Monday 12 July 2021
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
Motor Neurone Disease (Research)
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 564582, relating to research into motor neurone disease.
Motor neurone disease is a rare disease that is sadly all too common. It is the most common neurodegenerative disease of midlife, and many younger people are also affected. It is currently a terminal and incurable progressive condition. Progression is rapid, with one third of people dying within a year of diagnosis. Because people with the condition generally die so quickly, only 5,000 people in the UK live with the disease at any one time. However, MND is not rare. One in every 300 people across all communities develop MND in their lifetime, and about 200,000 of the current UK population will die of MND unless effective treatments are found. It is diagnosed in 200 Scots every year, and more than 1,500 people in the UK.
Currently, the only drug available to directly affect MND is called Riluzole, or Rilutek, but I am told that it has limitations, so it is hardly surprising that the petition achieved more than 110,000 signatures. The petition calls on the Government,
“to significantly increase targeted research funding for motor neurone disease”.
“new investment of £50m over 5 years”
to kickstart an MND research institute, which the petitioners argue
“would lead to better, faster and more definitive research outcomes and hope for those with MND.”
In their response, the UK Government recognise the immediate challenges faced by people with motor neurone disease and reiterate their commitment to supporting MND research, which is welcome and I hope gives some encouragement that common ground may be found to take the issue forward. I will return to the Government response to the petition in more detail shortly, with some questions that I hope the Minister will address when responding to today’s debate. First, I want to pay tribute to the amazing work carried out by the petitioners and the charities and individuals involved in tackling MND on a daily basis.
George Wilson “Doddie” Weir created the petition and is one of rugby’s most recognisable personalities, earning 61 caps for Scotland during a successful playing career. He represented the British and Irish Lions on their successful tour to South Africa in 1997, and won championships with his two club sides, Melrose and Newcastle Falcons. In June 2017, six months after receiving his diagnosis, Doddie revealed he was suffering from motor neurone disease. From then, his mantra has been “I’ve just got to crack on.” Five months on from going public, Doddie and his trustees launched and registered the charity, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, with a shared vision of a world free of MND. The No. 5 is special for the foundation. It features in its name and is a reference to Doddie’s playing number for his clubs and the jersey he wore when he earned 61 caps for Scotland.
On meeting Doddie, albeit virtually, last week, I was struck by the positivity and the energy that he continues to have four and a half years on from his diagnosis. Doddie is not the only high-profile personality to succumb to this terrible disease and face up to it. The most recognisable scientist of modern times, Stephen Hawking, defied it for 55 years. Rob Burrow, another rugby great, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019, just two years after ending his playing career by captaining Leeds to a record-extending eighth super league grand final. He described the disease as follows:
“First it comes for your voice. Then it takes your legs. It tries to rob you of your breath. But it can’t sap your spirit.”
Inspirational as these people are, that does not portray the difficulties of living with MND. Everyone living with it is inspirational. They understand that what is holding back progression in the development of effective treatment and a cure is a lack of targeted funding.
I have heard testimonies from Emma, a young mother diagnosed with MND at 37, who can no longer stand, and David, diagnosed in 2012, who accepts that he is lucky because of the slow progression of his MND. Both consider themselves lucky still to have a voice. Indeed, everyone I met during my research for today’s debate is excited about the progress made thus far, but they also know that MND research is disparate and needs to be targeted. I urge the Government not to dampen the growing expectancy that currently exists among the MND community and to meet the requests of the petitioners.
I would now like to go through the official Government response to the petition in some detail, and to comment and question the Government on it. The response stated:
“Over the past five years, the Government has spent £54m on MND research, through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Medical Research Council.”
Yet according to a written parliamentary answer of 14 January this year, the National Institute for Health Research
“funded no Motor Neurone Disease-related projects”
during 2019-20. Can the Minister provide details of any MND-related projects or programmes that received funding from the NIHR over the past five years? The same answer detailed £5 million of MND-related projects funded by the Medical Research Council during 2019-20. Can the Minister provide details of any other MND-related projects or programmes that have received funding from the MRC over the past five years?
Analysis carried out by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, MND Scotland and the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation shows that the figure of £54 million of Government spending over the last five years, which is repeatedly cited in written parliamentary answers, includes general neurological research that often has no tangible link to MND. The same analysis shows that funding for targeted MND research stands at less than £5 million annually, which is more in line with the £5 million allocated in 2019-20 that was detailed in the parliamentary answer of 14 January.
Another passage says:
“The Government remains strongly committed to supporting research into dementia and neurodegeneration, including MND.”
While funding into dementia research is much needed and very welcome, it is reported that, in about 5% of cases of motor neurone disease, there is a family history of either MND or a related condition called frontotemporal dementia. Frontotemporal dementia is just one of the many clinical features of MND, yet dementia features 10 times in the UK Government’s response to this petition. It is therefore understandable that the MND research community, who are all experts in their field, appear to be united in their assertion that MND research should not be adjoined to dementia research. Therefore, I wholeheartedly agree with Ammar Al-Chalabi, professor of neurology and complex disease genetics at King’s College London, when he says that it is no longer appropriate for MND to be tagged on to dementia research initiatives.
Another passage in the response says:
“The UK Dementia Research Institute has significant investment in MND research, with a particular focus on the mechanisms that cause the disease.”
Again, this is positive, but can the Minister give details of that significant investment in MND research? Additionally, the statement talks of research that focuses on the causes of the disease, not treatments. That is an area that needs to be focused on. The MND research community have called for targeted funding for MND research because it understands the substantial progress that has been made in establishing much of the basic science around MND and have identified the need to progress to research into treatment.
Another passage in the Government response said that the 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to doubling funding for dementia research, including MND research, including MND research, and the Government are putting plans in place now to deliver that commitment. I checked that manifesto and there is no mention of MND nor of neurodegeneration; there is only mention of dementia. Can the Minister detail what the plans are specifically for MND and say how much funding will be targeted on MND research?
In another passage, the Government response says:
“The Government has been working to establish a rich ecosystem for neurodegeneration research in the UK. Significant elements are the UK Dementia Research Institute, Dementias Platform UK, NIHR Dementia Translational Research Collaboration, and Join Dementia Research.”
Given that four dementia-related organisations are mentioned in a response to a petition calling for targeted research funding for MND, does the Minister accept that the lack of a pioneering MND research institute, which would attract targeted funding, remains a barrier to progress in finding effective treatments and a cure for MND?
Another passage in the Government response says:
“It is not usual practice to ring-fence funding for particular topics or conditions.”
However, it appears from the Government response that funding for dementia has been ring-fenced. In addition, recent global efforts to find a vaccine for coronavirus, including involvement with numerous research institutes, show how quickly progress can be made when funding is ring-fenced for conditions. Those efforts also enabled the fast development of a coronavirus vaccine. People living with MND need fast development of an effective treatment and a cure because of the rapid progression of this disease. Considering recent scientific developments, the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda and the current economic climate that puts charitable funding at risk, the time is right to increase significantly targeted research funding for MND and invest £50 million over five years to kickstart a pioneering MND research institute.
In conclusion, the research for new therapies requires a truly multidisciplinary and pan-national approach, spanning the entire translational pathway. Establishing a virtual MND translational research institute, which the petitioners call for, will deliver that. There is no doubt that extra MND research funding from the UK Government is needed to support effective patient treatment and medicines, in the hope that a cure for MND can be found soon, because that is what the petitioners and the sufferers of this disease need.
It is a pleasure, Ms Cummins, to serve with you in the Chair this afternoon.
I am pleased to take part in the debate on this petition, which has attracted so much support from my own constituents in the Scottish borders, with my constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk ranking second in the United Kingdom for the number of signatories in a constituency. I imagine that part of the reason for this is that Doddie Weir, founder of the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, lives in the Scottish Borders. However, Doddie Weir’s impact extends far beyond the Scottish Borders. In fact, the reason we are all here today for this debate is because the petition was launched by Doddie and his foundation.
Doddie is someone I know well, and I can understand why he has persuaded so many people to support his campaign and petition. He has faced his fair share of challenges on the rugby pitch and has a remarkable list of achievements to his name: 61 caps for Scotland; representing the British and Irish Lions; and playing locally for Melrose as well. However, Doddie has said on numerous occasions that the greatest challenge he has faced is off the pitch—battling motor neurone disease.
In June 2017, Doddie revealed that he was suffering from MND, and within months he and his trustees launched a registered charity—My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. The way in which Doddie is driven to champion fellow sufferers and research into this devastating and currently incurable disease is both admirable and inspiring. His selfless work has been vital in raising awareness and generating millions of pounds for such an important cause. Doddie and the foundation have generated huge momentum among individuals, sports clubs and other organisations to raise awareness and vital funding for MND research and support. I was honoured to raise money for the cause by running the London marathon in 2018.
Many other borderers have completed challenges for My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. There are too many to mention in this short contribution, but challenges such as Lions Trek for Doddie and the Coast to Coast in 24 hours come to mind. The Prime Minister also threw his support behind Doddie’s Active Inter-District challenge, which raised more than £1 million.
At the crux of this debate is a devastating disease—a rapidly progressing neurological condition that leaves individuals unable to walk, talk, eat and, ultimately, breathe. One in 300 people develop it in their lifetime, and a third die within a year of receiving their diagnosis. My Name’5 Doddie Foundation provides practical help through grants, and funds research into this terrible disease. It gives considerable sums to the MND Association and MND Scotland to provide support for individuals and their families living with motor neurone disease. Overall, it has raised more than £8 million since 2017. It has granted more than £3 million to medical research projects, and more than £1 million has been given through grants to help sufferers of MND.
In March, when I asked the Prime Minister about funding for MND research in Prime Minister’s questions, I was reassured to hear that the Government have spent £54 million on research over the past five years through the National Institute for Health Research and UK Research and Innovation. I am also glad that the Government are putting in place plans to deliver their 2019 manifesto commitment to double funding for dementia research, which includes MND research. However, it is crucial that we redouble our efforts to consolidate the work that has been done. It is vital that Governments across the UK, the research community and charities work together in the hope that, one day, we can find a cure.
I pay tribute to Doddie, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, MND Scotland and the MND Association. Those organisations are dedicated to supporting sufferers of MND and their families, and are striving relentlessly to find a cure for this horrible disease.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. Like me, you will be well aware of the position of Rob Burrow, the former Leeds Rhinos player, who had an illustrious career as a rugby league player. He is lending his strong support to Doddie Weir’s campaign for more work to be done on motor neurone disease because of the devastating effect on him, once a super-athlete. It has reduced him to someone who knows that he is enjoying the last of his days on a kind of borrowed time—not the way any super-athlete would expect to end.
I also want to talk about the sheer humanity brought out by motor neurone disease. I have lost friends to this horrendous disease. A very good friend of mine, Steve Mycio, who worked with me when I was a police and crime commissioner—he was the deputy chief executive at Manchester City Council—had a sharp brain and a keen intellect and was a very powerful runner, but when motor neurone disease struck him, it was not long before it had a devastating effect on him. Because he was such a strong character, he did everything he could to make sure life continued as normal. He described the consequences of losing the use of both arms and falling flat on his face as almost comical, but he lost the capacity to do things he had taken for granted for so long. It is such a cruel disease.
The wife of another friend of mine said to me after he died, “Actually, death was a blessing. He didn’t want to live locked into a condition that left him at the mercy of his brain, but not with the use of his body.” That is the reality of MND. That is why this debate and the petition are important. We need research, and I hope the Minister will be able to give us some proper answers today.
When I talk to neuroscientists they say that they believe it is possible to find, if not a cure, at least pharmaceutical solutions that can take people forward on their MND journey, and maybe control MND in the long run. The prospects are truly enormous. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) made a very good speech. It is right and proper that the funding for MND be there in its own right, not simply linked to other neurodegenerative diseases. Nevertheless, the possibility of cracking the code for MND gives hope, so neuroscientists tell me, that we can begin to look for cures and solutions to other neurodegenerative diseases.
We know that a third of those who contract MND will be dead within a year, and for others the prospects are not good. There may be 5,000 people at any one time suffering from this disease, so £50 million as an investment in stopping that kind of suffering makes human and societal sense. In the end, it makes financial sense, because if we invest now and concentrate efforts, there is a possibility of seeing results very soon. It could be world-advancing science, and this country has the neuroscientists and researchers capable of taking it forward. I join very strongly the demand of the e-petition that we make this investment in an MND translational research institute. It can make a material difference. It can stop the human suffering that MND causes. That is worth spending some of our money on.
I thank the Petitions Committee for arranging a debate on this important topic. We have seen during this pandemic the transformative impact that medical research can have. Whether by creating vaccines on a timescale that was previously thought impossible or identifying effective and low-cost treatments for people with covid-19, the research community has saved millions of lives around the world during this pandemic, but the level of investment related to covid-19 is not replicated for other conditions.
We are discussing motor neurone disease, which received only £3.5 million from the Medical Research Council in 2019-20 and no funding at all from the National Institute for Health Research. As we heard earlier, the Government have claimed that they invested £4 million over the last five years in MND research, but as the MND Association found, much of that was spent on general neurological research rather than MND-specific programmes. For a condition that has such a major impact on the lives of people living with it, that is simply not good enough. Failing to invest in that research means condemning more people to go on living with, and eventually dying of, motor neurone disease.
As we have heard, although there may be only 5,000 people living with MND at this time, that is not because it is rare. The condition affects one in 300 people across their lifetime, but many of them will die within a year of diagnosis. That means that, without an effective treatment being developed, 200,000 people alive in Britain today will die from MND. Over the last year, we have rightly poured money into projects looking at covid-19. We now need to use the advances that we have made as an inspiration to prioritise medical research for a far wider range of conditions.
One of the many reasons that motor neurone disease should be a priority is the insights that it can give us into other neurological conditions. MND progresses rapidly, which means that we are able to pioneer and trial treatments on a realistic timeframe, potentially opening the door to treatments for other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, which are far slower to develop. The ask from the motor neurone disease community is simple: £50 million for research spread over the next five years to develop an MND translational research institute. That comparatively modest investment has the potential to transform motor neurone disease, to make real progress to make MND treatable, and to accelerate treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Rather than investing in piecemeal projects, that funding could bring together a new central institute to oversee and co-ordinate a range of research into MND. This would allow knowledge and breakthroughs to be shared widely, potentially accelerating our progress.
Part of the Government’s life sciences vision is addressing great healthcare challenges, including by improving translational capabilities in neurodegeneration and dementia. That is exactly what this proposal for an MND translational research institute addresses, so will the Minister commit to significantly increasing funding for MND research over the next five years and provide hope to everyone currently living with motor neurone disease? In finishing, I thank Greg Broadhurst and Alison Railton of the MND Association and all the campaigners who are raising awareness of this disease and supporting those living with it and their family carers.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I am grateful to the petitioners and those who signed this petition. The purpose of the petition is to seek to secure an increase in targeted research funding for motor neurone disease with a new investment of £50 million over five years to kick-start a pioneering motor neurone disease research institute. We do not need to stand here today and wonder how it could be done, because I hold in my hand an excellent proposal from the Motor Neurone Disease Association, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and MND Scotland for how to make progress on a UK motor neurone disease translational research institute, but of course it needs £50 million over five years, as colleagues have spoken about. I understand that about 185 of my constituents signed the petition, which closed on 6 July. They would like progress, and I would like progress, which is why I am here to speak up for them.
We have heard from colleagues that motor neurone disease is not rare, but it is devastating. It is the most common neurodegenerative disease of mid-life, which is a sobering thought for those of us who have just turned 50. I join the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation in calling on the Government to invest this £50 million. Of course, £50 million is a large sum of money when viewed from the perspective of an individual, but taken over five years and viewed from the perspective of the Government, it seems to me a reasonable sum to invest when progress could be so possible.
I just turn to the charities’ briefing, where they set out the opportunities:
“Despite limited investment, MND is one of the fastest moving sectors in UK health and biomedical research. Current trials hold real promise of a licensed treatment in just 2-3 years for some forms of MND…Counterintuitively, MND, with its relatively low prevalence, is incredibly valuable to research into the more common neurodegenerative diseases such as the dementias. The very rapidity of MND progression makes it easier to pioneer and trial treatments in a realistic time frame.”
It also says that there is increasing interest in MND research from global pharmaceutical companies, and that although the size of the MND market is not insignificant, drug companies also see this as a route to the treatment markets for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. That really points to what could be possible if the Government are willing to find this sum of money for a research institute. I implore Ministers to make the case to the Treasury to do that, because this significant cash injection is needed to fund this virtual research institute. I have had a number of exchanges with Ministers in letters and parliamentary questions. I think we need to be clear that the £54 million cited takes within it a broad spectrum of research. What is being asked for is targeted research, specifically on MND. It is about getting this plan done.
It would be reasonable for Ministers to ask what success would look like, and I am happy to say that, on page 15, the proposal sets out what success would look like. I will just make four points. First, the institute would maintain relentless progress and urgency in ensuring a continuous pipeline of treatment candidates, with at least 10 novel drug compounds prioritised into pre-clinical and early-phase human studies by year five. I believe that would count as tremendous progress. Success would also involve: the deployment of an innovative, on-demand clinical trials platform; learning rapidly from each and every trial, successful or not, through newly developed biomarkers; and, crucially, driving nothing short of a total revolution in the consultant-patient discussion, making sure that the offer of a trial of treatment would be the expectation from the very first consultation upon diagnosis, as opposed to the exception, so that it would become part of every patient’s care plan.
Because of the particular characteristics of motor neurone disease, and because of the particular sum involved and the nature of the proposal made by the charities and everybody else involved, I implore the Minister to look carefully at how this proposal can fit into the Government’s plans. I think we are still passing the Bill to establish the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the research institute. If we are not going to do this with this money—if we are not going to make this kind of progress, this fast, in people’s interests—whatever are we passing that Bill to do? Please, do back this proposal.
Thank you, Ms Cummins, for chairing this afternoon’s debate. I also thank the petitioners for their strength in putting forward the petition we are debating today: I know that for many of them, this issue will be personal. For myself, as a clinician who worked in neurology, I worked with many people with motor neurone disease. I am also a constituency MP who is supporting my constituents, and my uncle—a radical academic in his day—sadly was lost to MND.
One in 300 people is likely to have MND, and once diagnosed, life passes all too quickly, so in opening I put on record my thanks to all those who have supported people with MND over the past year, in what has been the most challenging of all years: the clinicians, the families, the carers, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and the wider community. At times, it has seemed that covid-19 has been the only battle the NHS has had to face, but its dominance has compounded the challenges that others have had in other areas of medicine. Although we have seen so many miracles in the NHS over the past year, we are now calling for another miracle, which is for the Government to release vital research funding. As clinicians, we want to do everything we can for our patients, and it is frustrating and stressful when we can see the solutions, but do not have the means to deliver them.
As we have seen, when we put the necessary investment into prevention and cure, it provides hope, and our nation has been given that hope about covid-19 by the brilliant scientists who have developed the vaccine. We want that research to lead to a new path for people with motor neurone disease. Of course, we understand that scale matters, and that is why so much focus has been given to the pandemic. However, when a third of a million people at any one time across the globe has motor neurone disease, we can see that scale is important for that disease, too. As internationalists, we must work across borders to ensure we find the right science and solutions in medicine. To date, the cause of MND is largely unknown, and the cure is yet to be found. Most research has been based on bettering somebody’s prognosis over a shorter period, and enhancing their quality of life while they are able to hold on to it.
Although the Government are one source of funding, uniquely in the UK the charity sector funds medical research, accounting for about 51% of all funding through the generous donations of 7 million people, research trusts, and funds. That sector funds about 17,000 researchers in all, and the basis of research in the UK needs to be thought through again so that big pharma is not taking some of the resourcing and the long-term profits, to ensure reinvestment in research and more money going into that area.
Back in 2014, MND had a funding boost through the ice bucket challenge, which certainly increased research opportunities. However, this pandemic has had a significant chilling impact on medical research over this past year—one we can ill afford—as research scientists have had to find work elsewhere. Charities themselves have had fundraising opportunities stopped and their shops shut, and Governments have not stepped in to support the charities that are behind all of this important medical research, not least on motor neurone disease. That is why the proposal to create a bespoke £50 million fund over five years to invest in a specific MND research institute, making the UK a global leader yet again, is so important for all of us. I therefore urge the Minister to seriously consider this proposal, not least because the Association of Medical Research Charities came together last year and made a proposal for a life science charity partnership fund, with £310 million invested over a three-year period, to address the deficit that they have experienced during the pandemic. The Government have not come up with the resources to meet that challenge, which is grossly disappointing.
I trust that the proposal before us will be acknowledged, because for every £1 invested, there is a 25p life-time return in benefit, which far outstrips the value that other investments made by Government can bring. If health and science development and research is a major industry in the UK, valued investment in that research will bring long-term economic benefit, as well as real personal benefit for those involved.
As our melting pot of research enables world-class research to move forward, as well as enabling innovation here, I trust that the Minister will respond positively and bring real hope to the thousands of families who need to know that hope is on the horizon.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on the way he introduced the debate—I agreed with all his points. I do not have the expertise of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) in this area, but I wish to make a number of points, mainly on behalf of a friend of mine.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says that most people with the disease will die within two to three years of developing symptoms, as we have already heard, with only 25% alive after five years and just 10% after 10 years. I certainly appreciate that, in the light of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Minister has many calls on her time. Of course, many of these illnesses existed before the pandemic and still do now, and they have to be dealt with.
A local Southend guesthouse owner who happens to be a friend of mine had to work 12 hours a day to recover financially from the first lockdown but developed problems with his left hand and leg. Physiotherapy did not help, and pain spread to the entire left-hand side of his body. An appointment was made with a neurologist, and it was revealed that he had motor neurone disease and had only two to four years to live. He is no longer able to work and is having difficulties obtaining financial support.
That upsetting story about my friend is, unfortunately, replicated throughout the country. Relevant up-to-date information about symptoms and how to check for motor neurone disease should, I believe, be widely accessible and discussed in hospitals with relevant communities to raise awareness of the disease.
Furthermore, people living with terminal illness often die before they get the benefits that they need, which is ridiculous. I am very pleased that the Government have announced that they will reform the benefits system for terminally ill people. I hope that is done as a matter of urgency so that patients and their families do not have to spend their valuable time battling for financial support.
The best way to treat a disease and to find a cure is to fully understand it, so as we have already heard, specific research targeted at motor neurone disease, not just general neurological conditions, is very much needed. Increasing Government funding from less than £5 million annually to £50 million annually over five years—I know that is a lot of money—would not only help to fund a new research institute, but help us to discover effective treatments and save the Government in healthcare, social care and benefits in the long run.
If we pioneer the way in motor neurone disease research, it would truly put our country on the map again, at the forefront of international scientific and medical discovery. I was delighted to sign the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) to the Minister, in which he asked for more investment from the Government in specific motor neurone disease research. That is much needed and would benefit neurovegetative diseases such as the dementias.
At business questions recently, I asked the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on research into motor neurone disease. In his answer, I was told that our 2019 manifesto
“committed to doubling funding for dementia and neurodegenerative disease research”.—[Official Report, 22 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 1150.]
I hope that that is done urgently and that research into motor neurone disease receives its fair share.
In conclusion, one in 300 people will develop motor neurone disease in their lifetime and there is currently no cure. That is not a small percentage of our population. We need more investment, and I hope that the Minister will commit to it.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this important petition to the House.
I thank the 110,700 people, including 225 of my constituents, who signed the petition and campaigned for an increase in much-needed funding for urgent research into motor neurone disease. I pay tribute to constituents in West Derby who have been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and to their families and friends.
The petition has one clear ask: new Government investment of £50 million over five years to kickstart the pioneering MND research institute. That call is based on the assessments made by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, MND Scotland and My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. The Government, in their response to the petition, claim that they have spent £54 million on MND research over the past five years, but analysis by the MND Association shows that the figure includes general neurological research, often with no tangible link to MND. I therefore urge the Minister to come back with the package of targeted support that is needed.
Today, I will speak about a friend and constituent, Mark Maddox, his fight against motor neurone disease and how his work exposed me to the heart-breaking impact that it can have. I will do everything I can to assist in this campaign moving forward.
I first met Mark a decade ago, when I helped to coach his youngest son’s football team—he will laugh, watching this, at the word “coach”. Mark was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2010. It was my first experience of the disease, with the impact that it had on him, his family and friends. Mark is an absolute legend of the local football scene both in Liverpool and at Altrincham football club, where between 1996 and 2006 he made 349 appearance as a tough-tackling captain and centre-half. The bravery with which he has tackled the disease was hewn from that background.
After being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Mark ran three marathons, skydived, did bike rides, released an album and, in 2011, fronted a nationwide campaign through every football league in the country, reaching more than 2 million people through match-day programmes. He also appeared on Manchester United TV—despite being a huge Liverpool fan—BBC North West and various radio stations, as well as LFCTV making a mini documentary about Mark. That was all done to raise awareness and funds for the campaign to fight this cruel disease.
Mark was told at diagnosis that he would be lucky to live beyond a year—that was 11 years ago. Mark believes that the love and support he receives from his family—his wife in particular—his friends and often complete strangers have helped him to get through to this day. Over the past decade, however, Mark has become increasingly frustrated with the Government’s lack of understanding of people with motor neurone disease and their families and of its devastating effects. He wants change.
To finish, I urge the Minister to listen to Mark and the many other people who have been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and to say, “No more!” Motor neurone disease stopped Mark achieving great things in football and, with world-leading UK scientists on the cusp of major breakthroughs in MND research, we need a commitment from the Government: for a vital increase in the funding that will accelerate the discovery of treatments; and to pledge the funding needed to kickstart a pioneering motor neurone disease research institute. Together, we can work to end motor neurone disease so that people diagnosed, like Mark and countless others, can fulfil their potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. Like others, I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for presenting the debate today and for the meticulous, detailed and caring way he laid out the statistics and what motor neurone disease means to so many people in this country.
The statistics are frightening. One in 300 of us, as we have heard, can be struck by motor neurone disease in our lifetimes, but because it claims lives so rapidly we are never as a society fully aware of its impact, of the number of lives disrupted, families torn apart, and the suffering in our own communities. I am sure many of us, as has already been mentioned, have experienced the trauma of watching someone we know and love fighting this debilitating, progressive and ultimately always, at this point in time, fatal effects of motor neurone disease.
Like others, I want to pay tribute to all of those who have done so much to raise this petition and bring this debilitating condition to public attention. Almost 400 people in my constituency of Edinburgh West signed it, and I know that many more of them are aware and determined that we should make a difference—many because my constituency is also the home of Scottish rugby, of Murrayfield, the site of many of Doddie Weir’s on-field achievements. For my generation, seeing him on a rugby field or hearing his name in a commentary was reassurance that Scottish rugby was in safe hands. I say “on-field” because the work he is doing to raise awareness and his campaign for research is also a magnificent achievement.
However, it should not be left to those battling the condition to come up with a solution. We have already heard that just £5 million a year is targeted at motor neurone disease research. That is “targeted”. We know that there is general neurological research, but we need to know more about this specific condition itself. That is why it is so important that we have this £50 million investment over five years to establish a virtual motor neurone disease translational research institute and to consolidate the UK’s position as a global leader in neurological disease research. We have also heard that research into motor neurons could open the door on other conditions, and there are practical and financial implications for society and the NHS of being able to relieve people of this burden.
The Motor Neurone Disease Association, MND Scotland and the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, who have jointly submitted a bid to Government for this year’s spending review, are undertaking a task—a crusade almost—for so many people in this country who are struck by this cruellest of conditions. I say to the Government that £50 million over five years is not a lot in monetary terms, but it could be so much in terms of progress against this disease.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for the eloquent way he introduced this debate. I will try to be as brief as possible so that everyone can get in. I want to address my remarks to the Minister directly. She has heard why we are here. More than 100 of my constituents signed the petition, and quite a few of them, including myself, have had experience of motor neurone disease affecting either family or friends. It is a brutal, savage condition, but we meet people all the way along the road dealing with this dreadful condition, and they all work on the basis that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, and the light that we see now at the end of the tunnel is research.
Like others, I have been using the Government’s figure of £54 million investment without realising that only £5 million was directly targeted. The sense I get from people at the moment, and from the associations and charities that work in this field, is one of optimism that we could be close to a breakthrough in identifying how to predict, prevent, treat and cure this condition. The sense I get is that a little more money, distributed effectively and invested wisely, could tip us over the edge in tackling this condition.
I say to the Minister that the problem we face is fragmented funding sources and the lack of certainty and predictability about the scale of investment that will really help us to bring the science together and tackle the issue effectively. We will assist her in lobbying the Treasury. We are at that stage in the spending review process when departmental bids are going in and hard negotiations are well under way. We will help her in those negotiations, because not only do we believe that we are on the cusp of a breakthrough but it chimes with everything that has been said by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and successive Health Secretaries about how we need to invest in life sciences, link with the pharmaceutical industry, and in that way become world leaders.
In the context of the overall spending review, this is not a great deal of money to be asking for on such a critical issue, which affects so many of our constituents and their families in a heartbreaking way. We will support the Minister as much as we can in her submission on this matter. The £50 million that we are talking about over a five-year period is a drop in the ocean in comparison with some investments in other conditions. Many of us believe that we are clearly on the edge of something big that could, again, chime with what the Prime Minister has been saying about how we can be world leaders in the field of life sciences research.
I urge the Minister to take on board everything that has been said by this cross-party group of Members. Behind us, literally hundreds of thousands of people are looking to the Government for the small step forward that could provide us with such an immense breakthrough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Cummins. I welcome the petition and thank each and every person who signed and shared it. This is democracy in action.
I reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) that extra research funding is essential to support patient treatment and medicines in the hope that a cure for MND can be found soon. The work carried out by organisations and charities such as the MND Association and MND Scotland has ensured that MND research is rightly at the forefront of political debate. I also reiterate the comments made by my colleague the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) that the work done by the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation goes beyond the constituency that he represents and where Doddie lives.
It is important to acknowledge that 1,100 people across the UK have been diagnosed with MND. It is thought that diseases related to motor neurones affect approximately 5,000 adults at any one time. Today, we have heard colleagues from across the political spectrum unite. Every one of us has gained an understanding of how debilitating MND can become. While research into this life-limiting illness continues, we recognise that additional funding is required to further advance the ambitions of experts who believe that getting a cure is becoming closer than ever.
As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) stated, the numbers are frightful. After developing symptoms, most people with MND will die within two to three years. About 25% of people live beyond five years, and that reduces to 10% at 10 years. Additional funding for research will be vital to extend life after diagnosis and improve quality of life by slowing the disease’s aggression.
Although today we are discussing research and funding, they cannot be seen as isolated factors. There are clear links between research and investment in palliative care standards to improve the quality of life of those with MND while research continues to develop. As the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said, we need progress and targeted support.
On a personal level, I remember scrolling through Twitter back in 2014, in the middle of a hotly contested referendum on Scottish independence, and seeing politicians united in their support for MND research. Gordon Aikman, the director of research for the Better Together campaign, who had previously worked for the Labour party, was diagnosed with MND. I pay tribute to him because I was always in awe of him. I never knew him and had never met him, but I always felt a strong sense of resilience from him. His campaign was fearless and forceful, and was exactly what was needed to put MND high on the agenda. He championed more investment, research into MND and general awareness of the disease.
Campaigns have been absolutely vital in raising awareness of MND. The Scottish public raised £500,000 in the ice bucket challenge, through which more than £7 million was raised in the UK and more than $100 million worldwide. Such challenges may seem trivial, but their impact is profound. As well as raising incredible sums of money, they generate awareness. That is commendable, but we cannot rely on the generosity of the public and internet trends to ensure that the UK leads the way in pioneering research into devastating diseases.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government are committed to ensuring that neurological patients can access the care, support and information they need, and that they can understand their condition following diagnosis. Between 2015 and 2018, they committed more than £700,000 to research for motor neurone disease. Additionally, in 2019, about £400,000 was invested over three years to fund two postdoctoral posts at the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh to research and develop new treatments for MND.
Recent University of Edinburgh research found a problem with MND patients’ nerve cells, which could be repaired by repurposing drugs approved for other diseases. It found that the damage to nerve cells caused by MND could be repaired by improving the energy levels in mitochondria—the power supply to the motor neurons. In fact, it discovered that in human stem cell models of MND, the axon—the long part of the motor neuron cell, which connects to the muscle—was shorter than in healthy cells, and that the movement of the mitochondria, which travel up and down the axons, was impaired. The scientists showed that that was caused by a defective energy supply from the mitochondria, and that boosting the mitochondria caused the axon to revert to normal. Although the research focused on the people with the most common genetic cause of MND, the researchers said that they were hopeful that the results would also apply to other forms of the disease. The results of the study are now being used to look at existing drugs that boost mitochondrial function.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about an international approach to tackling MND. The results from the University of Edinburgh show what can be achieved in a single research centre. The MND research strategy now needs to move beyond single centres and small collaborations that answer narrow research questions towards a large-scale, co-ordinated approach to tackle every aspect of the translational pathway, with the multi-disciplinary expertise available nationally and internationally, and rapidly find and develop new effective therapies for MND. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk stated, the search for new therapies requires a truly multidisciplinary, pan-national approach spanning the entire translational pathway. Establishing a virtual MND translational research institute, which the petitioners have called for, will deliver that. We must also note that researchers have developed a line of thinking that suggests that delivering a cure for one neurological disease may in fact make possible effective treatment for others. This is because the disease processes are closely linked. As the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) has said, not only would additional funding from the UK Government result in an increase in MND investment, but it may contribute to tackling other neurological diseases. Does the Minister recognise this, and will she commit to action and not simply words?
The UK Government should follow the lead of the Scottish Government on universal free prescriptions. Although we are specifically discussing research and investment, we must also bear in mind that around one in every 300 people, across all communities, will develop MND in their lifetime. It is not an age-specific illness, and people will experience different circumstances in the early stages of MND. The Government support available must not systematically target those who have this debilitating illness. Free prescriptions are just one way that we can improve the quality of life of those who have been diagnosed with MND while research is still ongoing. Will the Minister commit to considering that?
There is no doubt that extra MND research funding from the UK Government is needed to support effective patient treatment and medicines, in the hope that a cure for MND can be found soon. As the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) noted, over the last year we have poured money into the pandemic response and, as we look forward, additional funding into MND research will transform people’s lives.
I conclude by noting that Members today have contributed in an eloquent manner. Many have spoken from personal experience, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I therefore hope to hear a positive contribution from the Minister and an actual commitment from the UK Government to help to transform MND research.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I thank the 110,000 people who signed the petition, including 49 from my own constituency. I also thank the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and MND Scotland for their tireless campaigning on this really important issue.
All hon. Members have spoken very powerfully and personally about the scale and impact of motor neurone disease, including on their constituents, friends and colleagues. While those who suffer from this disorder face a very fearful future at the moment, there is a real opportunity here and, if we seize it, we can transform people’s lives for the better. However, we have to deal with the significant and fundamental challenges in the existing research funding model, and we have to move beyond single centres and small collaborations to a large-scale, international, collaborative and co-ordinated approach. We know from experience that that is how fundamental change is achieved, and that is what we are calling for today.
I do not simply want to make the case that this funding should be provided and this model adopted for a moral reason—to stop appalling human suffering—although that is clear and unequivocal. Supporting this proposal should be a major part of how, after covid-19, we build back a better country that draws on our amazing nation’s world-class strengths in science and research, and that uses the potential of the NHS for clinical trials. Not only will doing so lead to the development of new drugs and treatments that will transform the lives of people with MND and their families and, potentially, those with dementia and other conditions, but it will help to create the high-quality, high-skilled jobs we need, so that we have an economy that is fit for the future.
This case is based on three areas. First, the economic case for funding investment in this sort of research is that if patients get earlier diagnosis and better treatment, and their condition is kept stable earlier on, that delivers better value for money. Treatments in the late stage of MND are up to nine times more expensive, so such investment will ultimately help to deliver better value for money. Secondly, we have real opportunities here for the UK research and pharmaceutical sector, because MND, as many hon. Members have said, is one of the fastest growing sectors in UK health and biomedical research. If that is the case, we should be trying to turbocharge that research and development and give it backing from the broad range of public, private and charitable research funding. That mixed economy approach is a huge strength of this country, and in MND we need to build on that. Thirdly, although everybody has rightly said that the debate is about having very specific funding for research into MND, we know that there may be very valuable results out of it for advances in the treatment of other degenerative disorders, such as dementia, which is a huge issue facing this country.
What now needs to happen? I do not need to repeat what hon. Members have said, but we need to bring this together into an MND research institute to implement rigorous clinical research programmes and sustainable MND trials programmes, linking up with the NHS, to provide infrastructure to accelerate treatments and bring them to market in a partnership between our research and industry, and support world-leading drug discoveries and development. If the Minister has not already, will she meet those involved in this sector from the medical research charities, universities and industries, and bring them together, alongside her colleagues from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury—we need a cross-Government approach on this—to go through the proposal in detail and look at the value for money, as well as the patient outcomes that it would develop?
On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly made, will the Minister also meet the Association of Medical Research Charities, if she has not already? During the pandemic, all medical research charities have seen their income slashed, and we really need a plan to get that research going again. As my hon. Friend said, the Association of Medical Research Charities has proposed a life sciences charity partnership fund, so that all the research done and the skills, knowledge, people and expertise do not go to waste because of the pandemic, and so that we get this back on track.
Let me end where I began. If we want to build back a better country after this pandemic, we need to think and work differently rather than in the same old ways. We are world leading in science, research and the pharmaceutical sector. Alongside our NHS, with the potential that leaves for clinical trials, it is a no-brainer that this is an area that we should focus on. I ask the Minister to raise her eyes, sights and mind to think about all the potential that this could bring for sufferers and their families, and for the life sciences, in which Britain leads and should continue to lead in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and congratulate the petitioners on securing this important debate. I pay particular tribute to the petitioners and to the charities, the MND Association, MND Scotland and My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, for leading the campaign that has brought us here today. I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken so powerfully, sharing the stories of people suffering from this cruel disease and adding their voices to the petitioners’ campaign.
The petition was started in the name of Doddie Weir, the Scottish rugby legend, who has been an inspirational figurehead, campaigning for a world free of MND, since he revealed in 2017 that he was suffering from the disease himself. I had the good fortune to meet, virtually, Doddie and others with MND at a recent roundtable event and I, too, was inspired by their campaign for a brighter future for people living with MND. Doddie’s charity, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, works tirelessly to raise funds for research into a cure and to provide grants to people living with MND. I want to express my immense gratitude to Doddie and to everyone living with MND for giving their voices to this campaign and sharing their experiences of this awful disease and their hopes for the future. I know that people living with MND will be listening to the debate today and looking for hope. It is to them and to the more than 100,000 people who stand in solidarity with them that I address my remarks.
MND is a brutal condition that has a devastating impact on those who are diagnosed, and on their families and loved ones. As the petition has highlighted, MND can progress very rapidly, and tragically there is currently no effective treatment and no cure. We still do not know exactly what causes motor neurons to die off. Although a small percentage of cases are genetic, the majority of people with MND have no family history of the disease. There is only one drug treatment for MND, and it may slow the disease’s progression for some people. The lifetime risk of developing MND is as high as one in 300 people.
We are making great strides in research, which I will talk about shortly, but we still have a way to go in our research to understand the disease mechanisms and to identify effective treatments. Before I address that progress and our plan to accelerate MND research, I want to speak about how the Government are currently supporting people with MND. Through specialised services delivered by the NHS, people with MND are receiving treatment and support to ease their symptoms and to support their continued independence for as long as possible. That includes the prescribing of complex communication devices to help people with MND to communicate as effectively as possible; offering non-invasive ventilation to support respiratory function; and delivering personal care and support for the needs of the individual.
In 2019, the National Neurosciences Advisory Group published a toolkit for improving care for people with progressive neurological conditions, including MND. That toolkit is helping commissioners to improve the pathways for people with MND, enabling quicker and more accurate diagnoses, services that are more co-ordinated, flexible and responsive to the rapidly changing needs of the patient, and improved choice in end-of-life care for people with MND. That is so that people with MND receive the best possible care. However, although the NHS is delivering that specialised treatment and support to people with MND, we know that it is not the same as a cure.
In recent years, researchers have made major advances in our understanding of MND. For example, we now know more about the types of MND that have a genetic cause, for which gene therapy might be an effective treatment. Although that accounts for only about 10% of people with MND and we still need treatments for the remainder, it is an important development. Researchers are also making progress in the development of the MND register and MND biobanks—data resources that are aiding researchers in understanding the disease. Through the development of novel biomarkers, scientists have more effective ways to monitor responses to treatment in clinical trials; and through innovative and flexible trial designs, researchers are able to conduct faster and cheaper trials, which will deliver potential new treatments to patients more quickly.
I can assure hon. Members here today that this Government are committed to supporting research into MND. I have heard the request from campaigners for Government to invest £50 million to create an MND research institute, and I understand why petitioners are asking for this. However, ring-fencing funding for particular diseases can stop great science. That is why the Government make funding available for researchers in all areas to apply for. Awards are granted in open competition and determined by the quality of the science. Through those funding mechanisms, the Government are supporting a wide range of research into MND.
In 2019-20, UK Research and Innovation, through the Medical Research Council, spent £16 million on MND research. That included research that aims to increase understanding of the causes and genetic mechanisms of MND and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS—a form of MND. For example, scientists at the UK Dementia Research Institute are working to increase understanding of the root causes of ALS and frontotemporal dementia, and to identify ways of protecting brain cells from damage. There is significant overlap between the genetic causes of MND and some types of dementia, which is why the UK Dementia Research Institute, funded in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, has made significant investment in MND research.
At the Francis Crick Institute, which is co-funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome and Cancer Research UK, researchers are working with stem cells to investigate the earliest molecular events of MND. With support from the Department of Health and Social Care, the National Institute for Health Research is directly funding MND research, for instance the Lighthouse phase 2 study, which is a clinical trial of a drug repurposed from the treatment of HIV. This study, involving 300 people with MND, will test the effectiveness of the repurposed drug in improving survival rate, function and quality of life for people with MND.
I am grateful to the Minister for outlining all the research that is being done. However, the benefit of a virtual research institute would be co-ordination, to ensure that there was real focus on bringing about a real resolution for people with MND. Having a piecemeal approach will not provide the real focus that is required. Will she recognise that and therefore reflect on the ability to bring forward such a proposal in the comprehensive spending review in the autumn?
I thank the hon. Member for her point; I will come on to say a bit more about that, and I assure her that I have absolutely heard her argument. However, I am addressing as I go some of the comments and questions raised by hon. Members during the debate, one of which was a request for some examples of research. I have just mentioned one, but there are a couple more that I want to give.
At the NIHR Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre, researchers are trialling the safety and efficacy of a drug called tauroursodeoxycholic acid, or TUDCA, as a treatment for people with ALS. The NIHR is also funding research to enhance support and care for people with MND, with ongoing studies looking at nutrition, diet and therapies to improve psychological health.
Over the past five years, the Government have spent almost £60 million on research into MND and we are currently working on ways to boost this research even further. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and other colleagues asked about the total figure of nearly £60 million over the five-year period from 2015-16 to 2019-20. That includes research funded by the Government—through both NIHR and UKRI—focused solely on MND; research on MND and frontotemporal dementia, the causes and mechanisms of which have a substantial overlap with MND; research on neurodegenerative conditions that have many commonalities with MND; and spend on research infrastructure within NIHR, supporting MND studies. I hope that that provides some greater clarity on the research spending. In addition, the Government fund research on the structure of the nervous system, cell biology and genetics, and mental processes such as learning and memory. UKRI supports that research with around £30 million of funding per annum.
I am listening to my hon. Friend the Minister with great interest. Of course, following the relative merits of these different programmes is slightly beyond my capabilities in biological science, much as I try. May I invite her to meet the proponents of the research proposal—it compares business as usual, if I may call it that, with the potential results of the proposal —so that she can hear directly from them the advantages that could be gained from it?
I would be delighted to meet the proposers. I was just coming on to talk about a recent roundtable that I hosted, together with the NIHR Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre, which focused specifically on boosting MND research. It brought together researchers, charities, people with MND and funders to consider ways that we could boost research into MND. Government officials are now working with those who attended that roundtable to take things forward, and to encourage and support MND research proposals.
On the particular point about a research institute, applications for funding for research infrastructure, just as for research itself, can and should be made to NIHR or UKRI as appropriate. Bids can win funding through that process, which includes peer review and evaluation. A strong case for this institute has clearly been made in the debate. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and I assure all who are listening that the Government are working with MND charities and researchers on ways we can boost research.
I end by again thanking the petitioners for bringing this issue to the forefront. MND has an enormous impact on individuals and families, and I pay tribute to everyone across the country who is supporting people diagnosed with the condition, and to the incredible and life-changing research that is being undertaken. The Government are committed to working together with the MND community to catalyse further investment and to accelerate progress so that, one day, we will achieve a world free from MND.
I thank the Members who have taken part in the debate. I trust that the Minister will have seen that there is a considerable degree of both consensus and urgency. Given the quick progression of MND, sufferers simply do not have the time to wait. Urgent action is needed to give them hope, and they need that hope now. The ask is relatively modest in the grand scheme of things, especially given that 200,000 current UK citizens will die from this appalling disease if nothing is done. To slightly misquote Doddie himself, it is time to crack on with it. I hope the Minister will bear that in mind.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 564582, relating to research into motor neurone disease.
[David Mundell in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 576563, relating to water safety.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The number of accidental water-related deaths in the UK every year is sobering: from 2009 to 2020, there were 7,000 water-related fatalities, and almost 3,000 families have been impacted by fatal accidents in water over the past 10 years. Just last year, 30 people under the age of 20 died from accidents in the water. Every single death is a tragedy. The lead petitioner, Rebecca Ramsay, lost her 13-year-old son Dylan 10 years ago this month. Like so many children and teenagers, Dylan had gone for what he thought would be an innocent swim with his friends on a summer’s day. He was an intelligent young man, a talented athlete and a strong swimmer, but tragically he lost his life when his body went into shock in response to the plummeting water temperature, causing him to drown. Losing your child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but sadly, Beckie’s family are far from the only ones to lose their son or daughter in this way.
I know that the Government’s written response to this petition came as an enormous disappointment to Beckie, and to other families that I met on Friday ahead of this debate. Ministers have pointed out that water safety is already on the curriculum, and it is true that since 1994, water safety and swimming have been mandatory as part of the primary curriculum in England and at key stage 3 where necessary. However, although it may be on the curriculum and some schools undoubtedly do a fantastic job of delivering it, the experts and expert groups I met before today’s debate, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Swim England, the Swimming Teachers Association, the Royal Life Saving Society and Mike Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth—many of whom deliver water safety lessons in schools themselves —all said exactly the same thing: in practice, it is just not happening in every school, and where it is, it is often delivered to a poor standard.
That is a real shame, because I think that water safety is something pupils are keen to learn about. One of the reasons I was keen to lead this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee is that the issue of water safety has been consistently raised with me when I have visited schools in Newcastle. So many times, I have asked primary school children, “What one thing would you like me to ask the Prime Minister to change?” expecting to hear answers such as, “More play parks” or “Ice creams on hot days”, but water safety comes up again and again. Perhaps because they have grown up close to the River Tyne, children are anxious to learn how to be safe in and around water. Although it is true that children generally are taught to swim at school, the idea that swimming is what safety in the water is all about is a dangerous misconception. That cannot be emphasised enough.
Many of the parents I spoke to ahead of this debate told me that their children were excellent swimmers, but, sadly, it was not enough to save them. Like Dylan, Fiona Gosling’s 14-year-old son Cameron was fit and healthy, loved sports and outdoor pursuits, and was a good swimmer, but cold water shock was something he had never learnt about. While out with friends near Bishop Auckland, he jumped into the River Wear. Tragically, when his body hit the water, it could not cope with the drop in temperature and his heart stopped beating. Jack Pullen, who lost his life in a river accident in Manchester in 2016 aged 16, was not a strong swimmer. He was with friends who were, but, sadly, they were unable to save him when he got into trouble in the water.
The water on the surface of the River Etherow had appeared calm on the surface, but it is believed that there might have been strong undercurrents and hidden hazards beneath the surface. Jack’s uncle, Chris, told me of his concern that there are so many dangers in the water that children are just not aware of. Something that Beckie Ramsay said about this really struck me. She said that by having school swimming lessons, perhaps giving children a curiosity about the water but neglecting the wider safety aspects, we could be teaching children just enough to get them killed.
Water safety is about having the knowledge to recognise what a rip is, why we should not go in, knowing there are parts of the beach where the tide might come in and trap us, and knowing what cold water shock is and what to do about it. It is about having a healthy wariness of the water and knowing how deceptively dangerous it can be outside the relative safety of a swimming pool. We only need to watch the Royal National Lifeboat Institution programme “Saving Lives” to see that most water accidents occur because people do not know those things. It is about lack of knowledge, not physical fitness or swimming ability. I am a big advocate of swimming. It has so many physical and mental health benefits, and it is a skill that saves lives, but on its own it is not enough. We need to ensure that water safety is also taught in every school.
I know headteachers are tired of politicians telling them to do more to address societal problems when resources are so tight. Since 2010, schools have had to stretch declining per pupil funding to meet more and more Government requirements around mental health, careers education and many functions that local authorities used to undertake, but can no longer afford. The Government have now increased funding, but analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that the end result will be per pupil funding in 2022-23 that is no higher in real terms than it was in 2009-10. In effect, the Government will be giving schools the same amount of money that they had 11 years ago, while expecting them to do more with it. So I want to be clear that if we want schools to do more on water safety, as the petitioners advocate—it makes sense since almost all children go to school—schools should absolutely be given the extra resources that they need to do it.
In anticipation of the Minister’s response, I want to say that the petitioners know that the curriculum already includes requirements on swimming and self-rescue in a range of water-based situations. That is not the issue here. The problem is that that is not achieving the hoped for outcomes in terms of water safety knowledge and saving lives, and that is what we need the Government to do something about. I ask the Minister: is the Department for Education confident that the statutory requirements ensure that all children are taught water safety to a high standard in school? Are pupils really going into year 7 knowing what a rip current is and how to get in and out of it; that tides go in and out and can trap us; and what we should do to give ourselves the best chance of staying alive if we experience cold water shock? If not, will the Government now consider supplementing the curriculum with a requirement for children to receive class-based water safety instruction before they leave primary school?
Secondly, how are we checking on progress against the curriculum? The families and experts that I met repeatedly pointed out failings in the school accountability system and hoped to see an enhanced role for Ofsted. To take just the statutory requirements on swimming, according to a recent report from the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, in 2019-20 just 77% of year 7 pupils were able to fulfil the requirement of swimming 25 metres unaided.
It is a depressing but not surprising reality that the income-based inequalities in attainment that we see more broadly in the education system also affect this. Swim England forecasts that by 2024-25, just 35% of year 7s in the most deprived areas of England will meet the statutory requirement. Sadly, the emerging pattern is that local swimming facilities are now most under threat in those very same areas.
West Denton pool in my constituency sadly closed during the first national lockdown and will not reopen due to the financial impact of the pandemic. It was located in a neighbourhood that already suffered from significant heath inequalities, falling in the top 10% in the country, according to the 2009 indices of deprivation. I worry that not only will that compound the problem of children from less affluent backgrounds disproportionately failing to meet the statutory requirements, but that a lack of high-quality swimming facilities may lead to more children swimming in open water, which we know to be a much more dangerous environment.
Despite the statutory requirement in England, in response to a freedom of information request, Ofsted confirmed that after searching 25,000 inspection reports going back 13 years, it found that fewer than 10% mentioned anything to do with swimming. Where they did, it was usually only in a very general sense.
I know that Ofsted would say that it has to take a rounded view of schools and that it is not its role to check that each statutory requirement is being met, and I know the degree to which Ofsted and inspections genuinely drive school improvement is a hotly debated topic, but when so many children leave primary school unable to meet a key statutory requirement, and there are such grave concerns from families, campaigners and experts about what seems to be a more or less systemic failure on water safety, surely there is a role, if not for Ofsted, for the Department for Education, in looking at what more the school accountability system could be doing.
As 2021 looks like it will be a year of staycations, I worry that we will see more people swimming in open water on hot summer days, unaware of the dangers. The open waters of England are a far cry from a beach in Spain with a lifeguard. The parents of Michael Scaife, who died at age 20, after saving a friend who got into trouble in the water, have been part of a campaign to warn people that even on the hottest days, water can remain very cold, and people will still succumb to cold water shock very quickly. This is somewhat outside the Schools Minister’s remit, but I would be grateful if he let us know what the Government are doing to promote water safety, in particular to children, in this year of staycations.
Lastly, I know that the Minister will mention that the DFE has relaxed some of the rules around the use of PE and the sport premium, updating guidance to clarify that such funding can be spent on swimming and water safety. I am sure that that is welcomed, but water safety is not a sport; it is a survival skill, and it is not an optional extra. Accidental water deaths are a UK-wide problem. They are not confined to certain communities or parts of the country. This cannot be targeted at specific pupils or schools; it must be set at a standard that is deliverable across the country, with all pupils entitled to receive proper water safety instruction, just as they do with fire safety or road safety.
Accidental water deaths are a hidden pandemic that has been going on for years. Education is prevention, and that has been proven many times over. We have more children dying in the water than on bikes, yet we have campaigns for cycling proficiency; more than in fires, yet we have campaigns for smoke detectors. Road safety education programmes have reduced the rate of road fatalities by half in the United Kingdom, and a national campaign to teach fire prevention through schools led to significant decreases in deaths. In the same way, by getting water safety into schools and ensuring that it is delivered, we can break the cycle by giving every child that life-saving knowledge.
Before I finish, I want to mention the story of Evan Chrisp from Newcastle to demonstrate just what a difference a little knowledge can make. Three years ago, Evan and his friends went to Beadnell bay in Northumberland to celebrate finishing their exams. A rip current caught hold of Evan, and he was swept into the North sea. As he lost sight of the beach, he remembered what he had heard on a Royal National Lifeboat Institution advert:
“Everyone who falls unexpectedly into cold water wants to follow the same instinct—to swim hard and to fight the cold water. But, when people fight it, the chances are, they lose.
Cold water shock makes them gasp uncontrollably and breathe in water, then they drown. But if they just float, until the cold water shock has passed, they’ll be able to control their breathing and have a far better chance of staying alive.”
By following that advice, Evan was able to cling on to consciousness for around 45 minutes before he was rescued. He did not learn that at school—he remembered it from a one-minute advert that just happened to have played before a film he went to see at the cinema, but he credits it with saving his life.
Evan is getting on with his life and studying at university now, and I know how lucky he feels to have survived, but too many other families have lost their children and are having to learn to live without them. Beckie Ramsay told me of the deep sadness she has felt over the past 10 years watching Dylan’s friends grow up, knowing she will never see her own son get married or enjoy being a grandmother to his children. It is not the way life should be. Since Dylan’s death, Beckie has dedicated herself to campaigning for better water safety and has gone into schools up and down the country.
Other parents I have spoken to have done the same, but I also know how tired they are. Beckie has said that after 10 years of speaking to about 170,000 people in schools up and down the country, she feels we are no further forward. They want to save other families from going through what they have, but we cannot leave this at the doorstep of bereaved parents, who have enough to deal with as it is. Society must carry that responsibility, and the best way to deliver that is through schools. It does not need to be expensive or take up a huge amount of time. Professor Mike Tipton’s research has shown that something as simple as a 20-minute classroom-based lesson can make a significant difference and be retained by children, just as remembering that one-minute advert saved Evan’s life.
There is a huge amount of readily available expertise in the National Water Safety Forum that the Government could draw on. Its chair, Dawn Whittaker, contacted me on Friday to say that it would be keen to support the Department for Education with an enhancement to the curriculum, and produce a credible and robust classroom-based lesson plan and content to support schools to deliver mandatory water safety education. She said it could be delivered by the end of the year with the support of the Department. Will the Minister commit to taking the National Water Safety Forum up on that offer?
Ms Whittaker is also chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council campaign on water safety and told me she would be happy to support discussions on the inclusion of a requirement in the fire service national framework for the fire and rescue services to contribute to the delivery of water safety in schools. That could reduce the burden on teachers and schools, and I urge the Minister and his colleagues at the Home Office to consider it too.
Water accidents are highly preventable if we just get this teaching into schools and make sure it is being delivered. We already know what we need to teach and how to teach it; we just need to get on with it and make it happen. We owe that much to the memory of Dylan, Cameron, Jack, Michael and the countless others who have lost their lives in the water.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to be able to speak on such an important matter. I extend my gratitude to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the other Committee members and all those who signed the petition, which allowed us to be here today debating this issue in Parliament.
This petition was created because of the heartbreaking loss of Dylan, who died from drowning 10 years ago. I want to put on the record my thanks for the tireless campaigning of Beckie Ramsay and all those who know all too well of the dangerous consequences of our waterways. I send them my deepest condolences for their huge losses.
There is hardly anything more painful in life than losing a child. Just over three years ago, I was contacted by a distraught father, Mark Scaife, about his late son. I asked a question of the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), at Prime Minister’s questions about the death of Michael Scaife, who sadly drowned in the Jubilee river in Slough. I urged the Government to do more on water safety education to ensure that children are taught about the potential dangers of open water and the impact of cold water shock and rip currents.
At that time, the then Prime Minister acknowledged that there is more to do on water safety, yet it seems that very little has changed since then. With other members of the former all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention, I have made representations —as have the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, other organisations and headteachers of schools in Slough and across the country—for sufficient resources, but sadly to not much avail.
Drowning is still one of the highest causes of accidental deaths among children. More than 55% of parents admit that they would not be confident that their child would know what to do if they fell into open water. Even before the pandemic, almost one in four children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school. While the national curriculum calls for pupils to be able to
“perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations”,
sadly awareness around water safety on waterways is clearly still not good enough. We must ensure that every child has knowledge of the vital swimming and water safety skills that might be needed to save their life or the life of somebody else, particularly considering that 44% of drowning fatalities happen when the victim had no intention of entering the water in the first place.
Throughout the pandemic, things have seemed to decline further, with much of the progress made on swimming lessons and education lost. Some 1.88 million children missed out on swimming participation throughout the 2020-21 academic year, with children living in deprived areas even worse off. Assuming that there are no catch-up lessons and nothing further is done, 1.2 million could leave primary school over the next five years unable to swim. This will result in worse outcomes for our children later in their lives and could even result in further tragedies. Despite this, the latest from the Government is that they have
“no plans to review current curriculum expectations for water safety”.
Their abysmal plan for education does not recognise the scale of the challenge. We must hear from the Minister concrete steps to ensure that our children do not fall further behind and that the disadvantage gap does not widen; and exactly how the Government will reduce the number of drownings.
I know we are all here to speak because we want to prevent further tragedies and devastation for families across the UK, and to speak out for those who have lost loved ones—for parents who have lost children in the most horrific circumstances, where in some cases these events could and should have been avoided. It is their resilience and strength that has brought us all here. I hope the Minister will listen to their concerns and take much overdue action to save lives.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful, as always, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I support the principle behind the petition. The Government must review and, if necessary, enhance curriculum content on water safety. This is a change that the 109 people in my constituency who signed this petition want to see, and I know that there will be many more residents in our area who support improvements in water safety education.
Clacton is a wonderful place, happy to call itself the sunshine coast, which the vast majority of people enjoy in perfect safety, but due to some ignorance of the sea and its habits, we have had our fair share of tragedy. In 2018, local teenager, Ben Quartermaine, was swept out to sea while swimming with friends off Clacton pier. His body was found two days later. In 2020, another local man, Paul Lee, was found lying face down in the water off Clacton pier after going for a swim from the beach. These are two difficult and memorable incidents for the community, but unfortunately they are not isolated. Our hard-working lifeboat and coastguard teams at Clacton and Walton are regularly called out up and down the sunshine coast—something I have experience of as a former volunteer. I take this opportunity to thank all those involved in those hard-working teams across the country. They often work in the worst conditions imaginable and do it for nothing more than their time, although some do receive the reward of a well-earned beer, traditionally bought by the rescued for the lifeboat crews at Walton-on-the-Naze.
Given my experience in this area, and as a yachtsman as well, I am pleased that some of our local schools provide additional water safety lessons, especially after what happened to Ben and Paul. However, these are not universal across the country, and time and again visitors to our area get into difficulty. As an area so beautiful and so close to London, it is not surprising that we get our fair share of visitors, and as has been observed in the debate, we are likely to get many more staycationists. This disparity in the standard of water safety education in coastal and urban areas concerns me, and I believe it led to another tragedy in 2019, when two siblings from Luton died while swimming at Clacton after getting into difficulty.
I recognise the good work that is already being undertaken to educate all children about water safety, as set out in the Government’s response to the petition, but it is not enough. We are starting with a blank slate, and we must acknowledge that many people are able to enjoy the water safely because of the content in the curriculum and the work of organisations such as Swim England. Nevertheless, as has been said, there were still 254 deaths in UK waters from accidental drownings in 2020, an increase of 34 on the previous year, so I believe that there are too many avoidable deaths, which troubles me. It is the young who are most at risk of drowning, according to the World Health Organisation.
In short, our approach to water safety education has had some success, but it is not there yet and there is more that we can do to protect those most at risk, so I was disappointed to read that the Government had no plans to review current curriculum expectations. Surely we need to look at that again. Figures show that inland open water, such as rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs and quarries, continue to be the leading locations, with 58% of deaths. How do we deal with that? Males continue to represent 78% of deaths. How do we better educate men and young boys about the dangers?
Almost half of those people had no intention of entering the water, with 107 either walking, slipping, tripping, falling, or being cut off by the tide or swept in by the waves. What educational resources can be put in place to stop those accidents? That is what a curriculum review should focus on. Doing so would ease the pressure on our hard-working and overstretched lifeboat crews and other emergency services and would prevent the terrible incidents that leave such a scar on our communities and the families affected. With that in mind, I ask the Government and the Minister to consider again implementing such review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the Chair of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for presenting the petition, and all those who signed it. We live in a country that is not only surrounded by sea but has many rivers, from the west coast up to the north coast and all down the east coast, many of which are extremely tidal. I swim in a nearby river, the Parrett, when it is going out to sea. When the tide turns, it is impossible to swim against it. The tide will take a swimmer away faster than they can swim. As long as they know what they are doing and can handle it, they can cope with that, and with the cold water, but what has been raised by so many today is the fact that it is the cold water, its strength and its direction of travel, that shock many people.
We have a very experienced Education Minister here this evening, who I am sure can find solutions, because it is about teaching our children to swim, and teaching them about the dangers of cold water. Lakes and other things have undercurrents. At the moment, the weather is not too brilliant, but when we have great weather lots of youngsters often jump in the water because it is something that they really enjoy. They might be egged on by others to do so, and many tragedies have happened.
I wanted to raise a case involving a constituent of mine, Andrea Corrie, who sadly lost her 19-year-old son James in 2005. James was a strong swimmer, who tragically lost his life in a drowning accident in the River Thames at Kingston after a night out with his friends. His family was told that cold water shock was most likely the reason he could not get out of the water. I highlight James’s story to emphasise how serious the issue is. On average, 400 people drown accidentally each year in the UK. That is one every 20 hours on average, and 44% of those who drown did not intend to enter the water. Drowning in the UK accounts for more accidental fatalities each year than fire deaths at home or cycling deaths on the road. I think many members of the public would not think that that statistic was right.
We need to do more to prevent drowning incidents around our shores and in inland waterways. Mrs Corrie has been a tireless campaigner on this issue, working alongside the RNLI on its Respect the Water campaign. Her determination to bring positive change out of her family’s tragedy is inspiring. We must raise awareness of the dangers of our waters, so that more families like Mrs Corrie’s do not suffer the same heartache.
This year, during what is likely to be a very busy post-lockdown summer around our coasts and inland waters, water-safety measures are more important than ever. We will be seeing a lot of people coming to the west country in particular this summer, and we welcome them, but it is safety that really matters. However, the issue does not stop with simply raising awareness of the dangers of cold water; education has a key part to play. The earlier children become aware of the dangers that lurk in inviting-looking pools of water, the better they will be equipped to help themselves if they get into trouble.
I think that there are three key things we can do, moving forward. First, we must raise awareness of the dangers of British waters through advertising campaigns such as the RNLI’s highly effective Respect the Water campaign. The adverts highlight the dangers and unpredictable risks of British coastal waters and the way in which waves, tides and hidden currents can drag people out to sea in seconds. We have only to remember the tragedy of the cockle pickers in order to understand the dangers in some waters. Where there is a very flat beach, the tide comes in incredibly quickly. Again, I do not think that people, unless they have actually experienced really strong tides, realise the speed at which that happens. These campaigns have already saved lives, and I think we need to look at other campaigns that can warn of the dangers of inland waterways.
Secondly, we must ensure that all schoolchildren are taught how to swim, and make sure that they catch up on lessons missed after the disruption of covid. The point was made by other speakers that in some deprived areas it is much more difficult to get access to swimming pools and access for those schools to take children to swim. Schoolchildren are required to learn to swim under the national curriculum, but only 77% of year 7 pupils could swim 25 metres unaided in 2020. A recent report by Swim England and the APPG on swimming forecast that that would drop to 43% by 2025 as a result of lessons being missed during the pandemic. It is vital that lessons are caught up on and that those rates are increased and not decreased. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about how that can be done.
Learning to swim in a pool is the first important step, but we could also do more to ensure that schoolchildren know how to stay safe in open water. There is so much difference between swimming in a swimming pool and being in a fast-flowing river. The Swim Safe initiative is very good for teaching children about water safety in lakes and in the sea. This provides more practical and realistic training on staying safe in and around our waters.
Thirdly, we could look at how we reduce the risks posed by canals and rivers in towns. We need communities to carry out risk assessments and take steps to mitigate those risks. Local safety plans could save lives by preventing people from suffering slips, trips or falls near water. Let us be blunt: when pubs and other hospitality establishments are close to water, it would be quite nice for them to have—without putting everybody off coming to their establishment—something there to tell people just to be a little bit aware when they leave the establishment in order that they do not fall in the water. If it is very cold water and the person has been drinking, it will have an even greater effect on them. Without being a complete nanny state, we just have to point out to people that there are real risks, and I think it is up to some of these establishments—dare I say it?—to have some messaging there that can make people aware. We need to install more public rescue equipment along the waterways, too. We could also ensure that these communities raise awareness of the dangers of such things as drinking alcohol near these spots, which can be dangerous.
In summary, we have a very able Minister who has great experience,, and if he can combine a strong public awareness campaign and thorough practical education for schoolchildren with a more local approach to water risk, we can prevent many families from suffering in the way my constituent Mrs Corrie has suffered.
It is an unexpected pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, but a pleasure none the less. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). The beauty of the Petition Committee is that it often brings to the House stories and issues that are sadly hidden under the headlines of the day. Yesterday, she chaired an evidence session with people who have been directly affected by this issue, and I think she did a fantastic job of conveying not only the breadth and depth of the policy challenges that we face, but the emotion and passion that the parents and families of affected people expressed to her yesterday. We all benefited from that.
Beneath the headlines are deeply personal issues that often result in loss, grief and tragedy. The debate covers one of those issues. The challenges that people face do not always fall into a neat policy box or splash on the front pages, but they matter. On issues such as the ones we are discussing, there are even questions of life and death. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Petitions Committee for giving voice to challenges on water safety.
I express my sincere condolences to Dylan Ramsay’s family, who set up the petition. Their courage has taken tragedy and channelled it into a positive campaign for change so that no others suffer as they have suffered. As the author of the petition writes:
“It will soon be the 10-year anniversary of Dylan’s death. I never want you to feel the pain I do.”
I am sure that all parties in the House would agree that no parent should have to experience that pain at all, yet all too often, they do.
According to the National Education Union, approximately half the people who drown each year are under the age of 15. Whether that is down to youth, inexperience or something else entirely, it means that mums, dads, brothers and sisters are grieving when they should be watching their family member grow and thrive. Those statistics speak for themselves, and they demand action.
There are two aspects to this challenge. First, how adequate is our school curriculum? Dylan’s family argue that the curriculum must properly prepare our children for the dangers of open water, and the Labour party agrees. If we do not teach kids how to keep themselves safe in water, from cold-water shock to rip currents, how can we expose them to so much risk when they explore the water alone? We expect drivers to learn theory to keep themselves and others safe on the roads. Given the clear risk posed by open waters, it is unclear why swimming should be any different.
I represent a constituency in the city of Brighton and Hove. It is a waterfront constituency like the Minister’s, which is, in fact, the constituency I grew up in and know well. I spent a lot of time in the water there as a child and young person. I experienced tragedy earlier this year when Gareth Jones, a volunteer for my local party and somebody I called a friend, lost his life to the sea in January. At 69, he was an older person, but his family was robbed of a very loving family member. It is very interesting that his son Robbie, a young person, said recently to the press:
“I grew up in Brighton from the age of eight, and I’ve never been taught about the dangers of the sea and different tides.”
Those are the dangers to which his father was lost, and of which he, as a son and young person, is now all too aware.
In the city of Brighton and Hove, which enjoys all sorts of sea activity—sometimes, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, people go in after a drink or two—we are very aware of these issues. However, young people in particular who are growing up locally should be far more aware not just of the benefits of exercise at sea but of the challenges that come with it.
The Government point out in response to today’s petition that water safety is a mandatory part of the curriculum for physical education at primary school. However, if the proportion of young people dying at sea is so high, the current requirements cannot be working well enough. Perhaps, as the NEU suggests, teachers are not being properly supported to deliver the teaching in such a specialised and life-critical discipline; perhaps provision of high-quality water safety lessons is variable across the country; or perhaps the existing requirements simply do not go far enough. In any of these scenarios, the Government must be more open to reform than they have been to date. They cannot pretend that the problem no longer exists simply because of a basic curriculum requirement.
The second dimension is the problem that relates to swimming ability. The all-party parliamentary group on swimming points out that, even before covid, almost one in four children could not swim the statutory 25 metres when they left primary school. This situation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, as 1.88 million children have missed out on swimming participation throughout the 2020-21 academic year, with classrooms and swimming centres being shut to limit the spread of the virus. The implications are shocking. The APPG suggests that, without additional top-up lessons, up to 1.2 million children will leave primary school over the next five years entirely unable to swim.
If young people are not confident with the theory of water safety and over a million of them are not even able to swim, we are risking far more of the terrible incidents that we continue to see year upon year. I am sure that the ambition to tackle this problem is shared across the House, but I have to ask the Minister for more action. The Government’s educational catch-up proposals featured nothing on extracurricular activities or wellbeing. Labour is committed to this issue. Our own children’s recovery plan promised to invest in activities for sport, music, drama and book clubs, helping every child to recover on learning, social play and wellbeing. Our plan would ensure that schools have the time and resources to offer proper water safety lessons, pending a review of curriculum adequacy. What is more, it would give kids more time back in the pool, including after school. Labour wants our kids to learn and grow in the water under proper supervision, so that that figure of 1.2 million can be tackled properly.
The authors of this petition have identified a clear problem, and Members from across the House and the APPG on swimming have suggested solutions. Now it is time for the Government to listen and to act, because the safety of our kids at sea cannot wait any longer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, which is a first for me, at least.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the Chair of the Petitions Committee, for bringing forward this debate on increasing curriculum content about water safety as part of swimming lessons, and to Rebecca Ramsay, who created the petition.
Please let me start by expressing my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Dylan Ramsay. Even 10 years later, the pain for the family will be as strong today as it was 10 years ago. I welcome the commitment and determination of Rebecca, Dylan’s mother, to help to raise awareness of water safety, particularly through the work of the Do it for Dylan water safety campaign; and I have listened carefully to the powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North and for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).
The recent annual data on water-related fatalities published by the Water Incident Database showed that we must do all we can to eliminate the tragedy of children and young people drowning. In 2020, of the 176 people in England who drowned as a result of an accident or natural causes, 20 were 19 years old or younger. Water safety is a vital skill, which is why it is a mandatory part of the curriculum for physical education at primary school. The curriculum states that, in addition to being able to swim 25 metres unaided and use a range of strokes effectively, pupils should be taught to perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations.
Data from the 2019-20 Active Lives children’s survey states that 77% of children surveyed in year 7 report that they are able to swim 25 metres unaided, the same as the previous year. The data recognises that schools and teachers need additional support to teach about water safety in a way that is relevant to real-life circumstances. That is why the Department has worked closely with the swimming and water safety sector to take forward a number of actions. The PE and sport premium can be used by primary schools to support swimming through teacher training and top-up lessons for pupils not able to meet the curriculum expectations by the end of core lessons.
Some 45% of teachers reported that they had used their premium funding to improve the teaching of swimming since 2017, according to a 2019 DFE report on schools’ use of the premium funding, and the Department has worked with Swim England to produce additional guidance for schools on how they can use their premium funding to support pupils to swim and to be taught how to be safe in and around water. Funding for the PE and sport premium has recently been confirmed for academic year 2021-22 at £320 million.
Swim England has published a series of guidance documents on school swimming and water safety for schools, parents and swimming teachers. These include a specific guidance document on teaching water safety at key stages 1 and 2. This guidance document provides schools with a clear approach to ensure that pupils receive comprehensive water safety education, covering aspects such as the water safety code, cold water shock, keeping others safe, and how to recognise hazards in different environments.
Schools play an important role in ensuring that all pupils know how to be safe in and around water, providing opportunities for children who may otherwise miss out on swimming activities outside of school. This is more important than ever, as children’s access to swimming and water safety lessons has been limited through covid-19 restrictions. Again, the Active Lives survey data reports that swimming proficiency differs depending on affluence, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North pointed out, with 84% of children from the most affluent families being able to swim 25 metres unaided, compared with 41% of those from the least affluent families.
That survey also reports that 23% of children surveyed took part in swimming activities at least once in the past week, a 6.2% decrease compared with data from 2018-19. That is why new online water safety lessons have been made available through Oak National Academy in response to the covid crisis, and those lessons align with Swim England’s water safety guidance for primary schools. I am grateful for the support provided by organisations such as the Royal Life Saving Society UK, Swim England and the Youth Sport Trust in the development of these new online lessons. They have shared resources, quality-assured the content, and ensured that lessons are inclusive.
It is important that all pupils have opportunities to be taught to swim and about water safety. That is why the Department has included a specific focus on swimming and water safety in our grant programme to increase opportunities for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities to take part in PE and sport. The most recent programme, Inclusion 2020, was completed in March 2021. That programme has resulted in new resources, self-assessment tools being developed, and continuing professional development lessons for teachers.
Those new resources are available to schools through a new inclusion hub on Swim England’s website, providing high-quality, inclusive resources. The Department has recently completed an open competition for a new grant focused on increasing PE and sport opportunities for children with SEND. This consortium programme will be led by the Youth Sport Trust, and will involve Swim England and include the development of additional inclusive school swimming and water safety resources and training that schools will be able to access.
The Department is working to better understand specific challenges and barriers for children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. For example, data from the 2019-20 Active Lives children’s survey shows differences in swimming participation among different ethnic groups. The Department is working with the Black Swimming Association to better understand the barriers to increased participation and to raise awareness of water safety.
Supporting schools to make the best use of their facilities is key to ensuring that pupils have access to high-quality lessons and extracurricular opportunities. In February, the Department announced an additional £10.1 million to improve the use of school sports facilities. That funding can be used to support schools to open swimming pools outside the school day and to fund the additional cleaning, signage and sanitation that they may require in order to be coded secure.
The funding was provided to all 42 active partnerships across England. More than half indicated in their delivery plans that they will work directly with schools to support the effective use of pool facilities. That includes Active Dorset, which focuses on children in year 7 who are unable to swim 25 metres, having missed out on swimming and water safety lessons in year 6 due to covid restrictions. The aim is to provide free pool access on school sites between 3 o’clock and 4.30 pm for pupils in that group.
I welcome the swimming and water safety sector’s ongoing work to raise awareness of water safety, and the range of resources and programmes that it delivers to children and young people. This year, the Department continued its support for the Royal Life Saving Society UK’s Drowning Prevention Week in June, and I am pleased with early reports that the school-focused element of the campaign was delivered to more than 680,000 children.
The Department will continue to support schools to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn to swim and to be taught water safety, in particular recognising the new challenges brought about by covid restrictions. I will be delighted, of course, to meet the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, other hon. Members and outside organisations that want to help provide more resources for schools—in particular, for example, in the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum, which has an important first aid element in it—and enhance the resources for the delivery of the PE national curriculum. Finally, I pay tribute once again to Rebecca Ramsay for her important work in raising the profile of swimming and water safety, as she has.
I thank the Minister for that response and hon. Members for their contributions this evening.
I want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), because I met Michael’s father, Mark, on Friday, alongside the other parents who have lost their children in water accidents. It was an incredibly moving meeting, and I know that the fact that he has his MP’s support will mean a lot to Mark, as will the speech that my hon. Friend made.
The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) also spoke incredibly powerfully about experiences in his community, and made the case for reviewing the curriculum. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke from personal knowledge and experience of the issue, supported the petitioners’ call for teaching the dangers of cold and tidal waters, and shared the tragic experience of his constituent, Mrs Corrie, with the loss of her son, James. Once again, James was a strong swimmer —we hear that over and over again.
I reiterate to the Minister what I said in my opening comments: we know that this is on the curriculum. The problem is that it is just not happening in a consistent way. In many cases, it is not happening at all. That is not my view; it is what five water safety experts from five different organisations and the bereaved parents I spoke to, many of whom have spent years campaigning and speaking in schools, all say. They all reported the same experience. They desperately want the Government to do something about it.
I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to consider supplementing the curriculum with a requirement for children to receive class-based water safety instruction before they leave primary school, with accountability for ensuring that it happens. The National Water Safety Forum has a huge well of expertise to draw on. As I said, its chair has indicated that it is ready and willing to support the Department for Education in drawing up a plan to get that into the classroom as quickly as possible. I am grateful for the Minister’s offer to meet the campaigning groups to see how we can make that happen.
Unlike many other major public health issues, there has been no comparable campaign on drowning prevention, but on 28 April this year the UN adopted its first ever resolution on global drowning prevention. It requests all member states to develop a national drowning prevention plan and measurable targets, put in place effective water safety laws, promote the research and development of innovative drowning prevention tools and technology, and make water safety, swimming and first aid part of the school curriculum. The resolution also introduces a new UN World Drowning Prevention Day, on 25 July each year.
I hope Members will do what they can to join the initiatives on this year’s World Drowning Prevention Day by groups such as the International Drowning Research Alliance, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and many others who work tirelessly to try to eradicate a problem that tragically claims so many lives, but is largely preventable with the help of low cost interventions.
In a letter to the DFE that she was kind enough to share with me, Beckie Ramsay said: “In the past decade I have sadly met with many families who have different stories, but all with the same outcome. One thing that comes across over and over again is that parents only learn about cold water shock when either trying to work out the cause of their loved one’s death or at their loved one’s inquest”. Isn’t it time to break that cycle? When it comes to safety, knowledge is power, and education saves lives, but what we are missing is any universal availability of this life-saving knowledge.
On behalf of the petitioners, I urge the Government to support their campaign to get water safety into schools and ensure it is delivered properly. We did it for road and fire with life-saving results. Now let us do it for water.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 576563, relating to water safety.