the discredited units of dental activity and instead prioritise increasing access for patients, and prevention. It is vital that the Government seriously invest in preventive measures.
Oral health is an essential precondition and indicator of overall health, and it deserves to be given priority in our health system. One in eight children in Bedford has obvious tooth decay by the time they are three, and the figure rises to one in five by the time they turn five. The Government are letting children down. In the year before the pandemic, over 23,000 children between five and nine were admitted to hospital because they had tooth decay. It is absolutely shameful that a completely preventable disease continues to be the No. 1 reason why young children in England are admitted to hospital. In the last five years, 540 children in Bedford have been admitted to hospital for tooth extractions, wasting over £500,000 of precious NHS resources just in our town, as well as causing pain and stress.
Procedures under a general anaesthetic are another area of dentistry where the pandemic has taken a heavy toll. They are often necessary in children with extensive decay and adults with special needs, and waiting times were very long even before the pandemic, with patients often waiting in excess of a year. The suspension of most non-urgent surgeries has left tens of thousands of patients in pain for months, with some taking huge amounts of painkillers or resorting to do-it-yourself interventions or multiple rounds of avoidable antibiotics while they wait for this completely preventable surgery.
I welcome the plans to legislate to recentralise water fluoridation as a preventive measure, but would welcome assurances that changes to the legal framework will be accompanied by proper funding, otherwise it will be meaningless. Water fluoridation is highly effective, but it will take years before we see its effects, so proper investment in preventive oral health programmes, such as supervised toothbrushing, is needed. Supervised brushing is estimated to save over £3 for each £1 invested over five years. I hope we will see a consultation and a roll-out of this sensible and highly effective intervention very soon.
Finally, I turn to the forthcoming health and social care Bill. Beyond the measures on fluoridation, the White Paper barely mentions dentistry at all. I hope to hear a commitment today that dental services will be properly represented in the governance structures of the integrated care systems, and that the changes to commissioning structures—and particularly any possible pooling of primary care budgets—do not result in further cuts to dental budgets.
I am delighted to serve under your guidance, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on obtaining this debate. His speech was a barrage of negativity, and it is not all negativity in this field. I am a practising dentist—part-time at the moment; very little. I am a member of the British Academy for Cosmetic Dentistry, the British Fluoridation Society and the British Endodontic Society. That is wet-finger dentistry, though in a glove.
For decades, the dental profession, especially NHS dentists, has felt that dentistry as a health service has, as far as the Department is concerned, been seen as a Cinderella service, or an expensive minefield, or both. This has gone on for decades under Governments of various and even mixed complexions. However, I believe this has markedly improved with my hon. Friend the Minister and the current chief dental officer. There has been a visible change of attitude. Both ladies recognise the importance of improving the oral health of the nation and of the status of dentistry as a health service. To use the chief dental officer’s banner statement, at last
“Putting the mouth back in the body”.
Covid has had a dramatic effect on the ability to provide dental services, whether NHS or private. Waiting lists for all dental patients have dramatically exacerbated, and we have just heard a tirade on this. Covid meant that for a period all dental surgeries were closed. Only emergency services and specialised clinics were open. When the surgeries were permitted to start resuming covid protection, actions such as furloughed time, PPE and so on added to the delays, complications and diminished throughput. Clinical teaching of final year students was diminished, such that there is doubt that some of them are ready to graduate.
All the dental team should have been double vaccinated by now, whether private, mixed practices or NHS. The R factor is going down. An increasing proportion of patients have been vaccinated. Dentists are following a careful triage system. Deaths are down, hospitalisations are down and the 21 June release is still on, we hope.
My hon. Friend the Minister can see my request coming like a big balloon because I have already discussed it with her. The time has come for a road map to release dentists from PPE and all the restrictions. We need a return to the pre-covid treatment of patients and we need SAGE to look at it and get on with it. That will be the biggest single action in enabling dentists to get this backlog into line.
My second wish is a push at an open door with the Minister. Dental care is preventable, but while there has been progress, we are badly behind, especially in caries prevention for children. Pre-pandemic, these children occupied 177 clinical general anaesthetic extraction cases in hospital—a complete waste of our services. The latest figure that I have seen is that 23,529 children between the ages of five and nine were admitted to hospital because they had tooth decay.
I first started practising dentistry in a deprived area in east London. The state of dentition there shocked me, especially the state of children’s dentition. It was not the deprivation that caused the poor dentition; it was the diet and the almost complete lack of oral hygiene. Put simply, kids and parents did not toothbrush. Some parents did not even know that toothbrushes existed. And if you went into the supermarket, the shelves were packed with biscuits and cakes, whereas there was little meat or vegetables; go to less deprived areas and it is the other way round. So, it is not the deprivation; it is the shoppers—the parents.
The Minister will know where I am going with this. She and the chief dental officer are already embarking on teaching children in teams throughout the country to brush their teeth. Coincidental with this, most children are accompanied by their parents, some of whom are stunned to see this little thing called a toothbrush. But the message is getting through; as the hon. Member for Bedford said, we are starting to get some progress, and it is happening quite quickly.
As I have said, tooth decay is essentially highly preventable. Water fluoridation is the single most effective public measure that could be taken to prevent tooth decay. At the moment, implementation of fluoridation is in the power of local authorities. Little progress has been made. We lag behind every other western nation. Most of our western nation comparators have a fluoridation rate of domestic water supplies of between 60% and 80%, but we have a rate of only 10%. It is the system; the costs are to the local authorities and the cost-benefits are to the national health service.
The process of consultation over fluoridation is lengthy and tedious, and it is providing a platform for protesters of the same type as the anti-vaccination people. Some of the things that they say are quite extraordinary. I had to listen to a man explaining to me that he had done some research. He said that he had been to a town with young people and no fluoride, and to a town with older people with fluoride, and the venereal disease rate in the town with young people was higher than that in the town with older people. Therefore, according to him, if we put fluoride into the water supply, people got venereal disease. And to my astonishment, there were other people there who actually believed that nonsense.
To make a more practical point, there are considerable difficulties for both local authorities and water companies, in that their boundaries are rarely, if ever, coterminous. So, it makes eminent sense for the implementation process for the new schemes of fluoridation to be put in the hands of central Government and driven by central Government, which is the Minister’s proposal.
In doing so, however, I hope that the Government will curtail the procedures on consultation. In every period of consultation, in every place of consultation, the same thing is said by the same people, and I believe that the same nutters come out. If we continue with that process, we will have a repetition of the scaremongering stories from people who are basically cranks.
The safety, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and benefit of fluoride in water supplies, whether it is achieved naturally —as is the case in many parts of the world—or artificially, is proven to be workable and to achieve dramatic reductions in tooth decay. With this proposed step and the Government’s determination, rather than our lagging behind the rest of the world we could actually lead, and I hope that we move to do so.
Thank you very much, Ms Bardell, for your chairmanship today.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on securing this timely debate. Like others who have spoken, I have heard countless stories from my constituents in Norwich South that show the very human cost of chronic and long-term underfunding of NHS England services. What I have heard has led me to conclude that the state of NHS England’s dental services can only be described as a scandal. Simply put, this is a service that is broken.
Many constituents now face insurmountable barriers to accessing basic healthcare. They face extreme delays in getting an appointment, if they can secure one at all. They are then faced with prohibitive treatment costs, even for NHS services, which some simply cannot afford. Constituents tell me it is impossible to get an appointment, let alone with an NHS dentist, and that they have been turned away despite being in pain.
One constituent had dental treatment delayed by a year; others had treatment cancelled, only for their oral health to deteriorate. Some constituents tell me that when they do manage to get an appointment, sometimes after weeks or months of waiting, they are told that the treatment they need can be done only at a private clinic, at a cost of thousands of pounds, which they simply do not have.
Delays, cancelled appointments and treatments so expensive that they are unattainable lead to agony, disfigurement and a range of other healthcare problems. Someone with a business in my constituency was forced to pull out 18 of his teeth when receding gums had left him in agony and the broken dental care system left him no other options. Perhaps the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) would like to tell that businessman that his agony is his own fault and due to his diet. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman change his dental bedside manner when talking to patients, because I do not think that patient would agree that the situation was entirely on his own head, given that he could not receive timely treatment from the NHS.
Scandalously, my constituents’ experience, far from being exceptional, is reflected up and down the country. Yesterday, Healthwatch England said that people are faced with a wait of up to three years for dental appointments. Four in five people are struggling to access timely care. Even when they get an appointment, a staggering 61% find treatment too expensive. Who is bearing the burden of this chronic Government failure to provide healthcare for all? Surprise, surprise: it is, as ever, those on low incomes and from ethnic minority groups who are affected the most by the lack of appointments and the soaring costs for treatment.
Healthwatch England revealed that almost twice as many people from lower socioeconomic groups struggle or cannot afford to pay NHS dental charges as those from higher socioeconomic groups. The cause of this crisis is no secret. NHS dental services, as is the case with our public health service at large, are chronically underfunded by the Government.
No doubt the Minister will reel off a long list of figures about how much the Government are spending on dentistry, but the reality speaks for itself. According to the British Dental Association, NHS general dental practice is already the only part of NHS England operating on a lower budget in cash terms than in 2010. That means that in real terms, net Government spending on general dental practice in England has been cut by more than a third in the last decade. Those problems are set to get worse. According to the British Dental Association, around a quarter of dentists plan to stop providing NHS services and move to fully private provision. More than a third plan a career change or early retirement in the next 12 months.
I will finish by stating the obvious. Dental care is healthcare. If my constituents cannot access the healthcare they need when they need it, I am afraid that we have a national health service in name only. We must not forget that it is the principles of care and universalism that make so many people rightfully proud and defensive of the NHS. The Government must not continue to treat dentistry and oral health as an afterthought, or as a service that can be quietly privatised. It is part and parcel of preventive healthcare, a building block in a society that values wellbeing.
Oral and dental care must be fully provided for by the NHS. In the immediate future, support must be given to practices to enable them to open safely and see more patients. Longer term, we need dentistry and oral health services to be provided equitably. The Government have an opportunity in the upcoming health and social care Bill to do just that. I hope they take that opportunity, for the sake of my constituents and many others around England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and I thank the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for organising the debate. The Minister knows that I have spoken on these dentistry issues on several occasions, and I have written to her as well. As discussed with the Minister, I will be writing to the Treasury on these issues this week, because the Minister is a champion of public health, dentistry, pharmacy and other issues, as she rightly points out, but there is a cash problem here as well. I am aware that she is doing her best in difficult circumstances, and covid presents a unique set of circumstances. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that we are seeing an improvement under the Minister—or we should see an improvement once covid gets lifted.
Islanders are facing issues, however, in relation to dentistry. It is, frankly, just very difficult—nig,h-on impossible in some parts of the Isle of Wight—for families to find an NHS dentist. I thank the Minister for the extra money to soak up some of the outstanding appointments, but that money was reasonably limited and it went very quickly. Some Islanders who are getting a new dentist are now having to go to the mainland for treatment. That is incredibly inconvenient, especially given that, with the most expensive ferries in the world, some kids on the Island have never seen a dentist in their life.
The Healthwatch England report found that 7 in 10 people find it difficult to access an NHS dentist. The same body published data in 2019 showing that 85% of dental practices across the country were closed to new patients. That is absolutely reflected in my constituency. As well as the inconvenience and the damage to the nation’s dental health, it will cause us problems in the longer term, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley. That is because we know that there will be a significant rise, potentially, in cancer cases: one of the side effects of a lack of dental appointments is that we will not be able to spot cancers like mouth cancer, and ill health, when they show themselves in people’s mouths. We know, also, that gum disease is associated with heart disease, so there is a knock-on effect on other bits of the health service.
As I have discussed with the Minister, my worry is that—as with pharmacies—because we have a cash-flow problem in these areas, that problem will exhibit itself as greater, and frankly more expensive, problems further down the line. Dental practices were clearly facing issues before covid. The challenge is, in part, a workforce one. The British Dental Association found that 75% of dental practices are struggling to fill vacancies. Over half of newly-qualified NHS dentists under 35 are thinking of leaving the NHS in the next five years, with many going into private practice. It is good that they are staying in dentistry but bad that they are leaving the NHS, because the NHS is where we now need the acute dentistry support.
Dental schools are not producing enough dentists. The nearest dental school to us is in Portsmouth. These problems seem to be exacerbated in coastal, rural, isolated areas. We are isolated by being cut off from the mainland by the Solent, and we are also coastal and pretty rural. We are experiencing these factors on the Island more, arguably, than many other parts of Britain. We also have an issue on the Island with dentists retiring or leaving early, and that is specifically the case among several of them. That will put our system under even greater threat, not only for NHS dentists but also specialists working in dental labs on the Island and indeed elsewhere. I have talked about that on numerous occasions.
There is no easy fix to these problems, but there are some potentially reasonably quick wins. I want to mention a few now, to see if I can interest the Minister in them. The initiation of a dental training scheme on the Island would be incredibly helpful and would deal with one specific hotspot. If someone trains here on the Island, there is nothing to stop them then going back to the mainland, so we would not only be training dentists for the Isle of Wight—it would be good if we were—but if we have an overflow of dentists there is no reason why they cannot go back to the mainland after their training.
Can we have a simplification of the process for qualifying as a training practice, and then a boost to the funding for interns’ salaries? We are not talking about significant amounts of money here, but these measures will pay dividends in the long run. According to people who are clearly much more expert on these matters than I am, it is important to make changes to the contracts to incentivise remaining in the NHS. It is also important to separate laboratory fees from dental fees, which will help laboratories to survive as well.
Finally, on fluoridation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley raised, I think this is a no-brainer. It is very difficult to make a case against it. The Minister was kind enough to grab coffee with me, last week or the week before, to talk about public health schemes. If he is looking for a test case, fluoridation is a scheme that could be very easily introduced to a large area of the UK that is highly measurable because it is separated by sea from the mainland—clearly I am talking about my constituency. We are self-contained and have only one local authority and one water authority to deal with, so if there was a desire to introduce another fluoridation pilot scheme or pilot a roll-out, that could be done very successfully on the Island. Given that we are seeing dental problems and have a shortage of dentists on the Island, may I respectfully suggest, if there is to be a move to fluoridation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley rightly suggested, that it please start where it is arguably most needed—on the Isle of Wight?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on securing this important debate.
As the Minister knows all too well, I have spoken on this issue many times in this place, but the problems facing NHS dentistry have never been more serious or the need for action more pressing. The flurry of reports and media coverage in the past couple of days confirms the urgency of the crisis before us. Last week’s Insight report from the Care Quality Commission questioned whether enough NHS dental capacity is commissioned, and challenged commissioners to ensure that everyone, especially those who are vulnerable, have access to NHS dental care.
Yesterday’s report by Healthwatch England stressed that the dental crisis shows no signs of slowing and rightly called for a radical rethink of NHS dentistry and a rapid, radical reform of the way that dentistry is commissioned and provided. Today’s analysis by the British Dental Association warns that the extreme pressures of trying to hit unrealistic activity targets and working long hours in heavy-duty PPE have led to an unprecedented crisis in morale among the dental workforce, with almost half of NHS dentists saying it is likely that they will reduce their NHS commitment or leave the profession altogether in the next 12 months. Unless we urgently act to avoid the looming exodus of dentists in the NHS, the consequences for patients will be dire.
Bradford South has faced serious challenges with access to NHS dentistry for a long time. The triple whammy of chronic underfunding, the failed dental contract and the pressures of the pandemic means that the kind of problems that we have long seen in my constituency, and West Yorkshire more widely, have now reached almost every community in England. However, I look forward to meeting the Minister and her team again to examine the data and the outcomes of the extended pilot project to increase access to dentists in Bradford.
The BDA estimates that 30 million NHS dental appointments have been lost since the start of the pandemic. That is an unprecedented backlog that would take years to clear, even under the very best of circumstances, but considering the growing crisis in access throughout the country, the Minister must do all she can to support NHS dental teams as they work to meet the extraordinary challenge. Unless we make NHS dentistry a place where people want to work, the crisis we are seeing now will become a permanent state of affairs.
First and foremost, on dental contract reform, I will not outline yet again all the reasons why the current contract needs to be abandoned. I know that I would be preaching to the converted, as the Minister and colleagues on both sides of the House agree with me on that. I welcome the Minister’s recent assurances that a reformed system might be rolled out next year. I stress that it is crucial that new contractual arrangements are rolled out no later than April 2022, as we simply do not have the luxury of more time. The issue is now so urgent that there can be no more kicking the can down the road.
It is also essential that the new system does not simply tinker around the edges of the current discredited contract. We need to see a decisive break from units of dental activity, which are completely incompatible with providing safe, sustainable services for patients as we emerge from the pandemic. The new contract must have prevention at its heart and ensure that dentistry is available to all. Secondly, we must support dentists to see as many patients as safely as they can, but in a way that is sustainable. I am sure the Minister will be telling us later how activity targets imposed by the Government in January and increased further in April have helped to improve access to NHS dentistry. I am sure that, faced with severe financial penalties, which could destabilise or even bankrupt their practice, NHS dentists have seen more patients since the targets were introduced. However, we must question at what cost—to both patients and to the workforce—these targets were met.
The BDA members’ survey indicates that more than 90% of dentists had to take extra measures to meet their targets, with large proportions forced to reduce the amount of private work they do, which, in the long term, subsidises the NHS side of their businesses. They had to cancel annual leave and work extended hours in heavy duty PPE, and I am sure that the Minister agrees that that is not sustainable in the long run and explains the rock-bottom morale of the workforce. More importantly, patients pay the price for this extreme pressure to clock units of dental activity.
Dentists report being forced to prioritise routine appointments over dealing with a huge backlog of urgent care, which is much more time consuming and complex but counts roughly towards the same target. The current 60% target in England is four times higher than the 15% dentists in Northern Ireland have been asked to deliver, and three times as high as the 20% that dentists in Scotland will be asked to deliver later this year. The Labour Government in Wales rightly recognised that targets were not the best way to support dentists in seeing more patients and did not introduce them.
Ultimately, the extreme nature of the target in England drives dentists out of the NHS. Access to dental services will be reduced permanently and it will be the patients who, in the long term, pay the price for what, in the short term, might look like a policy that benefits them. It would be much more effective and, crucially, more sustainable to follow the actions of the Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations and help dentists reduce the gaps they need to keep between patients by helping them to upgrade their ventilation equipment. Many have already done so, but nearly 70% of practices report that they now face financial barriers to further investment in this area. Can the Minister outline why England remains the only part of the UK not to even investigate the merit of providing capital investment to help increase access safely?
Can the Minister also set out her plans to change the current high-intensity infection prevention and control measures? Fallow time and having to work long hours in heavy duty PPE is exhausting and demoralising for dental staff, as well as reducing access for patients. Most colleagues have focused on high-street dentistry, but we should not forget that we are also facing a major backlog in secondary dental care services. In Bradford, almost 1,000 children under the age of 10 had to be admitted to hospital to have decayed teeth removed under general anaesthetic in 2019-20. The pandemic has certainly not reduced the need for such operations but most of those procedures have been on hold since it started. That has led potentially to tens of thousands of children and adults with special needs waiting in pain, in many cases much longer than a year. Can the Minister tell us how many are currently on the waiting list for hospital dental procedures and how she plans to tackle unacceptably long waits for those operations?
Finally, I urge the Minister not to treat dentistry as an afterthought in reforms of the healthcare system. Changes to primary care commissioning in the upcoming Health and Social Care Bill must not lead to a postcode lottery or further cuts to extremely overstretched dental budgets and dental services. They must be represented in the governance structures of the integrated care system. Beyond the measures on fluoridation, the White Paper barely mentioned dentistry at all, which, in itself, is quite telling. To turn the page on the access crisis we are currently seeing, we must finally stop treating dental services as a Cinderella service of the NHS and give it the priority it deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. My gratitude goes to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), as this debate is timely and important for all our communities. He is a long-standing champion of better public services for all.
I begin by thanking all dentists and dental staff in our country. They do a difficult job and the pandemic has made it even harder. I know from experience that the British Dental Association plays an important role in supporting the dental community and, of course, patients, and I am grateful to it. Earlier this week, there were reports in the media regarding the state of our dental industry. As ever, it is the most disadvantaged in our communities who have borne the brunt of the crisis in the sector. Healthwatch England reported that it had seen a significant rise in calls and complaints at the start of this year. The pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge, but it cannot be acceptable that in one of the richest countries in the world some people have been informed that they have to wait up to three years to see a dentist.
Shockingly, 22% of children under five in Stockport have experience of tooth decay, which compares unfavourably with the best area in England, where only 7% of children have decay. In addition, last year 300 children in Stockport had teeth extracted under a general anaesthetic in a hospital due to tooth decay. In the latest GP patient survey, 14% of adults surveyed in the Stockport clinical commissioning group area said that they had not tried to get an appointment with an NHS dentist in the past two years because they assumed that none would be available. Only 2% said that they were currently on a waiting list for an appointment. The British Dental Association has welcomed the Government’s commitment to dental contract reform, but these reforms must be meaningful. They must expand access to NHS dentists across England because private treatment is not accessible to everyone.
It is an old saying that prevention is better than cure, so these reforms must also prioritise prevention. In the past two years, 135 children were admitted to hospitals in England for extraction of decayed teeth every single day. Shockingly, this continues to be the No.1 reason for children under five being admitted to hospitals in the UK. The data tells us that supervised tooth brushing improves oral health, but also saves money in the long term. We need a dedicated funding package in England for these programmes.
As is often the case, underfunding is the basis of many long-term problems. The data on the number of practices providing NHS dentistry makes for depressing reading. The British Dental Association has reported that the number of practices providing NHS dentistry fell by more than 1,200 in the past five years. Adding the pandemic to this equation means that the nation is facing an exodus of dentists from the NHS. As I said, the upcoming reforms must be meaningful and expand access to NHS dentists across the country.
In March, I tabled three separate written parliamentary questions regarding people on waiting lists to register with an NHS dentist in Stockport, in the north-west region and in England. Unfortunately, the Minister’s answers to all my questions were the same. It is simply unacceptable that the Department of Health and Social Care does not hold this data centrally. How can we expect the Government to tackle the serious and long-term issues relating to NHS dentistry if they do not even hold the data centrally? That suggests that the Government are either not taking this crisis seriously or are woefully underprepared to tackle it.
Frustratingly, as several Members on both sides of the House have highlighted in the main Chamber, we have seen a pattern of behaviour from the Department of Health and Social Care of taking an unreasonably long time to respond to letters, queries and written parliamentary questions from MPs. That is simply not acceptable and makes our role of representing our constituents all the harder.
The Government must reform the system so that everyone has access to an NHS dentist, within a reasonable distance and timescale. We are facing a dental crisis. We must do more to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities have access to treatment and no longer face the prospect of being priced out of treatment.
Thank you, Ms Bardell, for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate with you in the Chair. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for putting the debate into context. Here I am again debating dental services with the Minister and, yet again, championing the needs of my constituents and the dentists who have worked relentlessly throughout this pandemic in extremely difficult circumstances.
York had a dental crisis before the pandemic. Constituents now tell me that they have to wait at least three years to receive NHS treatment and that those trying to register struggle or simply search for treatment outside the area. We have serious problems in York, as the Minister knows. NHS treatment needs to be available for all and, tragically, it is not. Many are now turning to accident and emergency services to get pain relief or a course of antibiotics. Private care is not an option, nor should it ever be.
Successive Ministers have failed to address this crisis. This month, the Minister was unable to tell me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) has said, how many NHS dentists there are in my city. The fact that she does not have that basic data gives me little hope that the Government have really got a grip on the scale of this crisis and the needs that must be addressed.
It is perplexing that oral health is seen to be different from other areas of healthcare, and that we have to pay for things that are done to our mouths but not to the rest of our bodies. It did not start that way. When Nye Bevan established the NHS, dentistry was free at the point of need and everyone was entitled to have their check-ups and treatment on the NHS. It was transformative. In 1951, the first assault on our NHS occurred when charges were introduced. That caused Bevan to resign in disgust, and sadly since then the divorcing of oral health from the rest of medical care has failed to serve us well.
Evidence from the BDA—I thank it for the work it does—shows that the pattern of health inequalities in other areas of healthcare is reflected in dentistry and oral healthcare, so it is time for integration, not segregation. Although I understand the point that the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made, he did not suggest a solution. Of course, we need to ensure that good-quality, healthy food is available for all, particularly those living in deprivation, but it is wrong to blame those individuals for their lack of choice due to their financial circumstances.
This patchwork of failed contracts has courted privatisation and created a dependency on labour from other countries which, simultaneously, this Government are spurning. In the past year, I have been on a journey with many of York’s dentists to learn why, unless we see radical change to the delivery of dental services, the system will collapse. Dentists will burn out or leave—indeed, they are doing so as we speak—and the nation’s oral hygiene will deteriorate further. Even during the pandemic, dentists have been told that they will be penalised if they fail to deliver unrealistic contractual targets while practising in a covid-risk environment.
The NHS dental contract fails to pay. The Minister sets unrealistic targets—units of dental activity—without consideration of the scale of the barriers that dentistry is facing, and without providing mitigation. Ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland seem to have understood that, but this Minister has not. In a post-covid world, and against a backlog of more than 20 million appointments—think about the scale of that; we are rightly exercised by the 5 million outstanding secondary-care appointments that we are having to grapple with at the moment—it is baffling that the Government have failed to grip the scale of this deepening crisis and have not instituted an emergency service.
The tightening of the thumbscrews on dentists through their contracts shows no mercy, despite their call for ventilation equipment funding, high-grade PPE and an understanding that requiring treatment rooms to lay fallow before a deep clean can commence due to the aerosol- generating procedures eats into dentists’ ability to deliver their contract obligations. The arbitrary, unevidenced targets require dentists to work round the clock, cancel leave and often their whole lives. They force dentists to focus on high-volume, low-risk work such as check-ups, while patients requiring treatment, not least complex treatment, are made to wait. It is unethical and wrong.
To top it all, the Government’s net spend on dental services, as we have heard, has been cut by more than a third in the past decade. Evidence shows that every pound invested can save over three, as well as teeth. This is the moment to start again, and I am glad the Minister is in listening mode. We have the diagnosis. We know the problems and the scale of the challenge. It is not time to tweak locum contracts or drive our dental staff harder. It is time to get a real, pragmatic solution in place. There is an opportunity to legislate for a national dental service in the forthcoming health and care Bill to solve this problem.
Oral health should be seen as a public health matter. It should attract the planning and preventive approach that any other public health emergency would. Fluoridation, as we have heard, is a no-brainer and brings universal benefits. I urge the Minister to introduce that without delay and end the postcode lottery. A principle needs to be made that everyone should be able to receive free oral health at the point of need—no barriers, and no excuses. Good oral health has to be accessible for all—nationally determined on the what, and locally determined on the how. We need to increase significantly the number of training places for dentists in the UK and ensure that the benefit they gain from training is tied in with their commitment to serve in a national dental service under NHS terms. Training bonds are not unique, and they ensure reciprocity. Therefore, they will bring real benefit to the service. What plans has the Minister executed in order to train more dental staff and ensure that we have sufficient numbers in our dental schools? What discussions are taking place? We would like to know.
Delivery is something that this pandemic has taught us all about. We need a collaborative approach—a place-based system approach—to ensure that we address the scale of the issues. The vaccine programme has settled the debate about emergency provision once and for all, and we are in that space now with dental care. Every child and young person should be able to access dental inspections in school each year, and this should be routine from when children start school. Early prevention would not only save the NHS a lot of money; it would also save children a lot of trauma.
Similar plans could be put in place for care homes. For adults, an accessible check-up service would clear the backlog and enable cases to be triaged, population-wide, into treatment. For some people, light treatment could be provided simultaneously, with more complex cases referred to a booking system.
As we have seen with this pandemic, there are collaborative ways to address health crises. A place-based approach, whereby barriers can be removed, can be enabled to provide the solutions. Rather than struggling to design ever-more challenging contracts and systems to serve a fair model, the Minister could create a national dental service and use this framework to work with local delivery partners. In a matter of months, she could start turning this vital service around for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on securing this hugely important and timely debate. It is certainly very important for my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields.
I sponsored a Back-Bench debate on this topic back in January, and here we are again. In that debate, there was real agreement from Members from different parties that there was an impending crisis facing UK dentistry, and that the actions that needed to be taken to avoid it were clear, yet the crisis remains. Patients in my constituency and across the country still have huge concerns about accessing dentistry and getting the care that they need.
Not enough action is being taken, so the Government should not have been surprised to wake up and find this morning’s front pages covered in reports of a three-year waiting list for some patients to see an NHS dentist. According to a new survey of dentists in England, nearly half indicate that they are now likely to seek a change of career or early retirement in the next 12 months should the covid restrictions stay in place. The same proportion say they are likely to reduce their NHS commitment. That is very important, because we particularly need to save NHS dentistry.
In the five years before the start of the pandemic, the number of practices providing NHS dentistry fell by 1,253. Some 85% of dental practices are now closed to new NHS patients, and 60% are closed to child patients. I can see this in my constituency in London and across the country. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of NHS dentistry hangs in the balance right now, and it is people who are on lower incomes who are the most affected. The Government have been warned time and again by MPs, the British Dental Association, mydentist, patients and dental practitioners, yet we feel that their warnings are falling on deaf ears. I hope we hear differently from the Minister.
As colleagues know, and as has been said, 20 million appointments were lost between March and November, which has created a huge backlog that will take years to clear unless it is addressed now. In my own borough of Wandsworth, nearly 6,000 fewer courses of treatment took place in the final quarter of 2020. One child is hospitalised for a tooth extraction every 10 minutes. I am a mother who took my child to hospital for a tooth extraction. I have seen many other children there and I know how devastating it is at the time. It can have long-term implications for the child’s health as well, but that can be prevented, so I will go through some of the preventive measures.
I welcome the Government’s renewed commitment to dental contract reform, which is essential. The new contract must break with units of dental activity. It must prioritise prevention and ensure that NHS dentistry is available to all who need it. After a decade spent developing new systems, it is crucial that the Government deliver on their commitment to roll out new contractual arrangements by April 2022. It is also important to make it clear that the roots of the crisis we face go back to well before the pandemic. This is not just about covid prevention measures. It has been a long time coming and the pandemic has only lit the touchpaper.
There is a huge disparity in funding across the UK. The Labour Government in Wales spend approximately £47 per year on primary care dentistry per head of population compared with only £34 in England. As capacity across the service continues to be severely limited by infection control measures, access problems have now reached an unprecedented scale in every community, with the existing deep inequalities of both access and outcomes set to widen even further. When the Minister responds, I would like to hear reassurances about action on prevention, about current practices and ventilation, and about dentist retention, especially recruitment, which I will focus on.
First, prevention. There has been a lack of face-to-face health visiting, especially for early years. In early years settings, supervised brushing and encouraging parents and teaching them about supervised brushing has been limited. There needs to be a real upgrade and fast tracking of check-ups in the early years settings so that we do not have a huge backlog of issues in later years. There needs to be dedicated funding for new water fluoridisation schemes, as many other Members have said—I am fully in favour of those—and further measures to reduce sugar consumption.
On recruitment, my dentist is the main provider of NHS dental care, and they consider this a priority issue for now. There are not enough places to train UK dentists in the UK, and the intake is dropping, not increasing as we need it to. Even if the numbers were to increase, it would take six years to have an effect because it takes six years to train a dentist, so there needs to be secondary legislation to change the overseas registration process. That would not cost anything, which I am sure the Minister would welcome. It has a huge amount of support from dental associations and practices, and it could be relatively simple and quick to see an effect with more dentists coming from overseas to this country. A simple change in the way that dental qualifications are recognised would make a difference.
The overseas registration process has to be carried out in the UK. It costs £4,000 and takes 12 months. If the overseas registration exam process could be equivalent for dentists and medics, including part 1 to be carried out overseas and increasing spaces on that exam, it would make a huge difference. Such small changes could transform dental care in this country.
Prior to 2001, the General Dental Council pre-approved certain dental qualifications outside of the European economic area. That was due to our membership of the European Union, but it changed because of Brexit. Now—I do not say this very often—we could take advantage of Brexit and return to the pre-2001 system of prioritising Commonwealth dental schools by recognising select qualifications.
We must support all practices to enable them to increase the number of patients. As the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and others have said, they must have capital expenditure for new ventilation equipment and also a road map out of the use of heavy-duty PPE, which is bringing down morale and will not be needed in future. Also, the fallow times need to be brought down. We need to prioritise dentistry in the upcoming reforms of the healthcare system, particularly in the health and social care Bill, and we need an urgent review of the whole system, especially new targets—not for dental activity but for increased retention of NHS dentists.
It is time to stop the slide into the privatisation of dentistry. It is time to stop treating dental health as a kind of luxury instead of there being free oral health at the point of need. We are sleepwalking into the biggest oral health crisis since the creation of the NHS. It is time the Government took responsibility and rescued UK dentistry before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for securing this important debate. Like much of our health service and, indeed, British life during the pandemic, dentistry has had to stretch and adapt and tackle its own unique challenges. It is welcome and important for us to have the opportunity to discuss this today; the steps required to recover and rebuild; and the wider oral health issues that we have not been able to deal with during the pandemic.
My hon. Friend led us in a strong manner and clearly laid out for those watching the gravity of the situation and the amount of pain that has been building up. He made important points about contract reform that I will return to. I have felt among friends and perhaps, even the usual suspects, as a number of us have talked about dentistry throughout the pandemic and before: my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson). Their points were very pertinent, particularly the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South about finances; by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South about prevention; and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport about disadvantage and his frustrations on data, to which I will also return. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central spoke about the crisis prior to the pandemic and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney has just spoken about recruitment. They were all very well-made points and I will be returning to them in my contribution.
On the Government Benches, we are very lucky to have the professional insights of the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). His points about fluoridation were excellent—I share much of them and will be returning to them. I could not agree with his points about decoupling deprivation and personal choice. Of course, personal judgments are always critical, but if we decouple deprivation, it would not explain why we see poor oral health generation after generation, year after year on the same streets and on the same estates, which are always the poorest ones. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) was dogged in his persistence around equity of access. His points were unique to the Isle of Wight but I share a lot of commonalities in my community, and from what I have heard, so do other parts of the country.
Where do we stand today? Two in three adults in the UK have visible plaque. Almost one in three have tooth decay. Three in four have had a tooth extracted—including me. Over 3 million people suffer from regular oral pain and there are over 8,300 new cases of mouth cancer every year. That is the scorecard for Britain’s oral health as we meet today. That is why it is so important that we act in this area. We are talking today about oral health and dentistry, but you cannot decouple those two things. Support for dentistry is support for our oral health, and good oral health in this country will mean that we are in a better and stronger position around dentistry.
I will begin with dentistry. In January, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney secured a debate in the main Chamber about the future of dentistry. It was well-timed and came just as the Government’s newly imposed activity targets on the profession were under way and just as we had re-entered another lockdown. I will reiterate what I said that day. Of course, activity is needed to ramp up to start to tackle the growing backlog of need in this country, but the failure of the Government to ensure that NHS England and those who negotiate for the dentists came to a workable, mutually agreeable deal was a significant failure of leadership. It led to significant anxiety and weakened dental services in the long run.
When the debate was announced, I submitted a number of written questions to help us to establish the facts regarding what has happened since that debate in January and they were named for response yesterday. I am sad and disappointed that the Department came back last night to say that we would not be able to get an answer in time, which is a shame. I am surprised the data is not more readily available and hope the Minister will help us with that today. The four questions were: how many practices hit the 45% target; how many missed the 45% target but hit the 36% figure to avoid clawback; how many have given their NHS contract back; and how many have served notice that they intend to do so? I hope that data is readily available. It would help us in our discussions about the future.
I understand that the mean UDA performance between January and March was 59%. The British Dental Association reports that the majority of practices have hit these targets by adopting approaches—such as working beyond contracted hours, cancelling annual leave and prioritising routine care over complex cases—that are at best unsustainable, and at worst dangerous.
Furthermore, they have surveyed their members to find out what impact the last quarter has had on them: 29% say they intend to stop doing NHS work entirely and nearly half intend to reduce NHS work. A similar proportion say that they are likely to change career or retire should the current restrictions stay in place. That is the staggering personal impact of an imposed settlement that has led to unsatisfactory working practices and extraordinary stresses.
Discussing the judgments that have been made in the past is important, but also as we go forward because now that target goes from 45% to 60%, which will last us through to September. I hope that the Minister can tell us what extra support the Government will provide to practices to enable them to increase the number of patients they can see to hit their increased target, to do it safely and to do it in a way that does not incentivise perverse working practices that we would not want to see.
We know how those in the profession feel about this from the same BDA survey. Nearly two thirds of NHS dentists do not think they will hit that target, and 88% of dentists report that the current conditions have had a high impact on their morale. We need to hear from the Minister what extra support they would get, particularly around the operating procedure, or perhaps, as the hon. Member for Mole Valley says, a roadmap from restrictions or access to technology to allow them to do more. Throughout this debate, we have heard that there has been far too much stick and never any carrot. I think it is time to recognise the contribution by working with the profession rather than against them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, this pandemic has exposed a service built on sand. The NHS general dental practice is the only part of the NHS in England operating on a lower budget in cash terms than in 2010, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South also said. In real terms, net Government spend on general dental practices in England has been cut by over a third over the past decade, with the number of NHS dental practices in England falling by more than 1,200 in the five years prior to the pandemic—then we wonder why we have an access issue.
Similarly, relentless cuts to the public health budget year on year for a decade have meant that supervised toothbrushing schemes, like the excellent Teeth Team in my community, are a rarity when they should be the norm. That is the Government’s legacy in oral health for the past decade. As we know, that has the greatest impact on the poorest and the youngest. In 2020, more than 70% of children did not see an NHS dentist, despite tooth decay being a leading cause of hospitalisation for 5 to 9-year-olds. We also know the massive impact that has on school absence. This is a serious social issue, and we are letting our children down.
Where can we go from here? I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that we are in the last chance saloon for NHS dentistry. All of the evidence shows that we are clearly on a trajectory that is pushing patients from the public sector into the private sector. This is happening with the workforce too, pushing them from the NHS into the private sector, but there is hope and there are opportunities, and we need to grasp them.
First, we need contract reform. I support what the Minister has said previously and publicly on contract reform. It is welcome that NHS England and the dental profession are in the same place and have agreed very sound basic principles for contract reform. That is very good news indeed. We, as Opposition, will support this process and help build consensus around it. My major call here is that we must go at pace to move beyond UDAs—my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South made some excellent points there—into a new, more preventative future for oral health. We have got to be ready by April 2022, so I hope the Minister can update us there.
Secondly, I welcome the commitments made around fluoridation. I bear the scars of many years of saying that I believe Nottingham’s water should have fluoride in it, I do. The counter lobby, as the hon. Member for Mole Valley said, are aggressive, vicious and very similar in many ways to the anti-vax movement. However, if the Government bring forward sensible proposals, I would be very keen indeed to build consensus around them. This is a great national prize and a great opportunity for public health.
Thirdly, we need a renewal of oral health as a core element of public health. The Government should reverse their cuts to the public health grant so that local authorities can provide preventative services, particularly in the poorest communities and particularly targeted at their children. I am glad that the Government now want to consult on reintroducing schemes such as supervised toothbrushing, but it is hard not to have a slight sense of grievance given that local communities were already doing this before they had the means to do so taken away. That is what happened, but now we must move forward. Again, we should be doing that at pace.
Finally, we should take a robust look at the supply chain. The Minister knows I have concerns about the dentistry supply chain, particularly for dental labs, which have not been part of any of these contracting conversations but are significantly impacted by them.
To conclude, we entered this crisis having underfunded and under-supported dentistry. We have navigated this crisis by treating the profession as antagonists, rather than partners. If we want to build a new future for oral health and dentistry, we can do it by investing in it and all coming together. I hope to hear a commitment on that from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) on securing this important debate. We have heard during the debate that we all want better dentistry. I would like us to have that conversation in a constructive and positive manner going forward.
I thank all members of the dental profession. This has been incredibly tough, but there is a reason. I very gently point out that dentistry uses aerosol-generating procedures. Dentists work very much around the mouth and nose, where there are saliva and droplets. The whole onus of what we did at the beginning was to keep people safe—the profession, their teams and their patients. It has been a very slow rebuild, and infection control still lies at the centre of that. I would like everybody to remember that, because it makes dentistry a uniquely challenging area to try to deal with.
I agree with everyone that dentistry was an incredibly challenging area before the pandemic. Certain parts of the country, including the east of England but also the south-west, already had systemic problems. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and I have had conversations about how we can improve this and drive things forward. The Healthwatch report published yesterday shows that demand for dental access remains high, and that many patients are experiencing difficulties. I am not shying away from the fact that there is a problem and that we need to work hard to fix it. However, there was an access problem prior to the pandemic as well. I very much welcome the Healthwatch report, and I look forward to meeting the chair of that organisation tomorrow.
The pandemic has had, and continues to have, a substantial impact on dentistry, and I am grateful to dentists and all their teams for their continued resilience and dedication in providing the best care for their patients under extremely challenging circumstances. They have had to adjust to working differently and responding to new challenges, especially around infection and control measures, which I know they find restrictive. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) brought members of the profession and we discussed how difficult it is to work in the PPE and so on. We are looking, with Public Health England, at how we can provide them with that assurance. However, once again, at the heart of this lies the fact that my primary concern is to make sure everybody is safe. I would not be doing what I am tasked with if that were not the case.
Ventilation was bought up by several people. There are significant and practical financial and timing challenges in assessing and putting it in. Not every dentist owns their own premises, and not every dentist acts only in their own premises. However, I have asked NHS England what we can do in this area, what is practical and what can be achieved by working with the profession. The aerosol-generating procedures obviously involve high-speed drilling, creating a fine spray of saliva, which creates a heightened risk of transmission, as pointed out. In response to our usual high street dental practices, we required dentists to wear full PPE and to rest rooms early in the pandemic for up to an hour. That caused problems, and challenges with getting volume through. That caused problems, and challenges with getting volume through. With the new guidance, however, the time in many cases is down to as little as 10 minutes, depending on, as I have said, the level of ventilation and other things. That has been an important step forward in allowing greater throughput in practices and has helped to facilitate more care for more patients. But we are asking the profession to see patients on the basis of need. As everybody has pointed out, there has been an enormous backlog for some considerable time. We need to ensure that we are seeing the people who have the most urgent and essential need first. That is why people will not always get a routine appointment at the first time of asking.
Taking revised IPC—infection prevention and control—requirements into account, we have worked closely with NHS England in considering what levels of NHS dentistry can be delivered in the current environment. It is undeniable that the pandemic and the necessary steps that we have had to take to protect dental patients and staff have led to a reduction in the number of patients treated. That is self-evident, but we are continuing to work with dentists, the broader profession and NHSE to develop a road map, which is essentially what everybody needs in order to move forward.
I know that many across the House are concerned about the thresholds; the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who is always constructive in these things, has said that they were introduced last year. But there is a fine line here. In the beginning, we supported the profession with 100% of payments for what it was delivering, but we now need to get that volume up. We cannot have no targets for delivery; we cannot have a drive towards giving more patient care but not ask the profession to deliver more. That just does not work. Dental practices have been asked to deliver more care, prioritising based on clinical need, and in that way we have sought to target available capacity at those who need it most. I am pleased to say that approximately 95% of practices exceeded the threshold for full remuneration set in the last quarter of last year, so up to March. The average performance in February was 59%.[Official Report, 7 June 2021, Vol. 696, c. 2MC.] The hon. Member for Bedford will be pleased to hear that 87% of his local NHS practices have already exceeded the threshold, and there is still time to submit the activity for quarter 4.
We have continued to monitor the levels of NHS care being delivered, and on that basis we have set the new threshold of 60% for dental activity and 80% for orthodontic activity between April and September. Sixty per cent. still means 40% of people who were seen before not being seen, and that was still not a system that was enabling everybody to be seen. That is why we have challenges throughout the system, but the thresholds were based on data. The accusation that they were not modelled properly and we did not look at them is actually not fair, because we have done that. I am terribly sorry, but I cannot remember who said that people were not doing NHS care but reverting to private care. I think it was the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), or was it the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)? It is still a patient in their chair; it is still activity; it is still volume. It is just a different way of charging.
Again, the thresholds were based on modelling. There is a need to lift capacity if we are to care for patients. We are monitoring on a monthly basis, and the thresholds have been put in place for six months to provide some stability to the system. To improve access for those who need it most, NHS England has also provided a flexible commissioning toolkit; it has been charged to do that. As the hon. Member for Bradford, South said, as my discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley have shown and as we discussed in the previous debate, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Putney, these things are in train. We need to effect change. The UDA—unit of dental activity—system, brought in by the Labour Government in 2006, is broken; we understand that it is broken, but these things take more than a month to put in place. To improve access for those who need it most, we are pushing on with flexible commissioning, focusing on those experiencing health inequality and on available capacity where it will impact oral health most. We are looking at and targeting those vulnerable groups who have been referred to by so many hon. Members.
The situation remains challenging, even as we see more and more people being vaccinated, and certainly in Bedford there are challenges. I spoke to the hon. Member for Bedford last week about surge testing and turbo-charging the vaccination programme in Bedford. We need to be aware that, when there are these challenges, we have to look at dentistry and be doubly careful that we are aware of variants of concern in some of these areas.
Many patients are still experiencing difficulties in finding an NHS dentist. NHS England’s customer care centre can help people, and patients with urgent need can also call NHS 111. I say to the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) that there are 10 urgent dental care, or UDC, teams across Norfolk. So, if anybody needs that number of teeth extracted or is in pain they should ring 111 and they will be directed to a UDC for urgent care.
Actually, we are seeing broadly the same number of patients through urgent care as we were pre-pandemic, showing that the current prioritisation is keeping numbers stable. However, the need for urgent care is not wavering and in all reality it will rise, because people have been waiting for a longer period of time.
I acknowledge that the Healthwatch report also highlights the fact that information on NHS dentist availability is not always easy to access. Again, I have tasked others with going away and making sure that patient information is more readily available. So, NHS dental practices will be asked to update their information online, because much of it is out of date, meaning that it is much harder for individuals to see what is available locally. The update will mean they can find the care they need.
I have also asked that we truly look at and identify where we have dental capacity and where we have dental deserts, as it were. That goes to not only where we target the workforce—we are working with the GDC very closely on overseas registration and so on—but how we actually deliver, because parts of the country have much greater access problems than other parts.
Throughout the pandemic, we have supported NHS practices, in addition to paying the full contractual value for the lower ends of activity. We have also provided free PPE from the dedicated portal. As of 18 May, nearly 7,000 dental providers have registered with the portal, which has shipped over 367 million items to dentists, orthodontists and their broader teams.
I will move on to contract reform. The pandemic continues to highlight the fact that transformation in dentistry is essential. If we are to address continuing inequalities, particularly in children’s oral health, I want to see a change in the way we approach dental services and oral health. We have much to build on, but it is time to move from research to action.
We are grateful to the prototype practices, whose commitment to the reform programme has been invaluable over the years, and their ongoing participation has enabled us to gather vital data, which will inform the next stage of the reform process. I have spoken to people with different systems, from as close as Wales—leading academics and practitioners—but also people from right across Europe. I have spoken to people who provide services that are totally free at the point of delivery and those who have a total charging system.
No country has a perfect system. Dentistry offers an incredible challenge. We have a mix of private, mixed and NHS services, and I would like to maintain that environment. We need to develop a sustainable, long-term approach to dentistry that is responsive to the population, providing high-quality urgent treatment and restorative dentistry.
There is an opportunity for the whole team to support improved population health. Everything we eat goes in through our mouths, so dentists are great in helping to advise in other general areas of health, such as obesity and so on. We have a profession that is eager to contribute more and enthusiastic to do so. High-quality prevention needs to be at the forefront, and I am determined that a transformation in commissioning will help us to achieve that.
I am beginning to run short of time, for which I apologise. A toothbrush costs 33p. Every parent needs to help us to care for their children’s teeth. Oral decay is preventable. We need to work together, so that there is more supervised tooth brushing but also more parental guidance, so that parents can help their children to have healthy oral hygiene.
I want to see water fluoridation, which has been in some parts of England for decades, rolled out. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) argue that his constituency would be a good test place. A provision needs to be included in the upcoming health and social care Bill, to transfer responsibility to the Secretary of State, in order to expand schemes more easily. I am glad to see the unanimous support for that. Subject to funding being secured and to consultation with partners, that is something we need to work on together. I want to prevent the unnecessary pain and suffering each year of those 37,000 children in many of our constituencies. Water fluoridation offers the quickest return on investment, giving as much as £35 return for every £1 spent.
I hope it provides reassurance that I meet regularly with the profession. I am meeting the all-party parliamentary group for dentistry and oral health next week. We are committed to ensuring that patients can access NHS dentistry and supporting the profession. A substantial amount of work is going on, changing the way dental services are provided to improve the health of the population.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Asylum Dispersal Scheme: Stoke-on-Trent
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall between speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the asylum dispersal scheme in Stoke-on-Trent.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. Today I need to talk about something that is incredibly important to the constituents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, as well as those in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, and that is the asylum dispersal scheme. Before I begin, I would like to place on record how immensely proud I am that Stoke-on-Trent has become the second home of the Home Office. With the recent announcement, we now have more than 550 jobs coming into the city of Stoke-on-Trent—new jobs that will give entry-level opportunities at all grades for the fine people working there, of which 200 will be asylum case workers.
We have a long history of working with the Home Office, and this relationship is set to become even deeper. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office for all their work in making this move possible, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Councillor Abi Brown, without whom, as a team, I do not believe this would necessarily have got over the line.
Following on from the excellent speech by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, who spoke with the Minister at the end of April in a similar debate, I want to keep reiterating the same messages. To be very clear, Stoke-on-Trent has done more than almost any other area in giving asylum seekers a home. We had the fifth highest number of asylum seekers per 10,000 of the population across the whole of the UK at the end of last year, with only Rochdale, Middlesbrough, Cardiff and Glasgow having higher numbers. At the end of August 2020, Stoke-on-Trent was housing 1,010 asylum seekers. This means that one in every 250 people living in Stoke-on-Trent is now an asylum seeker.
We have a very high cluster limit ratio of 79%, compared with 29% in Birmingham, and our city council has repeatedly had to challenge proposals made over the last year to increase numbers further, yet the position is about to get even more unbalanced. The pandemic has led to roughly 10,000 asylum seekers being housed in hotels around the country. Under Operation Oak, which aims to vacate all hotel occupation as close to the end of the first quarter of 2021 as possible, companies such as Serco are stepping up their procurement of more permanent housing. To make the system fair, I would have expected Serco to focus on areas that have taken in no asylum seekers, but no. Rather than taking an even-handed approach, it has chosen to double down in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, which are already stretched to breaking point.
Some 1,760 of those 10,000 people have been allocated for dispersal in the west midlands. Although no figures have been given for individual authorities, the west midlands region will be taking the highest strain in the country. It is very likely that the new arrivals could take Stoke-on-Trent to the one-in-200 limit. The maximum number, based on the one-in-200 limit, would be 1,277 individuals, an increase of just 267.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an important issue. I am aware that the Government have a proposal that by 2029 the proportion of supported asylum seekers accommodated in each government region will reflect their share of the United Kingdom population. Does he agree that there must be substantially greater funding to establish suitable family housing in these circumstances, and that to achieve this goal additional resources need to be set aside from today to make our asylum system work? That would be a minor effort as we have 4,000 people on the housing list. We want them and we support this scheme, but we have to be aware of the reality that there is not enough housing available.
I thank my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he really is my hon. Friend and a superb colleague. He absolutely hits the nail on the head. We will hear a similar story about Stoke- on-Trent, where people are looking for two-bedroom and three-bedroom homes and young families are struggling because we do not have one-bedroom sheltered accommodation for the elderly population to move into. Our schools are at absolute capacity, if not over capacity, and we have a public transport system that has, quite frankly, been well and truly left behind.
All those factors need to be taken into account. Stoke-on-Trent also has the second lowest council tax income in England, just above Hull, so there is a real strain on the public purse. More needs to be done financially to assist areas like Stoke-on-Trent that are—I will repeat this—happy to welcome those who are most in need. We want to be an open, forward-thinking and dynamic city, but we also want the spread to be fair across the whole of our United Kingdom.
Based on the cluster limit of one in 200, the maximum number of asylum seekers would be 1,277 individuals, but based on the average of three asylum seekers per dispersal property, that will require 89 more properties. Indeed, in many areas of Stoke-on-Trent this limit has already been broken, with concentrations of asylum seekers far in excess of the cluster limit.
In March this year, some 14 wards in the city had a ratio in excess of one in 200. In Etruria and Hanley, a ward I am proud to share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), the ratio is one to 44 and in some other areas it is as high as one in 30. These concerns have been raised by council officers directly with Serco, but, despite the council voicing its concerns to Serco repeatedly, the response to date has been extremely disappointing.
Rather than considering the situation in individual wards, Serco has undertaken only not to exceed the one in 200 cluster limit for the city as a whole. It has also refused to provide real-time feedback on property procurement, offering nothing more than a current quarterly report on the properties being used for dispersal accommodation. Data from Serco shows that 66 requests were made for properties in Stoke-on-Trent in February, compared to 38 in Coventry, 33 in Wolverhampton, 31 in Birmingham, 14 in Walsall and Sandwell and 12 in Dudley.
From these numbers, it seems clear to me that Serco is not taking the concerns raised by the council seriously at all. In fact, Serco has told the council that it will soon start challenging councils when they raise concerns about the procurement of a requested property. The stark truth is that our city has now reached its limits. Services, already under strain, are being stretched even further and Serco has refused to engage with the council on this at all. As such, I completely agree with the council’s decision to pause its involvement in the dispersal scheme.
Far too often, we hear hon. Members and council leaders advocate doing more to help refugees, but when it comes to action no one stands up. It is simply not acceptable that, while Stoke-on-Trent has taken in more than 1,000 asylum seekers and is set to take in more, a host of councils around the country have taken in none. In fact, more than 200 local authorities across the UK have not given accommodation to a single asylum seeker.
Given the frequent attacks that the Conservatives get from Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party and Green politicians about how Conservatives are heartless and must do more to help asylum seekers, one would think that they would want to lead by example. Imagine my shock when I learned that at the end of December 2020, the champagne socialists in Labour-run Islington, Labour-run Exeter and Lib Dem-run Eastleigh have not given accommodation to a single asylum seeker.
In Scotland, out of 32 councils only three have taken in asylum seekers, and two of these—Edinburgh and Fife—have taken fewer than 10. The fact is that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems talk the talk about helping asylum seekers, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to doing anything about them. We have to rebalance the equation, and to do that reform must come from a number of angles.
I am 100% behind the Home Secretary, her new plan for immigration and the new sovereign borders Bill. I have discussed the plan with Reverend Jim Lowe of Burslem Elim Church, who is a Trustee of the Burslem Jubilee Project in my constituency, which the Home Secretary visited in 2019. I thank the Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for taking the time to meet us yesterday.
Talking to people such as Mehdi Mohammadi, an Iranian refugee from the Burslem Jubilee Project, makes it clear just how important it is that we continue to offer a safe haven for people who live in fear of persecution around the world. However, while we proudly continue to act as a beacon for asylum seekers, we must also take action to ensure that the people who are coming here are doing so legally and are genuine refugees. Failure to deter illegal crossings will inevitably lead to more people risking their lives to get here and scumbag gangs taking money out of people’s hands. Tragically, we will therefore see more people die as they try to reach our shores.
There must also be reform, so that councils that refuse to willingly play their part are mandated to take their fair share in the future. That point was made in the letter sent from council leaders and MPs in the west midlands to the Home Office, which I wholeheartedly endorse. Dispersal must be organised equitably, so that councils across the country shoulder an even share of the burden, rather than a few local authorities doing the heavy lifting, as at present.
One reason why places such as Stoke have a greater number of dispersed asylum seekers is commercial opportunity. For companies such as Serco, which administers the scheme, it makes sense to house asylum seekers in cheaper accommodation, giving the company more profit per head. It cannot be allowed to continue. Commercial considerations cannot be allowed to take precedence over local services and communities.
I am pleased to say that my excellent local branch of Citizens Advice in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire has suggested a potential solution, or at least a way that other areas might be encouraged to take part in the scheme. Rather than providing support centrally or nationally, the support budget could be divided and provided as a ring-fenced grant to the local authorities taking part in the dispersal scheme. They could then commission local services that are tailored to local needs. There is a precedent for running services like this: the funding to support victims of crime is divided between police and crime commissioners, so that they can run things based on local needs.
To rebuild trust in the system, I would urge the Minister to seriously consider the recommendations made by Stoke-on-Trent City Council on how to proceed. Serious discussions have to be had with participating authorities and those like Stoke-on-Trent, which has paused its involvement in the scheme, about what numbers they are expected to take in future. Figures must be agreed for each local authority in the west midlands, based on existing and proposed numbers. A funding package linked to the dispersal of asylum seekers should be agreed with participating authorities before any further dispersal takes place. Most important, the Secretary of State should start talking to non-participating authorities to get their agreement to accept dispersed asylum seekers, and she should use the powers to mandate participation where necessary.
In Stoke-on-Trent, we are proud to have given a home to asylum seekers, and our city council has long been a willing volunteer in the Home Office’s asylum dispersal scheme. We have a long history of working with the Home Office. As I said earlier, we will soon have even stronger ties with the Department as we become its second home. Stoke-on-Trent City Council wants to carry on working with the Home Office, but the situation has reached a point where local leaders have had to temporarily withdraw from the dispersal scheme. I do not want that, the council does not want that, and I know Ministers do not want that, but, frankly, the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke have had enough of other areas failing to chip in. I say again that we are proud to have played our part and given a safe home to so many, but now is the time for other councils to do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate on asylum dispersal in Stoke-on-Trent. It featured a rare intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), which was appreciated.
It is important to underline that our United Kingdom has a proud record of helping people facing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty around the world. A crucial part of this endeavour is the contribution that many local authorities make in supporting those obligations being delivered in reality, which applies especially to Stoke-on-Trent owing to its contribution to the asylum dispersal scheme over a number of years. I gratefully acknowledge the Members of this House who represent the local community and the city’s consistent interest in this area of work—not just by talking in the House about supporting those seeking asylum, but by actually doing it in their area. As my hon. Friend will have heard me say before, declarations of solidarity do not house anyone.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the system of supported asylum accommodation run by the Home Office. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we took the decision to pause the cessation of asylum support. That decision was taken to alleviate pressures on local authorities from people exiting the asylum system, in line with the public health advice at the time. Continuing with the cessation of support at a time when international travel was not possible and the accommodation market was very restricted across all nations of the United Kingdom would have posed a significant health risk to communities across our UK by leaving people unable to secure housing or to return home.
That decisive action has led to a significant increase in the number of people we are supporting while we consider their claim for protection. To put that in context, we have seen around a 30% increase in demand for accommodation during the pandemic, resulting in more than 60,000 asylum seekers currently being provided with accommodation while their claims are considered. That has also resulted in the use of contingency accommodation, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, including hotels and Ministry of Defence sites, requiring some people to be accommodated in such accommodation for more than a brief period.
We are, though, working closely with local authorities across our United Kingdom and our contractors to procure more housing to reduce our reliance on that type of accommodation and to minimise the amount of time that individuals are housed in it. Despite the challenges that we have faced over the past year, we have consistently met our statutory obligations to destitute asylum seekers. That has included at times, and where appropriate, continuing to provide accommodation where support would normally be ceased.
On asylum dispersal, which has rightly been the focus of this debate, hon. Members will know that, by virtue of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the United Kingdom has a statutory obligation to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation while their application for asylum is being considered. Section 4 of the Act also requires us to provide support for failed asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and where there are reasons that they are not able to leave the UK. That has been particularly relevant over the past year during the pandemic.
I very much recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. Many of the issues that he raised are symptoms of our broken asylum system. As he said, the measures proposed in the Home Secretary’s new plan for immigration are intended to make the asylum and appeals system faster and fairer, which will have a direct impact on the provision of asylum support and the quantity of it that we need to provide.
However, I acknowledge the desire for a much more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the United Kingdom to ensure that all local authorities are playing their part. I acknowledge that that has been a particular concern in the west midlands, as highlighted by the local authorities that take part in the dispersal areas writing to the Home Secretary on this matter. I would very much repeat my hon. Friend’s encouragement to all local authorities to participate in the dispersal scheme, which would enable all areas, including Stoke-on-Trent, to take a fairer share as we reform the system.
My hon. Friend mentioned the April debate. I always find it odd to hear MPs state in debates that they are desperate to do more, but they seem to think, for areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, that it does not mean their own council becoming a dispersal area. Prior to the pandemic, my officials and local authority chief executives agreed a changed plan to move, over time, to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the whole United Kingdom. Inevitably, work on that sadly had to be paused as we responded to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, but I am pleased to say that we have restarted that work. That would see the west midlands, for example, moving from currently supporting more than 12.5% of supported asylum seekers to less than 10.5% by 2024. In addition to implementing the changed plan, my officials continue to work with strategic migration partnerships and local authorities to discuss the costs associated with supporting asylum seekers in their region. Again, that touches on the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made.
We have also implemented process improvements to support collaboration between the accommodation providers and local authorities when identifying wards for future procurement. The Home Office is also working closely with a wide range of local authorities to increase the number of areas, as of today, that accommodate and support people seeking asylum protection. Every local authority is being encouraged to contribute their share. In the past three years there have been some successes, which I want to highlight, not just in the north and the midlands but in other areas—someone called them the Tory shires. Aylesbury Vale, Gosport, Oxford and Wiltshire are places that have come on board with the system. That means that we have been able to increase the number of voluntary dispersal agreements from 92 to more than 160, and we continue to try to increase dispersal across our UK, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North touched on. It is worth noting that we have agreements in place with more than 40 more authorities than are currently participating but where the providers find it particularly difficult to procure suitable properties.
I would reassure my hon. Friend that, as we take forward the new plan for immigration, we will continue to focus on working with local authorities in the UK, to move to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers. My officials have been asked to prepare advice on options, including analysis of the impact on communities of the current system. I intend to consult local government on those options in due course, once there is more detail to discuss with them.
The Government demand the highest standards from contractors and their accommodation, and we monitor them closely to ensure that those are maintained. Accommodation providers are required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose and correctly equipped accommodation, complying with the decent homes standard, in addition to standards outlining relevant national or local housing legislation.
The Home Office has worked closely with our providers to improve property standards over the lifetime of the previous asylum accommodation contracts, and has made several improvements in the current asylum accommodation and support contracts. Where a provider is found to fall short of those standards, we work with them to ensure that issues are quickly addressed. When they are not, we can—and do—impose service credits. Housing providers are required to inspect each property every month. The Home Office also inspects properties on a targeted basis each year.
In total, 3,300 property inspections were carried out in 2018-19, meaning that approximately 28.3% of the provider property portfolio was visited. To reassure hon. Members, only 17 properties out of that 3,300 were identified as having a defect requiring immediate action. It is important to recognise that defects will occur in properties that we are using, just as they do in social housing or the private rented sector. We would always encourage service users or their representatives to raise issues with Migrant Help as soon as they occur, so that they can be attended to.
As already mentioned, the Home Office, along with local authorities across the United Kingdom, has had to use hotel and other contingency accommodation during covid-19, although not to my knowledge in Stoke-on-Trent directly, given the contribution already being made as a dispersal area. When we look at procuring contingency accommodation, we expect our providers to engage with the police, local authorities and local contacts, prior to and during hotel use in all locations.
We regularly provide local authorities and partners with information about hotel use in their areas, including, crucially, occupancy figures. We believe that the hotel and contingency accommodation we provide is of good quality. Asylum seekers receive three meals a day, with staggered mealtimes to cater for social distancing requirements, and wider support that meets all the current public health guidance and usual contracted standards.
Where issues have been raised, we have inspected many ourselves. Our providers have also conducted surveys and acted on recommendations, in relation to matters such as the type of food provided. We have undertaken several measures in the short term to mitigate the use of hotels as contingency accommodation. Working groups have been established with three providers, to monitor the availability of accommodation within their portfolios. The groups meet Home Office officials weekly and their objective is to mitigate moving to hotel use wherever possible, by increasing the amount of dispersal accommodation in all regions of the UK.
We again thank councils such as Stoke-on-Trent for maintaining their commitment to this process, and to other areas that have been prepared to increase their share, if I may put it that way. As a result we have reduced our reliance on contingency accommodation by 25% since December, including exiting a number of hotels and ceasing use of the Penally site in Pembrokeshire. Hotels are only ever a contingency option. The Home Office does not view them as a long-term solution; it is not a position we wish to be in. We do recognise that that presents the challenge of how to ensure an effective system of dispersal accommodation that does not overburden those areas that have already made a significant contribution, especially when compared with some areas that are keen to make statements but not to provide solutions.
At our contingency accommodation at the Napier site, all the basic needs of asylum seekers are met, including their welfare needs. The site is catered with three meals per day, and options are provided that cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements. Additional meals can be provided as required. There is power, heating, water and access to phones, and support items such as toiletries are provided, along with access to laundry facilities. All asylum seekers housed there have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility—AIRE—service provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services. We are also looking into how we can use time at locations such as Napier to move forward asylum claims, including by creating interview rooms on site.
Yet the root of the issue in Stoke-on-Trent is the fact that our asylum system is broken. It is expensive and has lost public trust. It is vital that the generosity of the UK is not open to abuse from illegal migrants with no right to be here, and the ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting vulnerable individuals. The challenges that we are grappling with have not been helped by the pandemic, but we must also recognise the pressure being put on the system by those who have no legitimate claim for protection or who simply want to use the asylum system as an alternative route for economic migration. While I continue to ask local authorities to act as dispersal areas—in Scotland, for example, where only Glasgow currently agrees to do so—we should not lose sight of the need for more fundamental reform of the system, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.
We will stop those who come here illegally making endless legal claims to remain in our country at the expense of the taxpayer, and we will expedite the removal of those who have no legitimate claim for protection, reducing pressure on communities such as Stoke-on-Trent. In doing so, we will not turn our back on those who do need our protection where we can work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and our local authority partners to provide a planned pathway to integration in the United Kingdom for genuine refugees, just like the 20,000 we have successfully resettled from the conflict in Syria with the help of more than 300 local authorities.
Through our recently announced new plan for immigration, we are committed to increasing the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum while deterring illegal entry into the United Kingdom, breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger, including from dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings. We must do all that we can to stop that criminal activity. It is putting lives at risk. There are no two ways about it. That is why we must move to make a change. I encourage all with an interest in this area to take part in the consultation on our new plan and help to shape the future in creating a firm but fair system.
Again I thank all in Stoke-on-Trent—MPs, councillors and the community—for the commitment that they are making, and I urge other local authorities across the United Kingdom to play their part in the asylum dispersal process. As I have said before, simply making statements, joining a protest or passing motions does not deliver the support needed. I encourage more local authorities from across the country to engage with the Home Office on the strategic migration partnership to increase dispersal and relieve overall pressures on the system.
As I said, the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge and sanctuary to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people, and the city of Stoke-on-Trent has provided us with invaluable support in doing that, alongside other communities in the west midlands that I look forward to meeting in the near future. As I have confirmed a number of times, the UK Government remain committed to ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees receive the support and care that they need, even in the challenging circumstances of a pandemic. Yet we cannot do that without the support—the active, engaged support—of local communities, something that the city of Stoke-on-Trent can be proud that it has provided for many years and is continuing to provide. It is now for others to do their bit as well.
Question put and agreed to.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
[Mr Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practices in order to support the new hybrid arrangements, and 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. I remind Members participating physically that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. The unduly lenient sentencing scheme has been in existence since 1989. It was brought in as a result of woefully inadequate sentences imposed by some judges, to the horror of many members of the public. This included, of course, the so-called Ealing vicarage case, in which an offence of rape was treated less seriously than an offence of burglary. Things had to change, and I am pleased to say that they did.
Having spent 20 years working in the criminal justice system myself, I am very aware of the fact that judges generally get things right, but they are human, and mistakes happen. It is right that the defence can appeal sentences that are too harsh, and it must therefore be right that the prosecution can appeal sentences that they feel are wrong too.
There is a blanket right for the defence to appeal against sentences in the magistrates courts, and a right to appeal against sentences imposed in the higher courts. That is right, and that is fair, yet the prosecution has very limited rights to appeal against sentences that are too lenient. It is in this respect that the scales of justice in this country do not balance.
I pay tribute to the fact that the Government have extended the scope of this scheme more than any other. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the scheme was extended, so we have ensured that many victims of some of the worst crimes can see the sentences in their cases increased to a fair level. The scales of justice are levelling up, but they are not there yet. I hope during this debate to make constructive suggestions about how we can build on that good progress, and how we can continue. While I have raised the issue of unduly lenient sentences in this place several times before, I was prompted to do so again by a particularly harrowing case affecting one of my constituents.
Gemma Robinson from Dartford was attacked in 2019 by her partner, Joseph Falconer, in the most despicable manner. He had previously assaulted her and was subject to a restraining order, but had tricked or cajoled his way both back into her life and into her home. This young lady was described as the life and soul of any party, yet she was mercilessly beaten by Falconer until her eye socket was fractured and her tooth punched through her lip. She was then spat on by him before he left the house and, in the final insult, he completely cleared her bank accounts.
He was, I am pleased to say, arrested and charged with section 18 GBH, an offence that is covered under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme. The matter went to trial, with Mr Falconer having pleaded not guilty. However, Gemma Robinson, feeling unable to face him in court, took her own life—an event that devastated her family. Subsequently, Joseph Falconer was, quite astonishingly, offered a less serious charge under section 20 of Offences against the Person Act 1861—an offence of malicious wounding. This is an offence that is not covered by the unduly lenient sentencing scheme and he pleaded guilty to that charge. Despite being described by the judge in court as a “dangerous, jealous and controlling man”, he was given just three and a half years imprisonment. Gemma’s family understandably felt that this was insufficient and they contacted my office. Only at that stage were they made aware by my office that there was no power to appeal, as malicious wounding under section 20 of Offences against the Person Act 1861 is not covered under the scheme. Incredibly, had Joseph Falconer been charged with coercive behaviour under the harassment legislation, the scheme would have applied.
Gemma Robinson’s family feel totally let down by the system and they are not alone. There are many instances of people applying for a sentence to be reviewed under the scheme only to be told it is an offence that is not covered. In fact, around a third of the applications are not covered by the scheme and the largest number of offences that are applied and are not under the scheme are actually under section 20 for malicious wounding and also for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. There are many quite vicious and violent assaults taking place in this country for which an unduly lenient sentence is imposed. Yet nothing can be done about it by the victims or by anybody else.
Sadly, the injustices do not stop there. There is a strict 28-day time limit on applications to challenge sentences. I fully understand why we need some certainty and why there is a need for time limits, but there is an arbitrary time limit in this particular case and it needs looking at again. Many rules can be avoided in criminal law if exceptional circumstances apply. That should apply to this time limit too. If there are exceptional circumstances, judges, at their discretion, can enable an appeal under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme to take place. Currently, that is not the case. The criminal justice system is littered with examples of how injustices occur when courts have their discretion removed. The 28-day time limit on unduly lenient sentences is yet another example of where the courts do not have any discretion and, therefore, injustices occur.
A judge, for example, can withhold the publicising of a conviction and sentence if it would impact on another trial. Yet even when that happens, as it did in a rape case in Newcastle that was highlighted in this place by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the judge has no discretion to change or alter in any way the 28-day time limit. An offence is published after 28 days have elapsed, but people then cannot do anything about it. That really needs to be looked at again, because the defence can apply for time limits to be waived when lodging appeals, and so should the prosecution.
The unduly lenient sentencing scheme applies only to the Crown courts. A youth court, for example, when hearing very serious cases such as rape cannot be subject to the scheme. That has caused injustice in more than one case, so we need to look at attaching the scheme to types of offences only and not to the venue where the case was heard. The whole scheme, when we think about it, was brought in after a rape case was mishandled. Yet today, rape cases can be mishandled and unduly lenient sentences imposed without the prosecution or the victim being able to do anything about it. We need either to include rape cases in the youth court within the scheme or to remove the ability of the youth court to hear such cases.
The unduly lenient sentencing scheme is about fairness and balancing the scales of justice so that we give one side the same rights as the other in a court of law. By and large, in the most serious matters the scheme achieves that, but glaring anomalies prevent that in cases such as that of Gemma Robinson, my constituent, and far too many others. Great strides have been taken to widen the scheme, but we must ensure that the widening of the scheme is a continuing process, not simply an event.
The criminal justice system exists to protect the victims of crime, and it does so through fairness and balance. It is therefore imperative that we continue to widen the scheme, and thereby continue to protect the victims of crime.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on setting the scene. I apologise in advance to you, Mr Dowd, to the hon. Gentleman and to the Minister for having to leave: I have a meeting at short notice with the Nigerian ambassador to discuss some issues that I have concern about.
Thank you for inviting me to speak, Mr Dowd. This is an issue that I feel strongly about. Most of the issues that I speak about in Parliament come out of my office: they are things that I am made aware of by constituents and so on. I want to speak about that, if I can. This is a very difficult matter, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. The fact is that what one person sees as justice is not the same as another person’s justice, although I perhaps have a very simplified view. That is why we have the law and legislation to set out sentences, and why we say that Lady Justice is blind, although some of the things that I will refer to are a blindness in the justice system.
I have sat in many a constituency surgery with the families of victims of assault, who have begged me to intervene in the sentencing of the perpetrator. When we know what that person did to their family member, we have to restrain our emotions and control ourselves, and that is sometimes difficult. When the people who assaulted their loved ones are given nothing of a sentence, they seek to find the broken pieces of the victim and hold them together with love. They know that in six months’ time, due to good behaviour, the perpetrator will be out on the streets again. It really nyarks me, to use an Ulster Scotsism; more than that, it angers me. I have outlined the procedure for sentencing in written evidence to the Attorney General, knowing that the likelihood of an increased sentence is slim to none.
When I get home, I will be writing a letter about a case that I read about in the provincial papers on the way over this morning. I am not going to mention any names, because the person is a paedophile who carried out awful, horrendous abuse of a young child. He got approximately 10 years in prison. He is back out again, and guess what he did when he got out? He did the same thing again to another wee defenceless child. I really feel that the law of the land needs to be incredibly strong when it comes to convicted paedophiles with a pedigree that will never change. My letter will ask for that person to serve all his living life in jail and never to be let out again. It is important that the law protects people from the actions that such people carry out.
I believe that a court or a judge should be able to increase sentences in certain circumstances, and I believe that we must broaden those circumstances. I will never forget reading of a lady whose daughter had been left severely disabled after a car accident caused by drunk driving. She discussed how her daughter had lost her future, and the whole family had lost theirs as a result. It does not just affect one person; it affects the whole family, and that should be taken into account in a court sentence as well. The driver was sentenced and released because he was a first-time offender. He then went on to kill someone in his next driving spree. Two families have been destroyed, but the second may have been saved had the judge known that he could extend the sentence. That option was not available or taken up.
I am someone who believes that people can change. I am a great believer in that position; I have always said that people can change. I live in a Province and represent a constituency—Strangford—where people have changed after their past, and we have to accept that people change. I am also a Christian and I believe that people can change their lives—I believe that, for I am a changed person from what I was many years ago, because of my religious belief and faith. I believe in second chances and I believe in rehabilitation. However, I also believe that there are consequences that have a price to be paid.
The Library briefing succinctly sets out the statistics on unduly lenient sentences. A parliamentary question to and response from the Solicitor General on 17 November last year noted that the number of sentences considered by the Attorney General’s office more than doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 342 to 837. The Attorney General in 2016, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), said that the 837 referrals received by his office in 2016 represented a 17% increase from the previous year.
In June 2018, the Minister said that 2,347 people had applied for sentences to be reviewed in the last 12 months, and a total of 1,040 sentences had been referred to his office for consideration as unduly lenient. I probably made 20 of those personally, looking for sentences to be reviewed in many cases, whether it be criminal violence against people, unduly lenient sentences or the cases of those involved in horrific animal abuse; those are the things that I am concerned about.
In 2018, the then Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam, referred a fifth of all eligible cases to the Court of Appeal. Of these, 73% were found to be unduly lenient. So there was a change—a quite significant change. That indicates to me that there is a need for flexibility, so that courts can hand out stronger sentences.
In 2016, 190 cases were referred to the Court of Appeal and in 141 of those cases the Court of Appeal increased the sentence. Again, that tells a story. In 2015, the Attorney General’s Office considered 713 requests, of which 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal as being potentially unduly lenient, with the Court of Appeal agreeing to increase the original sentence in 102 cases. In 2014, the Law Officers considered 469 cases and referred 128 offenders to the Court of Appeal. Of those offenders, 86% had their sentences increased.
I am not a statistician by any means, but the reason I quote those figures is that it is important that we look at the referrals for unduly lenient sentences and see that the courts have increased the sentences in the majority of cases.
I believe we must trust our judges with wider powers and that we must do so in law. That is why I support my colleague and I have to say my friend, the hon. Member for Dartford, in what he is proposing today. I am quite sure that those who speak after me will reflect that opinion as well.
Speaking as someone who has been in tears with constituents in my office over sentencing issues, I know that this is a very tough issue to deal with. I know the Minister is a very understanding and compassionate Minister, and that he will be able to reflect in his speech on our request, as individuals, regarding this matter. However, we can and I believe we must make changes, to ensure that victims of crime are protected and that real rehabilitation of offenders can take place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this incredibly important debate on an issue that is very emotional for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. The Minister has heard me time and again talking about it, whether it be chuntering in the voting Lobby or in meetings, or talking to him personally about my views on what we should do with some of the most violent criminals and offenders in our country. Personally, I have a policy of, “Lock them up, throw away the key and forget about them,” but I appreciate that we live in a society where perhaps that is not always going to be the case.
However, I will raise one particular case in my constituency, which happened very recently and is extremely high profile. It is a very sad story of how women in particular in this country are the victims of some of the most horrific crimes. I am here to talk about Kimberley Deakin, a 29-year-old who lived in Burslem. She was brutally attacked and murdered by a scumbag, whose name is Lewis Crofts, in a cold and calculated manner, to the point where this young lady, dying on her doorstep, had to call for a neighbour to come and save her child—a very young child, not far off the age of my own daughter. The hurt and pain that this case has caused the local community is palpable. It was such a brutal and premeditated attack, and the murderer showed absolutely no remorse. In fact, he only changed his plea to guilty three days before going to court. When he was arrested at Stafford services, having just bought another bottle of vodka and some cigarettes, he said:
“I have done what I have done. It is as simple as that”.
The attitude of that individual!
The judge did take a very stern view of what had happened, and handed down a life sentence with a minimum of 16 years 9 months inside, but I am sorry: the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke do not believe that 16 years 9 months, no matter how long that might be, is enough—life should mean life. We are left baffled. When a crime as calculated, as cold, as chilling as that has taken place, there should never be an ounce of an idea that this person can ever see and smell freedom again.
While I appreciate that that case is one of many that will bring about much deeper legal contemplation over sentencing, probably by people far more educated than I on this issue, it is a really important issue to raise. The attack has left behind a broken family, mother and father, uncle, friends, families and Ava, the daughter, who sadly will no longer grow up knowing her mother. I know that across the House, we as Members sadly come across this type of case far too often in our constituencies, in our local newspapers and in the correspondence that we receive. I wanted to be here to speak up for Kimberley, her family and friends. When I saw Natalie Neale, a friend of Kimberley, she said that no amount of time would be suitable for this scumbag in order to pay back what he had taken.
This wretch has robbed a child of her mother and cut short a young life. The idea even of his being released at the age of 50 horrifies and mortifies me. I appreciate that this is an individual case, and I give full praise to the current and previous Attorney Generals, who have always encouraged Members of this House from all parties to write to them if they feel that an unduly lenient sentence has been passed. I will certainly be making those representations to the Attorney General. There will always be a hole in the heart of Kimberley’s families and friends. Their lives have been ripped apart, but the man who caused that could potentially be free to walk if, obviously, a probationary board felt he was able to.
In my opinion, this Government should go further and do more on unduly lenient sentences. When people hear a judge issue a sentence of even five, 10, 15 years or life, they want to see that time served. I appreciate that there are technicalities of good behaviour, and that certain things may be handed down in a sentence that prisoners can work towards, such as education, or therapy for an alcohol or drug addiction, but unfortunately it baffles constituents when they see five years end up being two, or 10 years end up being five. They want to see justice served.
I know that this Minister is incredibly patient when he listens to colleagues such as me ranting and chuntering from the Back Benches on this type of stuff and I know how seriously he takes every type of case that is brought forward. I want to use this opportunity to say to Kimberley’s loved ones that they have an ally in me and in the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke community. As for Lewis Crofts, the longer he is locked up, the longer that we never see that man walk on the streets. I hope he spends the rest of his life in prison until he passes, because as far as I am concerned, he forfeited his right to be a citizen of this country—he forfeited his rights in full—when he decided to take away the life of a young woman and steal a child from growing up with her mother.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing this important debate. The unduly lenient sentence scheme could be seen as a positive scheme that victims and their families can engage with to challenge weak sentences that are handed down by courts. However, the sad fact is that the scheme is unknown to the majority of the British public. In the 32 years since the scheme was launched, the number of cases referred to the Attorney General’s office for review is negligible.
I have a constituent, Johnny Wood, whose sister Jackie Wileman was tragically killed by a gang of four men who were joyriding a stolen HGV around Barnsley. They had 100 convictions between them. In this case, the law on dangerous driving limited the sentences given. After much campaigning the sentences have, thankfully, now been changed and will soon be life imprisonment. It was too late for Jackie’s family, but I hope that the change will help many more in the future. Dangerous driving is one of the crimes most referred to when people engage with the scheme.
There are too many tragic examples across all sorts of different crimes. Take the example of Josh Hanson, a 21-year-old from Kingsbury, who was murdered at a bar while on a night out. His killer, Shane O’Brien, walked up to him, pulled out a Stanley knife and sliced his neck and chest. Josh and O’Brien did not know each other beforehand, and had spoken for only seconds before the attack. O’Brien went on the run for more than three years and was on the Met police, Europol and Interpol most-wanted lists, before he was caught and jailed for a minimum of 26 years in October 2019.
Josh’s mother Tracey only found out that she could appeal against O’Brien’s sentence on the last day that she was able to lodge an application—the 28th day. She lodged her complaint at 5.5 pm and was rejected by the Attorney General’s office, due to the firm deadline of 5 pm and the application’s being sent out of office hours. Tracey has since campaigned for reform to the unduly lenient sentence scheme, asking that the 28-day time limit be flexible in certain circumstances, and that the scheme be mentioned in judges’ sentencing remarks.
I am aware that the revised victims’ code came into force last month, and that it includes a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims about the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. Assigning responsibility to the witness care unit is not a definitive solution, as it engages only with victims who are witnesses in the court case. Will the Minister consider placing a statutory duty on the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that the scheme is more widely known about and available to victims?
Will the Minister also look to introduce flexibility around the time limit beyond 28 days in certain circumstances, such as where there is a failure of the responsible agency to inform the victim of the right to apply under the scheme, or where it is not reasonably practical for the application to be made in time? Families are denied the right to challenge simply because they are not aware that the scheme exists.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing the debate. I apologise for being a few minutes late; I was responding to an urgent question in the Chamber on rape prosecutions. I meant no disrespect to the importance of this debate.
The unduly lenient sentence scheme has helped many pursue justice. It is open to anyone to access and challenge a sentence that they consider unduly lenient. It is an extremely important and welcome mechanism. The scope of the scheme was last expanded in 2019, to include 14 more offences, including child sexual offences, harassment offences, stalking and the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Those were good and necessary reforms, but it is clear that there is still more to do to ensure that just sentences are reached.
A number of important contributions have been made to today’s debate highlighting the limitations of the scheme. The hon. Member for Dartford mentioned the tragic case of his constituent Gemma Robinson, who was beaten mercilessly and took her own life before the case reached trial. Her partner was sentenced to just three and half years, after being charged under section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which is not covered by the scheme, thus clearly highlighting some of the limitations.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), whose constituent was brutally murdered on her doorstep, expressed his concern that her murderer could be released by the time he is 50. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned his constituent who was left severely disabled after being hit by a drunk driver, who then received a lenient sentence. Following on from that, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) raised the case of her constituent, Jackie, who was killed by a dangerous driver. Because the unduly lenient sentence scheme did not apply to that sort of case, there was no redress for her family. My hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly to increase sentences for death by dangerous driving offences, and that law will now change.
The case of Ruth Williams also highlights the limitations of the scheme. Ruth’s husband Anthony Williams strangled her to death during the first lockdown. In February at Swansea Crown court, Mr Williams was found not guilty of murder but admitted to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, and was sentenced to five years in prison. Had the victim been another member of the public, it is highly likely that Mr Williams’s sentence would have been more severe. The fact that this domestic homicide has received such a comparatively lenient sentence seems to indicate that if the victim is a wife, as opposed to a random member of the public, then the perpetrator is deserving of a discounted sentence. I wrote to the Attorney General calling for that case to be referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and indeed it was. In April, however, the court of appeal ruled that the sentence was not unduly lenient, highlighting that the ULS scheme does not always work if the sentencing guidelines do not allow for it.
We need much more robust sentencing for some crimes to resolve that, especially in cases of violence against women and girls. For example, the number of female homicide victims in England and Wales is at its highest since 2006, almost half of those being domestic homicides. Cases such as the horrific murders of Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey highlight the inadequate sentence lengths for some of the worst crimes. After stabbing Ellie Gould multiple times, her killer was sentenced to just 12 and a half years in prison. Labour has put forward an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, calling for a review into the effectiveness of current legislation in sentencing policy. If the Government do not accept the amendment, then Labour in government will commission a review to look at increasing sentences for domestic homicide, and reducing the gap in sentence length between domestic homicide and other homicides. The review will also examine the effectiveness of sentencing more broadly for domestic abuse.
Further to that, there is currently no statutory minimum sentence for rape—only a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 2020 alone, nine cases of rape were referred to the Attorney General’s office through the ULS scheme that had initial sentences of imprisonment ranging from two years to four years and 10 months. Two of those cases were for the rape of a child under 13, and one was for the rape of a child under 16. Despite that, not one of the nine cases was referred by the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal. Labour would end lenient sentences for rape by introducing a new statutory minimum sentence of seven years, better reflecting the seriousness of the crime. Does the Minister agree with those proposals?
Our laws must send a strong signal that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated, but under this Government we have yet to see tough action on that. We believe it is time for judges to be able to hand out enhanced sentences and increased punishments to those who commit crimes on the basis of their prejudice against women. Our recently published green paper, “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”, outlines those measures.
I shall now discuss some of the procedural issues around the unduly lenient sentence scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East said, there is currently a strict and absolute 28-day time limit from the point of sentencing within which an application under the scheme may be made. Offenders, meanwhile, may appeal their sentence outside the 28-day timeframe in certain circumstances, so there is not parity between the two. The previous Attorney General made it clear that the 28-day timeframe was absolute, yet we desperately need flexibility around it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East highlighted the case of Josh Hanson, who was just 21, murdered in a bar while on a night out. The killer walked up to him, pulled out a knife and sliced his neck and chest. He went on the run for three years before finally being caught and given a minimum sentence of 26 years. No agency ever made contact with his mother, Tracey Hanson, and she was not told that she could appeal the sentence under the scheme. It was only when she approached London’s Victims’ Commissioner on the 28th day after sentencing that she was made aware of the scheme. She urgently submitted her application to the Attorney General’s office on that 28th day as soon as she had notice of the scheme, but her application was rejected for being outside court hours. At the time there was not even a mention of office hours or court hours in the victims code or on the Government’s website.
Tracey has campaigned to reform the scheme ever since, and has been asking for flexibility around the 28-day time limit in certain circumstances, and for the scheme to be specifically referenced in judges’ sentencing remarks. Those are wholly sensible requests. Will the Government agree to them? Although the revised victims code will include a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims of the scheme, it just does not go far enough. They only engage with victims who are witnesses in court, and the requirement does not apply to all victims, including those who are bereaved family members. In Josh Hanson’s case, for example, the duty to notify his mother Tracey would not have applied, because she was not a witness in the case. Nevertheless, clearly she had an interest as the mother of her son, who had been killed. I therefore ask the Government to put a statutory duty on the CPS to ensure that victims and their families are informed of the existence of the scheme, irrespective of whether they are witnesses to the case. I also call on the Minister to look at extending the time period beyond 28 days in certain circumstances—for example, where there has been a failure of the responsible agency to inform the victim of their right to apply, or where there are extenuating circumstances that mean the application simply could not be made in time.
If we are to have true confidence in sentencing decisions and the scope of the ULS, we need tougher sentences for some crimes. We need flexibility around the 28-day time limit, and we need to give the Crown Prosecution Service statutory responsibility for informing the victim and their family members about their rights of appeal. None of that is outside the scope of what an effective Government could bring about, and I hope that, following this important debate, we will see action in this area.
What a genuine pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I think I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say how pleased we are to see you there.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing a debate on this important topic, and for the force, candour and articulacy that he has brought to this important area—not just today, but for many years. I pay warm tribute to him, particularly for the way that he raised the case of his constituent Gemma Robinson, who was brutally attacked by Joseph Falconer. My hon. Friend read out the sentencing remarks by the judge, who referred to this gratuitous attack and to “jealous and controlling” behaviour. I hope Gemma’s family will know that the shame of those remarks will haunt, and should haunt, Joseph Falconer for the rest of his days. That cowardly and appalling attack is one that we condemn in this House, and that my hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of the House with admirable clarity and eloquence. I thank other hon. Members, too, for raising with great force and conviction their constituents’ concerns about victims who have suffered so grievously,
Let me turn to the specific matter that we are considering today—the unduly lenient sentence scheme. As all hon. Members have said, it is a valuable part of our criminal justice system. It was introduced in 1989, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford rightly stated. It has allowed prosecutors, victims of crime and, indeed, members of the public to ask Law Officers to consider referring a sentence imposed by the Crown court to the Court of Appeal for review, and to do so where the sentence is felt to be unduly lenient. If a sentence is referred by Law Officers under the scheme, the Court of Appeal will then review the sentence and may decide that it should be increased. I realise that we all well understand that.
It is important to note—this is a point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) underscored—that in the vast majority of cases, sentencing judges get it right. Day in, day out they deal with a range of cases that vary in complexity and severity, and I take the opportunity to commend them for their work. Thousands and thousands of cases are dealt with by the Crown court, and a similar number of sentences imposed. Overwhelmingly, the judges get it right.
I pay tribute to the Sentencing Council—I will refer to it in a moment in a little more detail—for its excellent work in developing sentencing guidelines that have provided judges with valuable guidance on deciding appropriate and proportionate sentences. The guidelines are also of assistance to Crown prosecutors who might be speaking to victims who may be interested to know how a case might end up, in terms of the sentence, and to advocates speaking to their clients, because certainty and clarity are an important part of a criminal justice system that does justice to victims.
It is important that the sentencing process is made more consistent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, who has a distinguished career and practice in this area, well understands. The introduction of the sentencing code last year has helped to enhance the transparency of the sentencing process by bringing together the procedural provisions that courts need to rely on when sentencing offenders and structuring them in an order that follows the chronology of a sentencing hearing. Frankly, the previous system was extremely complicated, and there were an awful lot of opportunities for sentencing judges with the best of intelligence to fall into error. The sentencing code has helped to improve that. However, on the rare occasion when there may have been a gross error in a sentencing decision, the scheme ensures that justice is served, helping to boost confidence in the sentencing process.
Turning now to a few more specifics, the scheme applies to a wide range of the more serious offences dealt with by the Crown court. This includes all indictable-only offences, in other words, those cases that must be tried before judge and jury, and it covers offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. I pause to mention that because where hon. Members have referred to specific cases involving murder, those cases are, of course, within the scheme. I will turn in a moment to issues about time limits, and so on, but it is important to note that murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery are all within the scheme. It goes beyond that to certain offences that are triable either way, mainly related to terrorism, violent physical or sexual assaults and drug-related crime. In preparing for this, I wrote down a number of offences that it covers—it is a very long list, and I will not read them all out.
To pick up on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford made, I do want to set out in a little detail the extent to which the scheme was expanded over recent years. The Government have taken the opportunity to extend the scope of the scheme so that it covers more offences. In August 2017, additional offences included: failing to disclose information about an act of terrorism; fundraising contrary to the Terrorism Act 2000; use of funds in connection with terrorism; money laundering; and weapons training. We extended the scheme to 19 terror-related offences, and to a further nine terror-related offences in January 2018, such as tipping off a terrorist and not complying with a restriction after returning to the UK.
In November 2019, we extended the scheme to 14 more offences, including stalking; harassment involving violence; the possession of indecent images of children; controlling and coercive behaviour; abuse of position of trust in sexual offences; and possession of indecent images. Including these offences in the scheme has helped to ensure that perpetrators of these horrific crimes receive sentences that match the seriousness of their offending behaviour.
The Government continue to keep the scope of the scheme under review and will carefully consider any proposals to extend the scheme to cover more offences. However, as the hon. Member for Strangford correctly indicated, the number of cases that have been referred under the scheme has gone up quite considerably over recent years.
I must stress that the decision to extend the scheme is not a straightforward one, because it is very important—not just to defendants, but also to victims and everyone else—that there is finality in sentencing. The general rule is that a person should expect to serve the sentence a judge has imposed upon them. It should also be recognised that Parliament, in creating the scheme, intended for it to be an exceptional power.
In addition, this scheme has to be set within the wider context in which it sits. The Government have brought forward a wider package of legislative measures in recent years to ensure that the punishment that offenders receive reflects the severity of their crime. To pick up the points that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) quite rightly made when she was talking about violence against women, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what is now criminal which was not 10 years ago.
Forget the ULS scheme; first of all we must ensure that it is an offence. More than 10 years ago, it was not an offence to carry out upskirting. It was not an offence to exert coercive control. It was not an offence to stalk. It was not an offence to send revenge porn or threaten to do so. It was not a specific offence to take part in non-fatal strangulation. It was not a specific offence to assault an emergency worker. There is an enormous amount that has changed over recent years to ensure that people who do commit crime can be punished for it. I could add plenty of others, such as causing death by careless driving. That is the first point.
The second point is that over the past 10 years, there has been a significant increase in sentencing to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. There are longer sentences for stalking, desecrating war memorials, and animal welfare crimes. It used to be the case, as recently as 15 years ago, that although someone would get a life sentence, the minimum period that they would serve before being eligible for parole was normally 15 years. Now, if a knife is used in the crime, it is a starting point of 25 years, and if a firearm is used, the starting point is 30 years. It is important to stress that there is not automatic release at the end of that period; that is the earliest point at which they are eligible for parole. So we have more offences and longer sentences.
Defendants are also required to spend longer in custody. We enacted the sentences for offenders of particular concern provision, ending automatic release for terrorism and child sex offenders, and ensuring that convicted terrorists spend a minimum of two thirds of their term behind bars before being considered for release by the Parole Board. We have taken action to ensure that offenders sentenced for serious sexual and violent offences spend longer in custody. Last year, we delivered the Release of Prisoners (Alteration of Relevant Proportion of Sentence) Order 2020, which ended automatic release from custody at the halfway point for offenders given a standard determinate sentence of seven years or more for a serious violence or sexual offence that carries a maximum penalty of life.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge raised the issue of rape. It is important to note that under these provisions, if the individual is sentenced to seven years or more, they will now serve much longer. Although I genuinely welcome her points on this—we all want to see robust sentences in respect of those who attack women, and particularly for sex crimes—we have had to address a situation brought about by section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, whereby people who committed that kind of crime would be released at the halfway point. It is a really important step to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system by ensuring that people are not automatically released at the halfway point. That was the situation that we inherited, and that is the situation we have changed.
We would happily look at a minimum sentence for rape. There are minimum sentences for firearms and third-strike burglary. Respectfully, it would sound more credible if we had had support on that issue on Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to provide longer sentences for those who commit these appalling crimes. I do not question for a second the commitment across this House to ensuring that those who commit appalling offences serve their time, but there are ways we can do it, and it requires everyone to step up and vote for it.
To deliver on our manifesto commitments to make punishments tougher for the most serious offenders and end automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes, we recently introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to Parliament. Measures in the Bill would ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders who receive a standard determinate sentence of four years or more serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, aligning their release point with serious violent and sexual offenders sentenced to seven years or more.
To recap: more offences, longer sentences, longer in custody. But we have gone further, because we have longer licence periods as well. We have brought in a wider range of terrorism offences within the scope of the extended determinate sentence. No longer is it the case that someone is released on licence until the end of their sentence. In certain cases, that licence period will be extended so that they know that if they transgress again, offend against the public, betray innocents, betray trust or destroy lives, they can expect to be punished again.
The victims code has rightly been referred to. The Government are taking action to ensure that victims are supported at every stage of the criminal justice system. The new victims code came into force on 1 April, and it sets out 12 key rights for all victims of crime. I respectfully urge right hon. and hon. Members to have a look at it if they ever get a moment. It is the culmination of two years of extensive work, including wide stakeholder engagement with victims and victims groups to ensure we have a clear and comprehensive framework for victims’ rights. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) made an important point about the awareness of this, and she is right to do so. Awareness is critically important, so let me take the opportunity in this place to emphasise that right 9 is the right to be given information about the outcome of the case and any appeals. Right 9.4 says:
“If you think the sentence given to the offender is far too low”—
that’s the heading—
“For some (but not all) cases sentenced in the Crown Court you can ask the Attorney General to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal to reconsider it. This can only be done if the Attorney General thinks that the sentence was not just lenient but ‘unduly lenient’, such that the sentencing judge made a gross error or imposed a sentence outside the range of sentences reasonably available in the circumstances of the case.”
It goes on, but I will not read the whole thing out. We all have a duty to amplify and publicise that, and I take my opportunity to do so today.
Later this year, we will consult on the detail of the victims Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, which will enshrine those 12 key rights in law and hold agencies accountable for delivering those rights to victims, with a view to their publishing a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill will set expectations for the standard and availability of victim support. Let me say also, because it was an important point, that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge picked up in her powerful remarks what can be the context for appalling crimes such as murder, namely, gateway offences of domestic abuse and so on.
We are investing record amounts in support for victims: more than £300 million this year, including £27 million to recruit 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, in an increase of more than 40%. That is important because we want to ensure that women—it is usually women, frankly—who are the victims of domestic abuse have the opportunity and support to go out and support the prosecution that leads to that individual being taken out of circulation, if that is the will of the court and the proportionate and appropriate sentence. That means that the individual does not go on to commit further appalling crimes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford referred to his specific constituent’s case, the dreadful case of Joseph Falconer. He and other hon. and right hon. Members made the point about time limits. It is important to note that in the circumstances that he referred to—where, say, a judge has imposed a contempt of court order and reporting restrictions because to report on the case might lead to a miscarriage of justice elsewhere—the CPS automatically sends to the Attorney General’s office a summary of that case and it is then reviewed. So that takes place as a matter of course to deal with precisely that point. When it comes to deferred sentence, the clock only starts ticking on the date the substantive sentence takes effect. Those are two aspects that I hope provide my hon. Friend with some comfort.
I accept, however, that there is a wider issue about ticking clocks. We have to weigh up the balance of our criminal justice system and recognise, as a matter of conscience, that where an individual has been convicted, punished and disgraced at the hands of the state, they need to know the maximum extent of his punishment, save in truly exceptional circumstances. There are cases, of course, when even if he is given a long sentence—tough—he is going to get a longer one because that is what the Court of Appeal says. None the less, in the majority of cases, it is important that when that person stands up and is told what his sentence is he has a sense that that is the sentence he is going to get.
The other important point is for victims as well. Those people who have built themselves up to this moment, to the sentencing hearing, which can be a moment of great distress, want to know that that is it. A sigh of relief; this is over. We need to weigh that in the balance to ensure that there is a measure of finality.
My hon. Friend made an excellent point about the youth court and he talked in particular about the issue of rape and the extent to which that could somehow be taken outside the unduly lenient scheme. He made a powerful point about that. It is important to note that for those very rare cases that are dealt with in the youth court because, for the sake of argument, the offender is aged 13, for example, if the court decides, having learned about the offending, that it is so serious that the maximum penalty of two years with a detention and training order is insufficient, they do now have power—I have checked—to commit that to the Crown court. It was previously under section 53 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, but that has been superseded by the sentencing code legislation.
Let me close by saying that if people are to have confidence in the criminal justice system, it is critical not only that people are convicted for the wrongs that they have done but that they are required to serve a sentence that reflects the indignation, anger and upset that we feel as a society on their behalf. Sentences are longer, and more offences have been created. People are serving longer in custody, and there is the opportunity for longer licence periods as well. We are extending the unduly lenient system to ensure that justice can be done, and of course we will continue to keep the matter under review. As we do so, we will have the remarks made by right hon. and hon. Members in this House firmly in mind.
I thank the Minister for his response and for some of the reassurances that he gave us. I welcome the expansion of the scheme that has taken place, and I also welcome the fact that this is by and large a non-party political issue. Members of different parties have different approaches to the criminal justice system, but ultimately we all want to see fairness prevail, and I am pleased to see that.
We owe it to the victims of crime to make changes to this scheme. We owe it to Gemma Robinson, Kimberley, Jackie, Josh and Ruth, and the thousands of other people who have inadvertently been wronged by the criminal justice system. The 28-days issue is one that I would implore the Minister to look at again, because as I said in my speech, I believe that when there is a lack of discretion from the court in exceptional circumstances, injustice can occur. He was right to point out that we want certainty for both the victim and the offender. At the moment, there is certainty for the offender, but there is less certainty for the victim, because people can appeal out of time in some exceptional circumstances. That should also apply to the victims of crime.
Let’s face it, if we were creating a criminal justice system today, we would not create one like this. There is no way that we would say that the defence can appeal against anything but the prosecution cannot. That is simply not how anyone would create a system that rightly prides itself on balance and fairness. As far as the unduly lenient sentence scheme is concerned, we do not yet have that, so I would ask that this process, which has rightly been pursued by the Ministry, continues to look at what other offences can be brought into the scope of the scheme, so that we can have equality of arms and ensure that justice prevails, which is, after all, what we all seek to achieve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.
Sport: Disabled Officials, Referees and Umpires
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending the debate physically should clean their spaces before they use them and when they leave. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered encouraging more disabled officials, referees and umpires into sport.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am particularly grateful that the debate has been selected and that the Minister for Sport is here to respond.
Inclusivity in sport is something we all believe in and want to promote. Great strides have been made in Paralympic sport, the amazing Invictus games and disability cricket. I have to pay tribute to the England and Wales Cricket Board for its amazing and inspiring work enabling people with disabilities to play cricket. We have a whole range of thriving disability sports, enabling access and participation. But what about officials who have disabilities? What about officials who are wheelchair users? I am sad to say that this is an area that has been overlooked. It is seen as a barrier too far, a hurdle too high.
What does a young person born with cerebral palsy do if their dream is to be a football referee? What does a cricket umpire with a lifelong passion for cricket do if they develop a condition that means they have to use a wheelchair? Should they just accept that they must abandon their dream? Should they just give up on their passion and allow their disability to stand in their way? We are all here in this place to tear down barriers that stand in the way of the hopes and dreams of those we represent. That is what I am seeking to do today.
I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister, who has been doing a fantastic and impressive job during this covid period, for which I thank him, the extraordinary campaign of my constituent, John McIntear, who has been championing access for people with disabilities to officiate in sport. John is an inspiring person. His passion is cricket, and he is a qualified cricket umpire. He is also an ex-serviceman and he uses a wheelchair. John has a life-limiting condition and the prognosis, I am sad to say, is not good. John was determined that his condition would not prevent him from continuing to umpire cricket, so he embarked on an inspiring campaign: sports officiating from a powered wheelchair—SOPW. It was a campaign that captured the imagination of cricket and other sports across Shropshire. Working with the Royal British Legion, Motability, the Shropshire Association of Cricket Officials, Shropshire Disabled Cricket Club, the Shropshire Cricket Board and, of course with support from the Shropshire Star, John set about raising funds to buy a specially adapted powered wheelchair, which has enabled him to continue his passion for cricket by officiating at cricket matches as an umpire.
When I saw that we would debate this topic in Westminster Hall, right away one of my constituents came to mind: a young fellow called Scott Hilland. I know his dad, mum and the family very well. Scott was born disabled, and he has a powered wheelchair. He plays for and is the captain of the Northern Ireland wheelchair football team. It is clear to me that he could be an official—he has officiated some of the matches I have been to watch. The hon. Lady has been inspired by John McIntear, and I have been inspired by 17-year-old Scott Hilland.
The hon. Gentleman’s constituent Scott is a testament to what can be achieved by anyone who sets their mind to it. He sounds a wonderful person.
Despite the disruption caused by covid, John McIntear has now used his specially designed powered wheelchair to umpire his first match, which is a huge achievement. John’s success led him to wonder whether there are other officials using wheelchairs to participate in umpiring. He found that, in fact, there is only one other disabled person doing so. So John decided that in the time left to him he would campaign to give people who are disabled the opportunity to officiate in whatever sport they wish to. His aim is to work with organisations to secure the provision of powered and suitably modified wheelchairs to enable those with mobility impairments to officiate in sports.
I will quote John McIntear, because I would like his words to be put on the record. He says:
“I want to inspire and encourage people who are disabled to go out and follow their dream. From the start, the principle of umpiring from a powered wheelchair has never been about me. It is all about giving people with a disability the opportunity to officiate in whatever sport they wish to.”
So often in life, we need someone to show us the way; someone to show us that something can be done; someone to raise our horizons, to enable us to believe that the obstacles in our path can be overcome; and someone to give us the ambition and tell us that something is possible. John has done that and it is awe-inspiring.
John has shown the way to sports organisations, sports clubs, disability access organisations and people with disabilities who want to officiate in sport. Indeed, I would say that John has also shown the way to us in this place. John’s work gives people hope and creates opportunities where people believed there were none. John is a trailblazer and we can see from his example that mobility impairments are not a barrier to officiating in sport.
The Minister will understand that I have some asks of him and his Department today. I ask him to reflect on what more can be done to support people with disabilities to officiate in sport, and I ask him to support John McIntear’s campaign, by encouraging sporting bodies to engage with it and consider how they can train people with disabilities to become referees, umpires and officials of all kinds, and how they can create opportunities for participation. Also, can he please consider what his Department can do to promote and create opportunities for people who are mobility-impaired to officiate, including at high-profile events such as the much anticipated Commonwealth games in Birmingham, which would be a massive opportunity to show the UK’s commitment to inclusion and mobility-impaired officials? I know that the Minister is, in fact, the Minister for the Commonwealth games; he has that great honour. It is possibly a very arduous task, but it is also a great honour. So I know that it is in his gift to make that ambition a reality.
Consequently, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments today. However, I would also be most grateful if he could come back to me, once he has had the opportunity to discuss this issue with officials, and set out ways in which we can all build on John’s remarkable efforts.
Very sadly, the prognosis for John McIntear’s condition is not good and the time left for him to campaign on this issue is very short. In closing, I must pay tribute to John and his inspiring work, and I know that he will continue to champion this cause with energy and determination for as long as he can do so. I also know that he will have every success. Perhaps he could be persuaded to come and umpire a Lords and Commons cricket match, to shine a light on his campaigning efforts.
Ultimately, I know that one day we will see a test match or a Premiership football match being officiated by a mobility-impaired individual in a powered wheelchair, and we will have John McIntear and his campaign to thank for that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate, and on raising the important issue of inclusion for disabled people in all aspects of sport and in officiating in particular. She is always a great champion of her constituents and it is a pleasure to respond to her. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and for highlighting another inspirational person, his constituent Scott.
It is clear from my hon. Friend’s comments that she shares my view that sports and physical activities at all levels are hugely important to disabled people. That is why the Government and their arm’s length bodies, Sport England and UK Sport, have worked closely with the sector and national governing bodies, including the ECB, which my hon. Friend highlighted, to ensure that inclusion in sport remains a priority at all levels from grassroots through to pathways to elite sport and governance.
At the outset, I would like to say that the Government are absolutely committed and recognise the great importance of sport and physical activity for disabled people who take part, including officiating and referring. The opportunity to have a parliamentary debate on what steps the Government are taking to support disability officiating in sport is a positive message in itself to send, highlighting the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion at all levels of sport. I warmly welcome the efforts of campaigns to increase diversity and inclusion, such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair—SOPW—founded by my hon. Friend’s constituent, the truly inspirational individual Mr John McIntear, a Royal Navy veteran and a cricket umpire who uses a powered wheelchair. I would like to put on record my admiration for his work and encourage other governing bodies in sport to engage with his campaign, as my hon. Friend requested.
The Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, is aligned with Mr McIntear’s ambition for more inclusion in sport. It stresses the importance of helping under-represented groups and isolated communities, including disabled people, to take part as active participants, spectators and in the workforce. In addition, Sport England has recently launched its new 10-year strategy, “Uniting the Movement”. This strategy reinforces its commitment to increasing participation in sport and physical activity for those from under-represented groups, including disabled people.
I am aware that even before the effects of the pandemic, disabled people and people with a long-term health condition were twice as likely to be physically inactive as those without a disability or health condition. There are deep-rooted inequalities in participation levels in sport and physical activity. We know there are people who feel excluded from being active and participating in sport, because the right options and opportunities simply are not there. That does not only apply to taking part in playing, it also extends to the sporting workforce and officials. That only strengthens the resolve of the Government and national governing bodies to redouble efforts to ensure we keep the focus on increasing opportunities for disabled people.
We have been working with Sport England, UK Sport and sports organisations such as Activity Alliance to ensure that guidance is in place. That will help disabled people to get back to playing, volunteering and participating in the sports they love as safely as possible.
Sport has so much to offer. Everyone should be able to take part. In turn, sport has so much to gain from welcoming everyone in the community, including disabled people. Diversity of experience can only be an asset.
With the opening up of sporting activities over the next few months, projects such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair will help to focus attention and resources on disabled individuals to have the opportunity to officiate in any sport they choose to participate in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, the UK has led the way in supporting, for example, Paralympic sports and disability participation at a grassroots level through Sport England with initiatives such as the “We Are Undefeatable” campaign; and partnerships between Sport England and Disability Rights UK, Aspire, Sense and international mixed ability sport.
However, many who wish to officiate are hindered by lack of access due to their level of mobility. Although programmes that focus on disabled coaches, volunteers and leaders are available, Sport England has also identified a gap around disabled officials and referees and is actively reviewing how to address this going forward. I would be happy to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend on this area.
I am delighted to comment on that. My hon. Friend is right: I am indeed the Minister for the Commonwealth games, which is an absolute honour. As we get closer and closer—we are not too far away from one year to go—the excitement and responsibility are certainly building up. It is really important that we do include disabled people in the games, with the motto being “a Games for everyone”.
That is absolutely right; that will be a focus. For the first time, Birmingham 2022 will deliver the largest fully integrated parasport programme of any Commonwealth games. It is an important distinction that the Commonwealth games, unlike the Olympic games, is integrated. Therefore, we will look to further promote opportunities for equality and inclusion, including officiating, in the lead-up to and throughout the games. I would be happy to give my hon. Friend an update on that at the appropriate time.
In terms of funds, certain funds and efforts are being made, such as the £20 million Tackling Inequalities Fund from Sport England, which will be essential to providing the necessary support at a community level, catering specifically to the needs of under-represented groups through trusted community partners and alliances. Currently, £13.5 million has been awarded and £9.7 million has already reached community organisations and groups across the country.
As a result, over 2,800 projects are actively being delivered by trusted partners close to the communities that have previously been unserved or underserved by more traditional delivery structures. Of these, almost £2 million has been awarded to 500 projects specifically targeting disabled people in sport.
We also welcome the efforts of inspirational individuals such as John McIntear and the FA licensed referee Nathan Mattick, who showcase first-hand that disability is not a barrier to officiating. They are indeed role models.
There are also organisations such as the National Star College UK, which target their campaigning, funding and support into education, refereeing and officiating opportunities for disabled people. It is now our job to ensure that the momentum continues and that the same level of effort and support is provided to disabled individuals who want to coach and officiate in the sports that they so clearly love.
Before closing, I should also mention that the Government are keenly aware that the last year has been particularly difficult for many disabled people. The recent Active Lives survey from Sport England has indicated that there was a general decrease in activity levels, but disabled people in particular were less active. That is probably in part because they are more likely to be reliant on facilities to participate in sport, which, of course, in many cases had to be shut. However, I am more determined than ever to work closely with the sector to ensure that activity levels return as quickly as possible to pre-pandemic levels and then beyond. As part of that work, there will be scope to look at the opportunities for disabled people to officiate and referee, as well as coach, volunteer and serve in leadership capacities in sport.
It has been a pleasure to respond to this debate today and to speak on this really important issue. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Telford and her constituent again for their work on this. It is clear that this needs to be a joint effort; the arm’s length bodies that I work closely with, who are true experts in the field and care deeply about inclusion within sport, will be vital in reducing broader inequalities in sport and creating officiating opportunities for disabled people.
Understanding the needs of diverse communities, including disabled people, within sport is key to taking the first step to creating a level playing field, and today’s discussion has been genuinely useful in that regard. As we emerge from the pandemic, now more than ever it is important that we keep progressing. I am more determined than ever that the sports sector emerge from the pandemic stronger, with inclusion at the centre of everything it does.
Question put and agreed to.
Cyber-Fraud in the UK
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice 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.
I also remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and that Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to those of us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is email@example.com. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cyber-fraud in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd; I did not know that you had joined the Panel of Chairs, so I am particularly glad to see you in the Chair.
I am grateful that this important issue was successful in the ballot, affording us a golden opportunity to keep up the pressure on the Government to take this issue and its real-life consequences seriously. We have heard in recent weeks and months from a growing number of colleagues from across the House who have voiced concerns about the scale and scope of this problem, clearly illustrating that this is by no means a constituency-specific issue.
Cyber-fraud impacts us all, and failure to address it at the root risks undermining both our national security and our personal safety. Simply put, it is as real a threat to the weekly online shop as it is to national security. It respects no boundaries and views every home and institution as fair game. It poses a clear and present danger to each and every one of us.
However, tackling cyber-fraud will require grit and determination, and a steadfast refusal to roll over to powerful online platforms that believe they are untouchable. We must remember that their bark is worse than their bite. They know that if one Governments succeeds in implementing real change, more will follow. And we need that one Government to be the UK Government.
The British public are now more likely to experience fraud than any other type of crime and the scale of cyber-fraud in particular is growing exponentially. It is no longer enough to promote public awareness campaigns about not giving out bank details or ignoring unsolicited text messages. We need a substantial and co-ordinated response from financial institutions, Government and law enforcement. The country needs a standardised response and reporting mechanism, so that we can shape a set of established norms and expectations, making reporting easier, alongside tracking reports and timeframes for action.
The Government have said that if something is illegal offline, then it is illegal online. This is a principle that I am sure all colleagues can agree with, but, as is so often the case, we have seen little evidence that the rhetoric is being matched by regulation.
The covid pandemic has shaken our economic foundations to the core. It has also significantly undermined the capacity of many people, businesses and organisations to cope with unforeseen financial costs. All of us in this room will have examples of the rise of online financial scams in our communities. I receive information about new scams faster than I can publicise them to constituents. This is followed by stories of people forced into financial hardship as a result of losing money to these scammers, all of which is truly heart-breaking. People are not falling for these scams because they are naïve; they are being tricked by schemes that are astonishingly sophisticated, aping the look, feel and processes of the legitimate enterprises that they are impersonating.
Economic criminals and scammers employ myriad methods to extract funds from consumers. However, since covid-19 one particular method known as brand cloning scams has become more widespread. Criminals target retail investors looking for investment opportunities online through paid-for advertising on sites such as Google and Facebook. These adverts direct victims to fake price comparison websites, or to the cloned website of a well-known and respected investment manager.
This also creates the untenable situation whereby multi-billion dollar corporations, which own and run the platforms where adverts are posted, profit not only from promoting scams but from the Financial Conduct Authority, which pays for adverts warning consumers against the very same scammers. This has created a perverse incentive; platforms have a financial incentivise not to take proactive steps to block fraudulent adverts.
As many Members in this room will know, I have spoken out against the idea of self-regulation for some time. Why would companies proactively prevent the adverts they are being paid to host? It is a case of the fox not only being paid to guard the hen coop but being given free on-site accommodation too.
The scale of this issue grew exponentially during 2020. The Investment Association recently published statistics showing that the total number of reported incidents of this scam alone may have quadrupled from approximately 300 incidents in July to 1,175 by October. This resulted in estimated total reported losses to savers from these scams more than doubling from approximately 4 million in July to 9.4 million by October, with over 200 victims losing money. There is no depth to which these criminals will not stoop.
Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen an explosion in NHS scams. From antibiotics to testing, vaccines to health insurance, scammers have continued to find ways to harness people’s fears and concerns to devastating effect. The NHS in England has teamed up with police and other agencies in a campaign to warn the public about these scams. Text messages are linked to booking sites that mimic the NHS sites and ask for personal details, including bank details. These bank details are then passed on and used to buy goods online.
While people have been warned that the NHS will never ask for bank account details, PINs or passwords and will never arrive at your home unannounced or ask for identity documents to be sent away, we still have all heard the stories, particularly of elderly people, being conned out of significant amounts of money. Preying on the scared and vulnerable in our society is utterly reprehensible, but it is part of a wider theme of the unpreparedness of Government to deal with the challenges that arrive.
The reality of online fraud is likely to be much greater as not every loss is reported and there is a known disconnect between the amount of fraud and reporting to agencies. Action Fraud recently commented that in 2020 overall it saw 19,000 reports of investment frauds across all categories. These are, of course, only the cases reported. We have to get rid of the stigma of falling victim to a scam so that more people are persuaded to come forward and report fraud.
Another increase we have seen during the pandemic is home working, which has become a necessity for many people. Many businesses and employees are considering a hybrid working pattern once restrictions are fully eased. Many have understood that, although home working brings with it some downsides, particularly for those who can easily be tempted to log in after hours, there are many upsides, including greater flexibility for those with other responsibilities, money saved on the commute and greater comfort. But there are vulnerabilities for business and Government that need to be addressed. Domestic wi-fi and email systems do not usually have the same security as business-operated networks. Business networks should not be the only ones protected by cyber-security. It is people who are often the target of cyber-criminals, and it is people as a whole we should be protecting.
Hybrid working is a natural extension of the increased importance of the internet in our professional and personal lives, and the hybrid nature of our lives needs to be recognised in legislation. If the Government refuse to act and upgrade our analogue legislation, businesses and workers will continue to be at risk of fraud.
In February, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies published its occasional paper on the topic of cyber-fraud, “The UK’s Response to Cyber Fraud: A Strategic Vision”, which notes that the UK economy loses an average of £190 billion every year to fraud, and that the majority of UK fraud now involves internet-based scams. Despite the commitment in the 2019 Conservative party manifesto to the creation of a new national cyber-crime force, the Government’s approach to tackling cyber-fraud can be described as an “alphabet soup”, according to the writers of the RUSI report. They gave a number of key recommendations for Government priority action, but I have highlighted the three that I think are most important as we work to make tackling cyber-crime a priority.
“The National Crime Agency…should publish comprehensive guidance for private sector organisations on how they can lawfully assist law enforcement in preventing and investigating cyber fraud through information sharing.”
We have to change the cultural view that companies must protect their information at all costs, even to the detriment of colleagues, customers and wider society. A regulatory framework is needed not only to protect prospective victims of crime but to ensure that companies are clear about their responsibilities to support the prevention of crime and investigations. We need to face cyber-criminals united, and we must use all the resources we can muster.
Secondly, there needs to be a large-scale development of skills and capabilities within our public sector. There needs to be large-scale training across police forces to help them deal with the huge increase in cyber-crime in our public institutions; to ensure that they have the knowledge to deal with the cyber-threat. The Government need to harness the knowledge in our universities and research agencies, and if necessary work in partnership with those who have the requisite cyber-intelligence—for example, RUSI. We have the expertise and ideas, and we now need to bring that together to develop resilience within our institutions.
“The Home Office should provide increased resourcing for the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit to ensure that the service can reach a wider range of residents in more force areas.”
We also need to think about how we reach people. It is obviously important that we reach young people and educate them on the dangers of the internet, the way people can target their victims, and how they are easily reached in schools and educational settings. We should not forget everyone else, particularly older people, for whom the internet is a completely alien landscape, where they have not learned to mistrust the communications from “the bank”, “the Post Office” or, recently, “the NHS”. Although resources to look after victims of crime are important, we also need resources to prevent people from falling victim in the first place.
We stand at yet another turning point in politics and our society. Covid has exposed elements of our society that we cannot be proud of. The inequalities exposed by the pandemic should shame the Government, but they provide us with motivation and a point at which we can recognise the problems and act on them. Online shopping, already expanding before the pandemic, has been turbo-charged. However, with this boost must come responsibilities and a duty to society from the online retailers. We have seen that scams impact not only the wellbeing of their victims but also that of those they impersonate. Online retailers and companies must contribute to their own security through taxation. We in real life, as it were, contribute to our physical wellbeing through taxes, paying for police officers and doctors. The online world must contribute to its wellbeing and that of its customers.
The main problem identified by the RUSI report was the number and diversity of stakeholders involved across sectors, from Government authorities to law enforcement, from financial institutions to private sector industry, and from cyber-security companies to IT companies. Everyone in this interconnected and technological world has an interest at stake. We need clarification on which Department leads on cyber-security and internet safety.
Then there are the quangos. Of course, internet infrastructure relating to national security will have a whole level of security. Although we do not expect our business or private systems to be protected to the level of GCHQ, the ambiguity of life on the internet these days and the host of immersive tasks that we now complete online must come with the requisite protection and guidance. That requires a clear delineation of responsibilities for all involved.
For too long, the Government have been complacent about the dangers of increased internet usage, with analogue laws in a digital age. Far too much leeway is given to social media platforms. Yes, we need to protect freedoms of expression, but we also need to protect people against criminal elements who operate in this online wild west to cause harm. False advertising is illegal. Impersonation to extract financial gain is illegal. Theft, whether in real life or online, is illegal. We needed an Online Safety Bill that would have protected people, not one that merely hints at what is considered immoral. Sadly, this is not the Bill we will be seeing in the coming months.
The Minister will no doubt set out how the Bill will be the best thing since sliced bread, how it is world leading. I understand all of those things, but two years on the Bill has made very little progress and we are now going to pre-legislative scrutiny. Two years ago, it was very positive and progressive, but now other countries are taking the lead around the world. We need to know what the reluctance to act continues to be and why the Government are still delaying. It is important that, as we tackle fraud, we put our communities, children and businesses, which are at risk of cyber-fraud, first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this timely debate.
The scale of fraud and cyber-crime is remarkable, affecting more people more often than any other crime. It represents more than a third of all estimated crime, with 6.1 million incidents in England and Wales in the year ending September 2020. Eighty per cent of reported fraud is facilitated by the use of digital technology and the coronavirus pandemic means so many more of us are using online services to shop and invest and for leisure. As our habits change, so do those of criminals.
I believe that life on the internet should be as safe as our lives offline. If being exploited on the high street is unacceptable, the same must apply to vendors who operate online. I am proud that the City of London Police, based in my constituency, is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for economic and cyber-crime and the national lead force for fraud. It works to investigate serious, complex and cross-border fraud, which is beyond the capability of a local police force, and provides training for such police forces and private sector workforces through its Economic Crime Academy. With the support of the City of London Corporation and stakeholders, including UK Finance, the City of London Police has consistently shown how it can harness and work with the private sector to tackle cyber-fraud, providing a bridge for law enforcement into financial institutions and, importantly now, into the FinTech sector.
I welcome the draft Online Safety Bill announced in the recent Queen’s Speech, which I hope will do much to tackle cyber-fraud. Indeed, the inclusion of fraud within the legislation will provide much needed encouragement for online service providers to take responsibility for protecting users of their services and implementing counter-fraud strategies to prevent malicious content. That is essential in a time when we have become even more dependent on making our digital defences robust and capable of dealing with the volume of fraud that we are now seeing. By the same token, if we are seeing cyber-fraud more often replacing traditional crime, we must allocate the relevant resources to reflect this new significance.
Equally, the City of London Police, which holds the unique role in this landscape, must be properly funded so it can continue upholding its national responsibilities. That said, online fraud need not be as sophisticated; online threats can and do spring from almost anywhere. Last year, the City of London Police alone requested suspension of 54,000 telephone, email, website and social media accounts. Facebook, Amazon, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn are the platforms that feature most frequently in fraud and cyber-crime reports, and I am sure all of us in this room use at least one of those platforms every day. The challenge is immense, and online service providers must take more responsibility to protect users of their services and implement counter-fraud strategies.
The suspicious email reporting service, developed in partnership with the National Cyber Security Centre, has received nearly 6 million reports in the past year, resulting in the removal of more than 43,000 scams and 86,000 URLs, including those linked to covid-19, investment and online shopping fraud. I have used the excellent service myself, forwarding suspicious emails to report@phishing. gov.uk, and texting 7726. We all have a part to play in ensuring that those fraudsters are closed down as soon as possible.
Clearly, updating the framework by which we enforce against cyber-fraud is a priority for this Government, and I welcome their conviction on that, but the solution is not one-dimensional. We all have a role to play in fraud prevention. We know not to leave our doors unlocked, our possessions visible in our cars or our telephones on a table when we are out eating. We know that to keep ourselves safe, we have to take a degree of personal responsibility. The same needs to be replicated online. People, no matter what their age, should be taught how to keep themselves safe online.
Although there is more that can be done and, critically, is being done centrally, greater priority must be placed on fraud at a local policing level. Too few of the cases disseminated to local forces for investigation by Action Fraud have actually reached a judicial outcome. Simply increasing capability, capacity and focus centrally will not address the substantial shortfall in local police forces to take cases forward. Now more than ever, there needs to be a drive to boost local police capacity and ensure consistency of approach. I am glad to see the Government respond with strength on this issue. It is my hope that strength does not wane, but is fortified to protect our citizens against aggressive and malicious abuses of technology.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing the debate. This issue is becoming more and more prevalent. Sadly, in my own office I have heard several cases of people being scammed out of significant sums of money. One gentleman was swindled out of around £200,000 through an online banking scam. A seemingly innocuous mistake, a momentary lapse in vigilance, trusting those who appear to be who they are not, and a lifetime’s work can disappear, with a life forever damaged. Listening to victims recount their trauma is one of the hardest things we do. We must ensure that we do all we can to stop more of our constituents becoming victims.
It is a missed opportunity that the Online Safety Bill does not go far enough to tackle cyber-fraud and scams comprehensively. As a natural consequence of that inaction, this spiralling problem will only get worse. Action Fraud reports that £1.7 billion was lost through cyber-fraud in the past year. I struggle to comprehend how the Government cannot make it an absolute priority, as a significant step to make our online world a safer space. Tinkering at the edges of the problem will not cut it. The Government must tackle this problem, with wide-ranging provisions in the Online Safety Bill. That is very much the view of campaign groups, regulators and industry.
An area that needs specific action is online advertising, as it is the catch that hooks so many, whether the older retiree seeking to find a way to invest a pension, or cloned websites that attract the younger online user. The sophistication of such scams is becoming more apparent and must be met with a regulatory and legislative framework that is fit for purpose, ensuring that big tech is held responsible while also equipping our own police forces to be able to go after the perpetrators. We must have action. All online economic crime must be addressed by the Bill. This is the opportunity and we must take it.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. May I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this excellent debate? The subject is rather close to my heart. I would like to share an anecdote, which may explain why I feel as I do.
Before I was elected to this place almost four years ago, my mother passed away. She was 91. She had led a good life, and I loved her dearly and miss her today. When she died, her telephone number was going to be taken back by BT, but I thought, “No; for sentimental reasons I will keep her number,” and that was all organised. What happened over the next few weeks and months was a revelation to me, and a nasty one at that: I was getting scam calls—fraudulent calls. Gradually it sank in that my mother must have been getting these calls in particularly high numbers—in a way that my old telephone number had not—and that she must have been on some database shared about among scammers as someone who was elderly and vulnerable.
It seems to me that there must be evil databases out there that scammers use to email stuff to vulnerable people. Curiously enough, my wife gets the odd one—we have got quite sharp at recognising them—and, exactly as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) said, we report them in the correct fashion. I point out in passing that a quick google on such messages can be highly informative.
I, too, have had constituents who have lost large amounts of money. The trouble is, it was just in a moment of inadvertent not thinking that they released information they should not have done. It is a desperate business to talk to these people; it really is awful. However, right now in my constituency there is a climate of fear, with people getting really worried about perfectly innocuous emails coming in. I put it to colleagues that that fear is not healthy for society.
To conclude, I have personal experience and have seen what happens. It has affected my family. I often wonder, “Did my mother fall for any of these scams?” I do not know—she is not here to tell me—but I worry that she might have done; God only knows. I welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that legislation will be forthcoming, as I am sure we all do, and it is up to us all to ensure that it works and is absolutely watertight. All sorts of things could be done. Perhaps the Home Office could put out information in easily readable forms to all sorts of people around the UK saying, “These are the things to watch out for.” We need such warnings, but we also need forms of reassurance that say, “If you are worried about something, call this number. We can advise you and help.” I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I echo the comments thanking the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for bringing forward this important debate. As we have heard, cyber-fraud is a huge challenge right across the UK. From email scams, banking fraud, fake websites, computer viruses and online relationship scams to investment scams, cyber-fraud is thriving as cyber-criminals develop increasingly sophisticated ways to prey on victims in the cyber-world.
UK businesses lost more than £6.2 million to cyber-scams in the previous year, with a 31% increase in cases at the height of the pandemic, last May and June. The most common type of attack has been hacking through email or social media, which accounted for 53% of attacks over the past year, leading to a loss of £2.9 million. Scams caused by hacking of computer services have been revealed as the second most common type of attack on businesses over the 12-month period, but as we have heard, the consequences for individuals who have fallen victim to cyber-crime and cyber-fraud can be extremely far-reaching. While technology has helped older people to be better connected during the covid outbreak, unfortunately our increased participation in the digital world has also provided additional opportunities for criminals.
As we have heard, cyber-fraud can leave its victims in desperate financial situations, and it takes many forms. Since lockdown began, more than £5 million has been lost to covid-related scams and £16 million has been lost as a result of online shopping fraud. Criminals send phishing emails and texts claiming, as we have heard, to be from the Government, Government agencies, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and health bodies, convincing people to open links and encouraging them to reveal sensitive personal or financial information.
The most immediate impact, of course, is financial. Most people over the age of 70 who fall victim to a serious scam can be dead within two years, such is the impact on health and wellbeing. It is important, as we have heard, that we have the tools to protect ourselves online to minimise the risk of falling victim to those types of cyber-crimes. Organisations such as Age UK are doing a great amount of work to try to educate particularly older people about what steps they can take to better protect themselves from cyber-fraud. However, as we have heard, we need greater public education on the issue so that we can all be better informed about the kinds of cyber-scams to which we may be vulnerable.
There are genuine fears, repeated in today’s debate, that the draft Online Safety Bill falls far short of what is needed to protect consumers in this digital age. The Bill will not seek to address fraud via advertising, emails or cloned websites. The biggest online harm is scamming and it will simply not be sufficiently covered in the Bill, which will leave consumers pretty much as exposed as they have ever been to cyber-fraud.
Nearly 2 million people fell victim to online scams in the six months after lockdown measures began in March 2020. It is shocking that those living with mental health challenges are three times more likely to have lost money to scammers, causing trauma and crippling money problems at a time when many people are already under huge financial, emotional and psychological strain. We need extra resources to deal with cyber-fraud. The fact is that law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up with the creativity, innovation and sophistication of criminals who engage in such behaviour. Those who can protect us from online fraud need the resources to do so.
Alongside that, older people have been moving increasingly online, sometimes by choice but sometimes out of necessity because of the disruption to normal life that the pandemic has caused. Our older people are living longer, and with 1.3 million older people expected to be living with dementia by 2030, the most vulnerable people in our society need as much protection as we can give them. We need protection for all consumers, vulnerable or otherwise, and the Bill provides a real opportunity for us to provide that.
Cyber-fraud is an evolving threat and will continue to prey on us in all sorts of insidious ways. We need more education for the public, given that such crime is becoming more widespread. We also need more information about how we can all protect ourselves, more resources for experts who can prevent and trace perpetrators, and a Bill that fully recognises the threat in ways that will give confidence to consumers. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the very important issues that have been raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I can say with confidence, particularly beyond the earshot of other Merseyside MPs, that you are the most distinguished Member in our region, so it is good to see that recognised in the position of authority that you now hold. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing today’s debate; he has been a tenacious campaigner on the issue and a strong advocate for victims.
Fraud is an utterly devastating crime for individuals, households, businesses and institutions across all of society. It often targets the vulnerable, leaving victims traumatised, hurt and despairing. It shatters personal finances, damages our economy and threatens our national security. With 4 million offences recorded last year—nearly 12,000 incidents per day—fraud is now endemic. It comprises a third of all crime, and nearly one adult in 10 in England and Wales is affected.
With more of us switching to online patterns of communication, banking and working, fraud has risen sharply in those spheres. The City of London police, to whom I pay tribute—the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), in whose constituency they are situated, mentioned them as well—have claimed that reports of online shopping fraud are at an all-time high. That is a worrying trend, which I fear has been turbocharged by the current covid pandemic, as others have said. Online scams have rocketed by some 1,500%, including shameful NHS-related scams and scams by fraudsters purporting to be from delivery companies. In the past 12 months, we have witnessed an increase in remote banking fraud of 61% and in online shopping and auctions fraud of almost a third, while incidents of remote purchase fraud such as internet order fraud are up by nearly 132,000.
We know that the methods of fraud and the technology used are constantly shifting, so the question is whether the Government have kept up in the way that they should. Sadly, I must say to the Minister that despite increased warnings about the rise in fraud for many years, it is clear to me that the Government still do not seem to have a coherent plan or strategy. I would argue that they have all but given up on tackling it.
Do not take my word for it. We have seen the Minister’s colleagues openly admitting that the police lack the tools needed to properly deal with the crisis. In response to a letter that I sent him in April, the Conservative outgoing police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley—who was the then national lead on fraud, as the Minister knows—said:
“Little is done to combat major fraud…Police forces have neither the time, capacity, nor capability to take on fraud.”
Does the Minister agree with his colleague? If not, could he explain why he was moved to make such critical comments?
We also know that the independent policing inspectorate, in a scathing report, warned that the
“lack of government or national policing strategies for tackling fraud…has profound implications”.
That report was dated April 2019—more than two years ago. In February 2021, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned, the hugely respected think-tank RUSI highlighted its concerns, which have been outlined.
Let us give the Minister the benefit of the doubt. With a new national cyber-security strategy this year, we can hope that finally the Government will deal with the flaws that have been raised and ensure that resources are allocated to meet the challenge; he may want to touch on that. However, as has been mentioned, other opportunities to act exist. For example, lots of individuals fall victim to fraud online through fake advertisements, often through social media platforms and search engines, yet there was no mention of addressing that specific criminality in the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill. In fact, I do not believe that the words “fraud” or “scam” are mentioned once.
We cannot afford to keep letting the fraudsters get ahead. So I urge the Minister to work, if he can, with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because I know that the Bill is a joint Bill being developed between the two Departments, and to think again about the opportunity that might exist in the Bill to address this issue.
In conclusion, we live in an increasingly digitally connected age and we need clear cross-Government and cross-system strategies to tackle the rise in cyber-fraud and to protect the public, the UK’s reputation as a safe place to do business and, of course, our wider national security. If the Minister helps to do that, he will have my support and the full support of the Opposition.
It is a great pleasure to appear before a fellow Scouser, Mr Dowd, who was elected on the same day as I was, back in 2015, although we originate from different ends of the city of Liverpool—yours was the posh end and mine was slightly rougher. [Laughter.] It is great to see you join the Panel of Chairs and to preside with such wisdom over us today.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for securing this extremely important debate, in which Members have spoken with some passion and concern about this issue, underlining the fact that it must be a significant Government priority. I can assure them that it is.
We recognise the devastating impact that fraud can have and how crucial it is that we do everything in our power to protect victims and bring the perpetrators to justice. As a number of Members have outlined this afternoon, these crimes are occurring on a vast scale. According to the latest figures for the year ending December 2020, fraud accounted for over a third of all crime. Is there anybody in the nation who has not been touched by it? I myself was plagued with calls from a recorded message purporting to be the National Crime Agency, telling me that my national insurance number had been suspended and that I was likely to be arrested unless I pressed “1”. They obviously picked the wrong guy, in that I can call the NCA myself. But after I highlighted that problem in a newspaper, strangely enough the calls dried up the very next day. These people must be readers of The Times.
In all seriousness, however, I was very sorry to hear the experience of the mother of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). These crimes can be extremely distressing, particularly when they are targeted at the vulnerable or the elderly, and we really need to focus, because behind the numbers are real people, which we must always keep in mind.
As Members have outlined, the impact of being targeted by fraudsters can be truly devastating, both financially and emotionally. Victims’ lives are turned upside down, their savings are gone and their confidence is shattered. There is also a knock-on effect for society as a whole. We know, for instance, that the money that fraudsters can make goes to fund other serious and organised criminality, such as drugs and terrorism, and fundamentally the function of our economy is based on trust. Those economies that do best in the world are those where there is low corruption, low fraud and a high degree of trust between individuals, and that is something that we must preserve for our economic well-being as well as for our mental wellbeing.
As people have pointed out, with the pandemic and the rise of people staying at home, the importance of staying safe in the virtual world has increasingly become a pressure on us all. Our approach to tackling fraud and online scams puts the interests of victims first—trying to prevent fraud, providing the support that fraud victims need and catching the criminals responsible. It is my view, and that of the Government, that victims must be at the heart of all that we do. We are deeply concerned about the growth and scale of this type of crime, which is increasingly sophisticated and rooted in complex social engineering.
We are working across Government and with the financial sector to ensure that as many victims as possible are able to claim their money back or are reimbursed. We are keen to improve the quality, speed and consistency of victim support and reimbursement, and we have been working closely with colleagues in the Treasury to explore what more might be done to promote greater consistency across the sector.
However, we know that for victims, more is lost than just money. Our estimates suggest that around one in 13 people experience fraud each year. Many of those targeted will suffer serious emotional harm; feelings of shame, trauma and invasion of privacy are all common, as well as a loss of confidence in themselves and in the systems that are in place to protect them. We need to prevent that kind of suffering.
We are working with national and local policing, including police and crime commissioners, to support the victims of such crimes. The National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, based within Action Fraud, also plays an important role by helping victims to recover and to protect themselves against future fraud.
Our law enforcement and intelligence colleagues also play a crucial role in keeping the public safe and bringing these opportunistic criminals to justice. We are considering all routes, including legislation, to give them the tools they need to go after the fraudsters and, crucially, to protect those who are vulnerable to these harmful crimes.
At the forefront of our response is the law enforcement cyber-crime network, which operates at national, regional and local levels to combat the threat from this type of crime and to provide support to those affected. We are boosting the capabilities of the National Crime Agency’s National Cyber Crime Unit and increasing its ability to investigate the most serious cyber-crime. We are also continuing to invest in the cyber-teams in each of the regional organised crime units across England and Wales, to bolster the regional response.
As the hon. Member for Ogmore outlined, fraudsters will use any hook to commit these crimes and covid-19 has been no exception. We have seen criminals exploiting unease and fear, by opportunistically selling bogus personal protective equipment, running phishing campaigns and impersonating Government Departments and the NHS, as hon. Members have pointed out. We are also aware that fraudsters are using the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccine to target and scam elderly and vulnerable people. The NHS will never asked for payment or bank details; if someone is asked to provide financial details or pay for the vaccine, that is a fraud.
The Government are working intensively with local enforcement teams to identify, disrupt and stop these appalling scams and amplify public safety messaging about fake messages that claim to be from the NHS, instructing people to sign up for the vaccine. We have launched a gov.uk page containing advice on the matter, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross asked, and we encourage the public to remain vigilant and forward suspicious emails to report@phishing. gov.uk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) has done, and text messages to 7726, which is free. These systems allow the National Cyber Security Centre and telecoms companies to remove the infrastructure that the fraudsters exploit. The suspicious email reporting service has already led to more than 5.8 million reports, with more than 43,000 scams and 84,000 websites taken down.
We do want to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. To achieve that, it is vital that we leave no space for fraudsters to operate. First and foremost, we must ensure that everyone who can, including the public and private sector, prioritises preventing these types of fraud. That is critical to prevent the significant emotional and financial harm to victims. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out, in other types of crime we promote exactly that approach. Did you know, Mr Dowd, that about 50% of thefts from motor vehicles happen because people leave the car open and forget to lock it, and 43% of burglaries happen because somebody leaves a window or door open? Cyber-crime is no different. Preventing these types of fraud is critical to prevent the significant amount of emotional and financial harm to victims, who experience the economic damage to our businesses, and also to disrupting the organised criminals who perpetrate these crimes. To do that, we are taking steps to ensure that fewer people fall foul of such scams in the first place.
On the draft Online Safety Bill, we have taken the decision to bring user-generated fraud into the scope of the Bill. The Government have engaged extensively with a broad range of stakeholders, including the finance industry, consumer groups, civil society organisations representing victims of fraud, law enforcement and other public bodies. The inclusion of user-generated fraud in the Bill will require platforms to tackle some types of fraud, such as romance and investment scams, that result in massive financial losses and inflict significant psychological harm.
The Bill would require tech companies to protect their users from those types of fraud, which is part of a collaborative effort by the Government to tackle online fraud, working with law enforcement, regulators, industry and consumer groups. We are determined to relentlessly pursue those fraudsters and close down the vulnerabilities that they exploit. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will shortly be considering whether tougher regulation on online advertising is also needed.
The response to fraud demands a collaborative, innovative response to keep pace with the changing threat and new technologies, and we continue to work closely with the industry to drive progress. A great example of that kind of partnership is the specialist dedicated card and payment crime unit, a police unit that targets and disrupts credit card fraud and demonstrates the positive collaboration between UK Finance, the City of London police and the Met police, together with the Home Office, who are working to develop its relationships online.
I am extremely grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon. I hope that I have reassured people that this is a particular area of importance for us as it grows. This is a novel area for crime fighting. The iPhone has only been around for 10 or so years—our lives have been transported online in a frighteningly quick time. It is incumbent on us all—in Government, in policing, in law enforcement more generally and in those large organisations that steward, shepherd and track us, follow us and sell us things online—to make sure that we are as safe as possible. I believe that across Government, law enforcement, those businesses and beyond, we have a collective responsibility. We will be working together and, in the years to come, we will all be safer.
I thank the Minister for his response. As we move into pre-legislative scrutiny for the online harms Bill, I hope that there will be broader scope for tackling fraud. I am grateful to the Minister for Digital; I was one of those who lobbied for that change, and I am grateful to her for engaging, but the Bill is still too narrow in its scope around individuals and fraud, and how platforms will respond.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken part today, including the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for their support for ensuring that the Government do more on tackling the increased threat of fraud in the UK.
It is important that, if additional legislation is needed, the Minister tackles that in the coming months. If he does not, the pandemic of fraud will only get worse. It is truly important that the Government respond in a positive way. Too many people are losing out. Too many people are losing their livelihoods. In some cases, people are taking their own lives. As decision makers and legislators, we have to acknowledge that in the months rather than years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered cyber fraud in the UK.