Tuesday 20 July 2021
[James Gray in the Chair]
Reducing Baby Loss
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I start with a few parish notices, as it were. First, we do all continue to wear a mask, apart from when we are speaking. Secondly, I am told that we are now allowed to intervene, if we are physically in the room, on one another, although perhaps we want to keep such interventions to a relatively minimal number. Thirdly, let me remind those who are with us virtually—welcome to you all—that you have to remain in the room with your television camera on throughout. You cannot turn the TV camera off and go off for a cup of coffee; you have to be here in the debate throughout—from beginning to end.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I had just promoted you. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The ambition is to halve the rate of stillbirths and neonatal deaths by 2025 and to have achieved a 20% reduction in these rates by now. Every day in the UK, about 14 babies die before, during or soon after their birth. Baby deaths need to fall much faster if the Government’s national maternity safety ambition is to meet that important target. The ambition also includes halving maternal deaths and brain injuries in babies that occur during or soon after birth by 2025, and reducing the pre-term birth rate from 8% to 6% by 2025.
Earlier this month, the Health and Social Care Committee published its report about maternity safety. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss with the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). The Select Committee report echoes much of what we have been hearing from hospital trusts, health professionals, bereavement charities, bereaved families and others throughout our work in the APPG. I pay tribute to everybody who speaks out on this most upsetting of topics. It is a crucial issue on which we must all work together to achieve success.
The Select Committee report notes that progress towards reducing the rate of stillbirths and neonatal deaths has been “impressive”, with its external expert panel rating it as good, although it notes that the baseline for the progress was low in comparison with other countries, such as Sweden, and that there is still a “worrying” level of variation in the quality of care. On stillbirth, the report from the expert panel notes:
“The Department has achieved the interim target of a 20% reduction earlier than the 2020 deadline. However, increased efforts are required to meet the final target”
of a halving in 2025. On neonatal deaths, the report states:
“Good progress has been made towards achieving a 50% reduction…by 2025. However, it has been difficult to determine the full extent of the Government’s progress due to a change in the measure of progress against the National Maternity Ambition on neonatal deaths, with concerns expressed about the validity and unintended consequences of this change. This change in measuring progress has potentially inflated the achievement in the data analysed and may inadvertently exclude extremely pre-term babies from the on-going national efforts to improve neonatal outcomes. We encourage the Department to continue to measure and drive progress towards reducing mortality in both the population of babies born before and after 24-weeks’ gestation.”
On maternal deaths, the report concludes:
“No discernible progress has been made towards reducing the 2010 rate of maternal deaths by 50% by 2025”,
which I find alarming. It continues:
“The factors contributing to maternal deaths are predominantly indirect, such as existing disease, and therefore complex to address. Tackling the causes of maternal death will require concerted efforts, with a focus on pre-conception interventions and improved post-natal support, particularly relating to mental health support…In addition, the worsening disparity in risk of maternal death for women from minority ethnic and socio-economically deprived backgrounds needs to be urgently addressed.”
On pre-term births, the report acknowledges that
“this target was only added to the National Ambition in 2017. Therefore, the window for newly introduced measures to impact on the data is very narrow…While the initiatives currently being implemented by the Department are welcomed, we anticipate that increased efforts will be required to counteract the setbacks to reducing pre-term”
deaths arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Great strides have been made in this vitally important space, and it is important to acknowledge that, but there is still more to do. Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to some members of our excellent midwifery team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Treliske, in Truro. Because of continuing covid restrictions, that was conducted remotely, and it was a bittersweet meeting for me, not least because the tech let me down after about 20 minutes. I had a conversation with the fabulous consultant obstetrician, Karen Watkins, who was able to tell me how things were going at Treliske and what further things the team felt needed to be done to accelerate the national ambition.
It was Karen who had delivered the shattering news to my husband and me that our baby could not be saved, that she would have no chance of life. It was Karen who performed the procedure to humanely end Lily’s life—the most frightening point of mine. Last week, I had the privilege of thanking her, as face to face as we could get online, for her kindness, compassion and professionalism in such devastating circumstances. Not everybody gets the chance to do that. The entire bereavement midwifery team at Treliske are outstanding, and I continue to be in awe of our local team, of how they do such a difficult job, are able to support families at their lowest ebb, and continue to take special care of our babies after they have died.
The impact of covid on those issues seems to be a mixed bag, which is against the expectation. There was a peak in stillbirth and neonatal death in March 2020 and another in January 2021. Our team in Cornwall points to a slow and steady decline in the numbers since 2010. This year, there have been two stillbirths so far. In a so-called usual year, there would have been between eight and 12 by now. It is difficult to commend this figure, however, as the team do not yet really know what to attribute it to, apart from natural peaks and troughs. It could be a temporary irregularity; more research will need to be done to see whether we can find a pattern. This is no comfort at all to the two Cornish families who have suffered that unbearable loss.
The APPG has heard evidence from the sector about how covid has exacerbated existing inequalities. Inequality is the biggest issue that needs to be tackled to reduce the number of babies dying and to improve maternity safety. The Health and Social Care Committee report highlights the need to tackle “unacceptable inequalities in outcomes”. The report by the health and social care expert panel report notes that
“improvements in rates of stillbirths and neonatal deaths are good but are not shared equally among all women and babies. Babies from minority ethnic or socioeconomically deprived backgrounds continue to be at significantly greater risk of perinatal death than their white or less deprived peers.”
It is fair to say that mums and babies should not be at an unfair risk just because of their background.
The Select Committee’s recommendation that the Government introduce a target to end the disparity in maternal and neonatal outcomes, with a clear timeline for achieving that target, is exactly right. Work must be done urgently to identify a suitable target and ways to evidence the gap closing nationally, supported by the evidence of progress locally. The target must aim to achieve equity among all groups and ensure that those who currently have the least good outcomes have the best outcomes.
What needs to be done? I have taken it down to five or six points. First, on staffing, action is needed to address staffing shortfalls in maternity services. At a minimum, we need nearly 500 more obstetricians and nearly 2,000 more midwives. I welcome the recent increase in funding for the maternity workforce, but there will need to be further funding commitments to deliver the safe staffing levels that expectant mothers should receive. In Cornwall, when Karen Watkins started 14 years ago, there were eight consultant obstetricians. Today, there are still eight. None of them are dedicated bereavement obstetricians, and staff need to take on this role as part of their existing duties.
Secondly, on training, the 2016 maternity safety training fund has delivered positive outcomes. More funding is required to embed ongoing and sustainable access to training for all maternity staff, given changes in the practice, developments on how to deliver safely and aspects related to covid-19. Funding for backfill cover when training takes place is also desirable.
Thirdly, on parent involvement, after a patient safety incident, too often families are not provided with the appropriate, timely and compassionate support that they deserve. Involving families in a compassionate manner is a crucial part of the investigation process. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has taken considerable steps to improve family engagement but must continue to pursue improvements in that area.
Fourthly, on clinician confidence, this is related to the earlier point about training, but is also about giving clinicians the confidence to report issues without worry. I welcome the Government’s proposal to review clinical negligence in the NHS more broadly. Elements of the rapid resolution and redress scheme have been implemented, but the scheme has not yet been implemented in full. Until it is, there is a high risk that the fundamental changes needed to improve the safety of maternity services may fail to be achieved.
Fifthly, carer continuity is close to my heart. I am a huge advocate for this, and it has been shown to improve the outcomes of those who currently have the worst outcomes. I would like to ensure that those involved in delivering carer continuity have received the appropriate training, and that all professionals are competent and trained in all the work they are able to do, particularly in relation to black mothers, where the disparities are the greatest. Carer continuity helps to point out other issues that might not be specifically or medically looked for such as domestic violence.
Sixthly, we need more research. If a baby dies at term, the parents ask why, and often there is no answer. I would like to see more money put into research and development so that we can understand more about this horrific phenomenon. There is more to say, and I am sure colleagues will add to the discussion today. I thank the Minister for her continued support in this area, and I know she is listening.
Group B strep is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, causing a range of serious infections including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis.
Screening could save 50 babies a year, and protect a further 70 from life-changing issues. Our Minister has been a force in trying to ensure that all women can ask for the group B strep screening and that all hospital trusts can offer it.
We have just passed the halfway point in this important journey to 2025, and I would like to thank all the healthcare professionals who have contributed to the successes so far. I call on the Government to work with them to achieve the rest and save as many lives as possible in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) on securing this timely and important debate, and on continuing to campaign on these issues. Her bravery in sharing her story is inspiring, and the work of the APPG should be commended. I agree with all her final points wholeheartedly. I was contacted by a number of constituents before today’s debate, and hundreds of people over the past year have shared harrowing stories of their own experiences of baby loss and miscarriage. I would like to thank all those who are campaigning for change.
The overwhelming feeling from all of those I have spoken to is that baby loss, like many other women’s health issues, still does not receive the attention, research or funding it deserves and so desperately needs. As a result, not nearly enough progress is being made. As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned, every day in the UK, around 14 babies die before, during or soon after birth. An estimated one in four pregnancies end in loss during pregnancy or birth. These statistics are difficult to read, but what is much, much worse is the fact that many of these deaths are preventable. According to the recent report by the Health and Social Care Committee, 1,000 more babies a year would survive in England’s maternity services if those services were as safe Sweden’s.
While it is good to hear about improvements that have been made, my constituents and those who have experienced baby loss or miscarriage are more concerned about what more needs to be done to reduce the numbers experiencing loss, especially when the Committee’s report has shown that we are far from meeting our 2025 ambitions. Services are seriously overstretched, underfunded and understaffed, and huge health inequalities in perinatal outcomes remain unaddressed. If we are to buck this trend, the Government need to take the opportunity to reset and refocus perinatal services across England on meaningful and long-lasting transformation.
To begin this transformation and to ensure it results in meaningful change for all women, we need immediately to introduce enhanced data collection and sharing of all adverse perinatal outcomes. During my Adjournment debate earlier this year on the findings of The Lancet series, “Miscarriage matters”, the Minister committed to include the report’s recommendation to record every miscarriage in England in the Government’s women’s health strategy. This is a huge win for campaigners and a really welcome step, which I hope will come to fruition very soon.
However, we must ensure that there is consistent data collection on all adverse perinatal outcomes, including brain injury, and on loss during pregnancy before 24 weeks’ gestation. We must also ensure that all perinatal deaths are recorded within a 24-hour period, rather than the seven-day period that we currently have, to allow for more accurate and timely data collection.
Finally, and most importantly, we must ensure that data are consistently collected on ethnicity and social factors in pregnancy and the post-natal period, so that we can identify groups whose outcomes are worse than the average and set more robust targets. We know from the available data that stillbirth rates for black and black British babies are twice as high than those for white babies, and that the rates for Asian and Asian British babies are 1.6 times higher than those for white babies. Stillbirth rates for babies from the most deprived families are 1.7 times higher than those for the least deprived.
It is deeply upsetting that we still have no evidence-based interventions to reduce the risks that black, Asian and socioeconomically disadvantaged women face. I think we can all agree that we need a strategy in place to end the disparity in maternal and neonatal outcomes, but without available data on specific targets, we do not stand a hope of reducing the inequalities. Consistent data must be recorded and made accessible, so that collectively we can sound the alarm and set specific, tailored targets and strategies for meeting them. Although I welcome the forthcoming confidential inquiry into the deaths of black and black British babies, I am disappointed that Ministers feel unable to fund a similar inquiry into the deaths of Asian and Asian British babies, and I call on the Minister to look at that again.
For too long, baby loss has not received the focus it deserves, and it is dismissed all too often as an inevitability. Only by properly tracking baby loss will we be able to break the taboo, properly address the inequalities in health outcomes, and ensure that we have a foolproof strategy to reach our 2025 ambitions and improve outcomes. For those going through baby loss or still living with the trauma of prior experiences, progress cannot come soon enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing the debate. Her personal story, which she bravely told today and in a previous and moving Westminster Hall debate, has shone a spotlight on the pain and anguish faced by parents who suffer the tragedy of baby loss.
Almost 60,000 babies were born prematurely in 2019, with one in five pregnancies ending in miscarriage during the same period. The effects of miscarriage, stillbirths and neonatal deaths are devastating for parents, with impacts that can and do last a lifetime. It is essential that the Government continue with their 2015 ambition to reduce the rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and maternal deaths in England by 50% by 2030. I welcome the provision in the NHS Long Term Plan to bring forward that ambition to 2025. To this end, the Government announced only this month, on 4 July, that they were making an additional £2.45 million available for NHS maternity staff in order to improve safety in care settings.
As the son of an NHS community midwife, I know the care, dedication and effort that our amazing midwives, such as the incredible team serving my community in Darlington, put into their vocation. They are on the frontline of safety, bringing new life into the world, and all too often they are at the side of parents who have suffered the worst loss imaginable. We must ensure that our midwives are provided with the skills to give the most appropriate care to parents at their time of bereavement.
In Darlington, I recently met Claudia and her husband, Andy, who have suffered two late-term losses—first, at 20 weeks of pregnancy and, more recently, at 18 weeks. Although Claudia was thankfully entitled to statutory sick leave to recover, Andy was not entitled to leave and had to negotiate with his employers to take time off. I am thankful to the two of them for meeting me to talk about their experience, the impact of those losses and the challenges they have faced. I am glad that they have continued to work with me to gather information and understand the patchwork of provision by UK companies whose employees suffer miscarriages. For the sake of Claudia and Andy, I am hopeful that the threshold for statutory bereavement leave will be revisited. The impact of a loss in the second trimester will almost always be just as painful, devastating and hard to overcome as a loss in the third trimester.
Another constituent, Angela, has shared her tragic story with me. Angela suffered two ectopic pregnancies and two miscarriages, and now feels that she will never experience one of the most natural things in the world: the honour of giving birth. Angela described to me that she feels crushed, and would like to see more support for people in her position than was available to her in the first years of the 2000s.
Improving maternity safety, delivering personalised care and improving training will all help to improve outcomes for future expectant parents across the UK. I sincerely hope that a future review of bereavement leave will be extended to those parents who suffer a miscarriage in the second trimester of pregnancy. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what more the Government are doing to achieve our national ambition to reduce baby loss.
I am thankful that the Government have taken and are taking firm action towards reaching the 2025 ambition that will reduce the number of future parents experiencing the pain that Angela, Claudia, Andy and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth have experienced.
I would like to focus on the progress towards safe births at my local trust. I wish I did not need to speak in this debate; I wish that Nottingham’s hospitals, Queen’s Medical Centre and Nottingham City Hospital, were safe places to have a baby. That is what parents in my constituency need and have a right to expect. But right now, that is not what they are guaranteed, as the trust’s chief executive admitted a few weeks ago:
“We fully accept that, although our staff are passionate about what they do, we have not created an environment where these same staff can provide a positive and safe experience for every family in their care, every time.”
A recent investigation by The Independent and “Channel 4 News” found that since 2010, there have been 201 clinical negligence claims against the trust’s maternity services—almost half lodged in the past four years. In those claims are 15 deaths, 19 stillbirths, 46 cases of brain damage and 18 cases of cerebral palsy. The trust has already paid out £79.3 million in compensation but, of course, the human costs are much higher.
In September 2019, Wynter Sophia Andrews was born at the QMC. She died 23 minutes later. It was only after the healthcare safety investigation branch’s findings were published that the trust admitted failings and that earlier intervention would have avoided Wynter’s death. Wynter’s death was the subject of an inquest, and in her verdict the coroner was highly critical of Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust. The coroner said that Wynter would have survived if action had been taken sooner. I will not read the detailed quote from the coroner, but she said that the incident reports and staff accounts demonstrate that
“this was not an isolated incident. An unsafe culture had been allowed to develop as these systemic issues had not been adequately addressed by the leadership team.”
During the inquest, it also emerged that a letter from maternity staff at the trust was sent to the hospital board in 2018 asking for help and raising serious concerns about safety.
Following the coroner’s report, NUH maternity services were subject to unannounced inspections by the Care Quality Commission, which published its report last December. The inspector said:
“During the inspections, several serious concerns were identified. For example, risk assessments which women were expected to have undertaken during their care were not always completed in line with national guidance. Staff did not always use a nationally recognised tool to identify women at risk of deterioration. n addition, the service did not always have enough midwifery staff with the right qualifications, skills, training and experience to keep women safe from avoidable harm and to provide the right care and treatment. Managers regularly reviewed and adjusted staffing levels and skill mix but were limited to the resources available. Following this inspection, maternity services at Nottingham City Hospital and Queen’s Medical Centre are rated Inadequate overall. The services are rated Inadequate for being safe, effective and well-led. Maternity services were previously rated Requires Improvement.”
The worst thing about the situation is that it did not need to be like this. When I read Gary and Sarah Andrews’s account of Wynter’s death, I felt sick—not just because it is tragic and heart-breaking for anyone to lose a much wanted baby, but because there were striking similarities to an earlier case.
My constituents Jack and Sarah Hawkins’s daughter was born dead at Nottingham City Hospital in April 2016. Harriet was a healthy, full-term baby. She died as a result of a mismanaged labour. The trust initially claimed that her death was caused by an infection. Jack and Sarah were told to “try to move on.” It was only thanks to their incredible courage and determination to fight for the truth that the trust was finally forced to admit gross negligence.
I sat with Jack and Sarah in a meeting with the trust’s then chief executive, with photos of Jack, Sarah and their dead daughter on the table in front of us. He apologised and promised that the trust would learn the lesson. Following the coroner’s verdict in Wynter Andrews’s case, I read the comments from senior staff at the trust, apologising and promising to learn the lessons. They were the exact same promises that I had heard more than three years earlier.
Gary and Sarah Andrews wrote to me in March. They said:
“All we want is for other parents to be taking their children home.”
They, Jack, Sarah and other parents are calling for a public inquiry into maternity services at Nottingham University Hospital Trust. I am sure that the Minister will tell me, and them, to put their faith in the Care Quality Commission and the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, but they do not share her confidence that that will be effective. In Harriet’s case, there were numerous investigations, both internal and external, but things did not change or did not change enough.
As the Health and Social Care Committee report notes,
“Involving families…is a crucial part of the investigation process…Families must be confident that their voices are heard and that lessons have been learnt to prevent the tragedy they have endured being repeated.”
When I met the CQC investigation team in April, I was shocked to hear that they have not contacted bereaved parents or sought to hear their views. They claimed to be unaware of Harriet Hawkins’s case.
When I raised concerns with the Minister, her reply contained the news that NHS England, NHS Improvement and the clinical commissioning group are
“finalising the terms of reference for an independent thematic review of maternity cases going back to 2016”.
As Jack Hawkins told me, this has happened without any input from families. The review was due to go back to only 2016, although we know there were many improperly investigated baby deaths and harmed babies before then. That is why they want a truly independent review, not one where it is too easy to suggest that Nottingham University Hospital Trust has a hand in it, and where parents of dead and damaged babies are ignored and excluded from the process of deciding what needs looking at.
I hope that when the Minister meets me and other MPs she will also hear from the parents affected by some of these tragic failures to improve maternity services at Nottingham University Hospital Trust. I look forward to hearing her response both today and on that occasion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this incredibly important debate. I am so sorry for her loss but I thank her for her bravery in sharing it and for her ongoing campaigning in this area.
I also thank campaigning organisations, including the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, Tommy’s and the Lullaby Trust, and all the members of the Pregnancy and Baby Charities Network, as well as bereavement organisations such as the Good Grief Trust for all they do to support parents and families and for their continued campaigns for change.
I thank all my constituents who have recently written to me about this important debate, underlining the reason for having this debate now and why we need to look again at the plan for the national ambition to reduce baby loss and at progress towards that. I am certain that all Members present share my ambition that the UK should be the safest place in the world to have a baby. However, as broken-hearted mothers and fathers across the UK can testify, it is not, and that is the reason for the debate today.
There are stark inequalities: background makes a difference, as well as where mothers have their babies. That should not be case—the highest standards should be equally available across our country. Recent reports from the Health and Social Care Committee, the Ockenden review of maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, the ongoing investigation at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, and the devastating revelations from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust—which have been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South—plainly demonstrate just how much more there is to do.
Although huge strides have been made over the past two decades, that progress has now plateaued and we need to know why and address this. In 2019, the neonatal mortality rate in England and Wales was 2.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, the same as it was in 2017—the third consecutive year of no change. The latest statistics for neonatal mortality published by the World Bank rate the UK as the 37th country globally, making us one of the worst-performing countries in the developed world in this area. As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth highlighted, the recent report into progress on maternal mortality said that
“No discernible progress has been made towards reducing the 2010 rate of maternal deaths by 50% by 2025.”
There are huge inequalities in the experience of maternal mortality and baby loss that have gone unaddressed for too long. Babies from minority ethnic and socioeconomically deprived backgrounds remain at an increased risk of death: if a woman is black or poor, it is more likely that she will die or that her baby will die, which is absolutely unacceptable. In 2017, babies born to black or black British parents had a 67% increased risk of neonatal death compared with babies of white ethnicity, and babies born to Asian parents had a 72% increased risk of neonatal death compared with babies of white ethnicity. The 2020 MBRRACE-UK “Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care” report shows that the risk of maternal death in 2016 to 2018 continued to be four times higher among women from black ethnic minority backgrounds than among white women, and that that risk is twice as high for women from Asian backgrounds as it is for white women.
The Office for National Statistics’ latest “Births and infant mortality by ethnicity in England and Wales” report, published in May this year, highlighted substantial inequalities in infant mortality rates among black and other ethnic minority groups. Some of this variation may be explained by other areas of inequality, including deprivation, but the association between social deprivation and child mortality is clear, and there are modifiable factors that can make a difference. This can be addressed—it can be changed. I have raised this issue with NHS South West London Clinical Commissioning Group, and it must be addressed in partnership with those who have relevant lived experience and build on the knowledge of specialist agencies in each area.
Two further issues that need action have been raised with me by constituents. The first is miscarriage: a constituent has raised with me the issue of access to information and support following a miscarriage, and Tommy’s is campaigning on this issue as well. I met with a constituent yesterday who told me that women in the UK have to endure three consecutive miscarriages before they are referred for full investigation. She feels very angry about this situation and how it has affected her and women across the country. It is simply unacceptable for a couple to go through that much suffering and uncertainty and for it not to be addressed until there have been three miscarriages.
Another issue is that of culture. We are talking a lot today about funding: there is a need for increased funding, for staffing in particular, but there is also the issue of culture, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South. One constituent wrote to me to say that there had been a lack of investment over a long period of time and that that had played a big part in why the services are what they are today, but she also wanted to highlight behavioural issues within maternity—with bullying and hostile attitudes among members of staff. She said that trainees in obstetrics and gynaecology report a high rate of being undermined, higher than other medical specialities.
It is also well known that, in some services, hostility between midwives and obstetricians contributes to services being unsafe. These issues, not only about resources but about culture, need to be addressed and understood: there needs to be a cultural shift. Reporting should be welcomed within NHS trusts, and change should result from such reporting.
I have some requests for the Minister today. First, I underline the calls from Members earlier in the debate about the need for enhanced data collection and sharing. What gets counted counts, and the first thing anyone sitting down and looking at this area sees is that there are big gaps. Secondly, there should be a review of the impact of covid on our neonatal services.
Thirdly, there should be a plan to increase staffing levels; as has been outlined, we need to increase those. How much will they be increased by next year, the year after and the year after that, so we can achieve those 2025 levels? There needs to be action on ethnic disparity and much more focus within every clinical commissioning group on why those differences exist, learning from each other and from best practice and building on that, with a change in culture where needed.
What additional measures is the Minister taking to achieve the national ambition to halve stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries by 2025? As we have seen in the debate and from the recent reports and statistics, business as usual is not going to achieve those aims at all. Will the Government commit to publishing specific national targets before the end of 2022—earlier, ideally—that reflect a bold commitment to action on inequalities due to ethnicity and deprivation, underpinned by specialist pathways and workstreams in every local maternity system?
I pay tribute to all the midwives working so hard across our country for all that they have had to change and go through in the last year, and to all the families affected by the issue. Ambition is all well and good, but it needs to be matched by action and boldness. A lack of both is currently letting down parents and babies across the country and it has to change, starting today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate, for her incredibly moving contribution and for her work on baby loss. I also pay tribute to my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby who have been in touch to ask me to speak today and raise their concerns, and to all those affected by the devastating loss of a baby. Nothing I can say here can do justice to the heartbreak they have been through, but I hope to do my best to raise some of the issues that constituents have shared with me.
It is truly heartbreaking that every day about 14 babies in the UK die before, during or soon after birth. The recent report by the Health and Social Care Committee notes the good progress made, but stresses the urgency with which actions must be taken to achieve the Government’s ambitions of reducing baby loss by 2025. The expert panel also raised serious concerns about aspects of continuity of carer, personalised care and safe staffing, and the Committee has made a series of recommendations, including for a Government commitment to funding the maternity workforce at the level required to deliver safe care to all mothers and their babies.
The report also states that the improvements in rates of stillbirth and neonatal deaths are good but are not shared equally among all women and babies. Babies from minority ethnic or socioeconomically deprived backgrounds continue to be significantly at greater risk, and as the charity Sands says in its report:
“Babies should not be at a higher risk of death simply because of their parents’ postcode, ethnicity or income.”
I wish to raise a case on behalf of one of my constituents today and to pay tribute to her. Can the Minister provide an update on the progress made since the important debate on covid-19 and baby loss in November and outline the steps the Department is taking on research and actions to make sure that nobody has to go through what my constituent has experienced?
My constituent is a health worker who became poorly last year with covid, 36 weeks into her pregnancy. At 37 weeks, she attended hospital with reduced foetal movement, and her daughter was monitored for five hours. When she got to the delivery suite, her daughter had died.
The hospital completed an investigation and found that there were many lessons to be learned. Policies and procedures were not correctly followed. My constituent should have been reviewed by a senior consultant and was not. There were delays of hours in transferring her to the delivery suite due to low staffing levels. The cardiotocography traces showed that her daughter was in distress, but unfortunately at the time that was not acted upon or escalated. If it was, she would have been taken for a caesarean section earlier in the day.
I close with the words of my constituent:
“I have spoken to other women who have been in the same position as me with covid at the same time but their hospitals have acted fast and thankfully their babies have survived. I have also spoken to women in other areas who have sadly lost their babies because their hospitals did not act appropriately. A gold standard of care should be followed nationally. It should not be a postcode lottery if your baby lives or dies.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who spoke wholeheartedly on behalf of his constituents. I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for her courage and compassion, and for her campaigning throughout. She is an inspiration to so many women out there.
The last time we debated this subject, although it was in Westminster Hall, as opposed to here, we had a very emotional debate on baby loss. It was Parliament at its best. MPs from across the House brought their life experiences—and, yes, painful experiences—to benefit the people we seek to serve. That is Parliament at its best.
This has been a painful year for many women and families. We have heard from constituents who were forced to receive bad news apart, were unable to grieve losses together or were even unable to hug a friend or a loved one they saw in pain. Those of us who have experienced baby loss and miscarriages know the pain and anxiety that appointments and scans can cause. I remember breaking down into bits at just the first appointment. It was just a question-and-answer session with a midwife during my second pregnancy, but it can be a horribly anxiety-provoking, triggering experience to go back to a place you have received bad news in the past, let alone doing that during a pandemic. Many women this year have been robbed of the joys of pregnancy.
Although I have had two pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, I now speak from the fortunate position of having a beautiful rainbow baby, which is the term used for a baby following miscarriage or baby loss. That is a very different experience from before. I do not know how others have the strength to speak out while they are still on that journey or without their rainbow. I know I would struggle; you are truly inspirational.
It is because of that shared experience that I am especially proud of the teams at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, who recognise the pain and stress this has caused. I thank the team at Luton and Dunstable for working with me and families to accommodate visitors at scans and appointments as soon as possible. I appreciate that they are under huge stress and pressure during the pandemic, but the difference they make to families is priceless. Thank you to the sonographers, the early pregnancy units, the admin staff, the midwives, the GPs and the consultants who have helped women through this difficult year. You have gone above and beyond—thank you.
To fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, I met some of the brilliant midwife team at the L and D to talk about the changes and the challenges of the future. One is always staffing. They are doing wonders, but to limit the burnout that this pandemic has caused, we need to ensure that we not only retain midwives but recruit adequate numbers. NHS staff have experienced increased stress and pressure, which would test even the toughest of heroes. Hospitals could delay some procedures and surgeries, but as one midwife told me, people do not stop having babies.
We know how important continuity of care is to the health of both mother and baby, so it would be great to get an update from the Minister on where we are on the target to improve continuity of care for women, especially for black and Asian mothers, for whom the maternal health outcomes have been particularly poor. We have heard that stillbirths have doubled for black women, and Asian women are more than 1.6 times as likely to experience stillbirth.
I hope the Minister takes a serious look at the proposals in the report of the Health and Social Care Committee, on which I sit. The Committee heard evidence from a range of parents, grieving families and health experts. I hope the Minister takes a serious look at the recommendations and takes steps to implement them. One of the crucial recommendations is about having adequate levels of staffing. How many midwife vacancies are currently unfilled? How many do we need to train and retain in position to meet future challenges and targets on providing continuity of care to all mothers?
To focus quickly on the pandemic, we know the devastating impact that covid can have on pregnant women. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists released shocking statistics relating to pregnant women and covid. One in 10 pregnant women admitted to hospital with covid symptoms needed intensive care. More than 100 pregnant women have been admitted to hospital with covid-19 in the past two weeks. No pregnant women who have received both doses of the vaccination have been hospitalised since vaccination programmes began. Those are startling statistics.
The Minister joined me to meet my constituent Ernest Boateng who lost his wife Mary more than a year ago, shortly after she contracted covid-19 and gave birth. Ernest has shown amazing strength after losing Mary to look after his two beautiful children. His campaign to see pregnant women prioritised for vaccination is inspirational and one I wholeheartedly support, as do the facts. Yet, throughout this year, and despite protestations from Ernest and MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and others, the Government have failed to prioritise pregnant women for vaccination, relying on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations. I feel the figures now show that that should change. I ask the Minister to commit that, should boosters be needed in future, pregnant women will be some of the first to receive them, and that alongside that there will be an education and information programme targeted at pregnant women.
Before we get to that stage, there is the issue about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) has spoken so passionately from the heart: the ludicrously cruel requirement that women should suffer three losses before support is given specifically for miscarriage and baby loss. Let that sink in. In 2021, we are asking women to go through such a physical, emotional and painful loss three times before they qualify for extra tests, or even early pregnancy support in future pregnancies. How can that be right?
I was lucky to receive extra help and access to some of those tests, but only because a consultant was kind enough to count the losses that I had in the number of babies, rather than pregnancies. I am currently working with a constituent in a similar situation. I am pleased to say that she is now accessing the support she needs, but that should be the norm; it should not be extraordinary. Why are we making women and families go through such pain before they even get a simple blood test? It is cruel beyond belief.
To summarise my points: first, we should make pregnant women a priority for covid-19 vaccines and ensure that they are prioritised for any subsequent boosters. Secondly, we need to recruit, retain and reward midwives to ensure that we have adequate numbers, while being honest about the scale of the challenge ahead of us. That leads on to point three about continuity of care. We need to see continuity of care, prioritising those who are most in need, particularly black mothers, who are four times more likely to die during childbirth.
We must implement the recommendations in the Health and Social Care Committee report. Many of my colleagues on the Committee would have joined today’s debate, but that Committee is sitting at the same time. I pass on their apologies, knowing their strength of feeling and that we are united on those recommendations. Finally, we must end the requirement of three losses before intervention and support is given to women. Pregnancy can be a painful journey for far too many women. Let us listen to women, end that cruel requirement and support women through their joys and their losses, and so improve the statistics on baby loss and miscarriage for good.
It is a pleasure to see you back in your place again, Mr Gray, after the operations you have had. I am very pleased you are back in Westminster Hall. I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for leading the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) and the contributions from other hon. Members.
Very personal stories have been told, some of which have been raised in earlier debates. That does not lessen the pain and heartache that we feel. I imagine the introduction was not easy for the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth, given the grief and tragedy she has had to deal with after the loss of her little baby last year. As politicians, we often disagree—we can agree to disagree and are given this platform to represent our differing opinions. However, this issue has brought us together and it is heart-warming to discuss a topic that has touched us all in some form and enabled us to come together. My mother had five miscarriages, my sister lost three babies and the young girl who is the PPS in my office had two, so this issue is very real to myself.
Estimates suggest that there are 250,000 miscarriages in the UK every year. One in five pregnancies miscarries and there are 11,000 emergency admissions to hospital for ectopic pregnancies. Those figures sadly represent the mothers, fathers, grannies and grandas who have suffered a heartbreaking loss. I stand here today as someone who has witnessed the effects that this can have on a family. I extend my sympathies to those who have been faced with this in the past and those who unfortunately will be in the future.
The impact of baby loss is difficult enough and I have no hesitation in saying that the covid-19 pandemic has not made these situations any easier. I had multiple constituents contact me regarding hospital appointments and scans. They expressed concern that restrictions only allowed an isolated appointment. A number of MPs—some here and others not—have raised this issue with Ministers and asked them to address it. It has always made me think of those who went through the tragedy of a miscarriage or pregnancy complications and, in some circumstances, went through it all alone. As an example, I remember my mother. We had a shop in Ballywalter. My mother had a miscarriage and the next day she was back in the shop working again. That is how things happened in those days of long ago.
I have heard multiple reports from those in my constituency. One is a student midwife studying in Glasgow. She said that although tests can sometimes not identify any major issue, having efficient staffing levels and more adequate nurses and doctors allows staff to catch issues earlier. When responding, could the Minster give some assurance and encouragement that staffing levels will be sufficient to ensure that there is oversight and that these issues do not happen? An additional step that we as elected representatives can take is to ensure there is sufficient funding to employ more healthcare professionals, if this is what staff are telling us they need—and the staff are telling us that. We need to respond to that.
This is not the responsibility of the Minster but to give the figures, the latest report has shown that the neonatal mortality rate—deaths in the first four weeks of life—is the highest in Northern Ireland, when compared with England, Scotland and Wales. We have an issue back home, which is a devolved matter that the Minister Robin Swann is directly looking at.
When it comes to baby loss, hospitals do not have enough counselling services for parents who have suffered miscarriage, stillbirths and neonatal deaths. There need to be more trained counsellors in our hospitals to act at immediate effect. Baby loss can be prevented through increased research. Again, I urge the Minster and her Department to allocate funds for this.
I am a person of faith, as hon. Members know, and I believe it is important to have church representatives, be they leaders or those with pastoral abilities, to respond to people in hospital when they need it most. Has that been available for those who seek assurance at a particularly difficult time? Life is precious. There is nothing more valuable than the people we have around us and the loss of a wee baby, who has not even had a chance at life, occurs all too often. The Royal College of Midwives stated:
“Maternity and health services cannot do this alone, fantastic as their efforts are.”
We must add more support to our health service on baby loss. I am pleased to see the Minister, and look forward to her response to assure us on this issue.
I very much appreciate the subject of this debate, which is
“the national ambition to reduce baby loss.”
That ambition is shared by so many. I assure those going through the process that they are not alone. It is so important that people realise that they are not alone and that many others out there are trying to help them through those trials. Baby loss has touched the lives of so many, including mine. I am proud to stand here representing those who wish that those babies were with us today—they will not be forgotten. I call on the Minister to commit more time and more financial support to the national ambition to reduce baby loss. If we achieve that, we will have achieved a whole lot.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As many others have done, I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate and for helping to ensure that the issue remains firmly and high up on the political agenda.
Although health in Scotland is a devolved matter, there is no diversion in our collective will across the UK to do all we can to reduce baby loss. In almost every debate on baby loss that I have spoken in—all of them, I think—I have said that in the past, too many women have reported that they felt concerned about their unborn babies because, “Something just doesn’t feel right.” They go on to report that they have been dismissed and have subsequently suffered a stillbirth. I have repeatedly made the fundamental point about stillbirth that women know their own bodies and that clinicians need to listen to them. If that were done routinely, some tragic baby losses could be avoided.
The devastating loss of a baby brings with it not just crushing grief for the bereaved parents and the wider family, but a real social cost. We know that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and that people are eight times more likely to divorce if they suffer the loss of a child in any circumstances. Of course, the cost of divorce to society is well documented, as are the social and personal costs for all those involved. We need to bear those things in mind.
It is truly devastating when the worst happens and a baby is lost. High-quality bereavement care is very important. I am pleased that, alongside the UK Government, the Scottish Government are funding Sands UK—the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity—to develop national bereavement care pathways for different types of baby loss. I also have a sense that the culture in some quarters of dismissing pregnant women who report that something is not quite right is changing, and I really and truly hope that it is. People have talked a lot about figures today, but in recent years there has been some modest improvement in the stillbirth statistics, which is welcome. There is a long way for us to go, however, in understanding more about stillbirth and baby loss.
The Scottish Government have unveiled the women’s health plan to improve women’s health in the round. We have talked about how health inequalities inevitably affect outcome, so looking at women’s health in the round is important. That would, of course, include maternity, neonatal and postnatal care. “The Best Start: A Five Year Forward Plan for Maternity and Neonatal Care” recommends that all women in Scotland receive continuity of maternity and obstetric care. A number of hon. Members have spoken about that, particularly the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth. That does help to improve outcomes for mother and baby.
Any focus on reducing baby lost must consider pre-eclampsia, which is the most common of the serious complications of pregnancy. If we knew even more about that condition, we could save around 1,000 babies from stillbirth each year. The challenge that pre-eclampsia poses is that in its early stages, it has no symptoms. I declare an interest: my baby son was stillborn on the very day that he was due to be delivered because of an extreme form of pre-eclampsia called HELLP—hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets—syndrome. I will not recount the details of baby Kenneth’s death again; I have done it several times in previous debates. Kenneth would be coming up for his 12th birthday, and I am now just getting to the point where I can talk about it without automatically bursting into tears, so I suppose that is progress for me.
As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth pointed out, knowing why your baby has died is really important. Many bereaved parents find, just as I did, that the shutters come down when they ask the question why. It is very hard to get answers and they are much more likely to be fobbed off than to be given any explanation. I can testify to the impact of such treatment after your baby is stillborn, and it is beyond what any bereaved parents should have to suffer. If there is anything that can make a stillbirth worse, it is that treatment of being dismissed.
How can we honestly say that practitioners are seeking to improve how they do things and how they improve outcomes if, when mistakes happen—as they inevitably will at times—they too often appear to go unacknowledged? Sadly, I have no reason to believe that that culture has changed. In my case, all the signs of HELLP syndrome were there, but they were missed by a series of clinicians. That very nearly also led to my own death from a ruptured liver.
The Minister knows about the really interesting work going on with regard to pre-eclampsia called placental growth factor testing, which can point us towards improving the early detection and diagnosis of pre-eclampsia and will save babies’ lives. Offering this test to every mother has implications for lab capacity and other resources—resources are always more scarce than we would like—but it compensates by reducing the demand on maternity services in other ways. It offers the potential to reduce admission of expectant mums for suspected pre-eclampsia in lower risk women, as well as reducing unnecessary in-patient monitoring tests. In the next few years, I hope that we will be able to reduce a significant number of stillbirths caused by pre-eclampsia through the use of the PGLF testing for suspected cases.
However, I am deeply concerned—as everyone else will be—that some of the very modest progress made in recent years in tackling baby loss and stillbirth appears to have been reversed since the start of the pandemic. This phenomenon has been noted in a number of countries across the world. St George’s hospital in London highlighted a fourfold increase in stillbirths, and in Scotland, too, there has been an increase since the March 2020 lockdown. Although stillbirth rates were lower than they have historically been, even during the lockdown, it is still very alarming that there has been a rise. To have suffered a stillbirth during the pandemic while separated from the wider support of family and loved ones is truly heartbreaking, and has made it all the worse.
Experts are investigating the increase in stillbirths during lockdown, but we need to know the true cause. Was it because expectant mums were more reluctant to seek help? Was it caused directly by the effects of covid-19 on babies, or is there some other explanation? Regardless of the cause, this is a very worrying development. We are all waiting on the publication of research on that to see what can be learned to inform future care that is better and more responsive to women’s needs during covid, which we must remember is still with us.
I am delighted that we have had this debate today on this very important issue, and hope that wherever reductions in baby loss are made, the whole of the UK will share best practice and each part of the UK will learn from its other constituent parts, because expectant mothers and families awaiting a new arrival should all be entitled to the safest possible delivery of their baby.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing today’s debate and the compelling way she spoke both today and in the debate last November. I was not present for that debate, but I read it over the weekend. I never thought that reading Hansard would bring a tear to my eye, but the way that she and many other Members spoke in that debate was incredibly moving and powerful. Today, she said some very important things that we all need to reflect on. She talked about the staff who cared for her during her difficult times, and she used the words “kindness, compassion and professionalism”, which are absolutely the qualities that we need in our NHS workforce in this particularly sensitive area. We should all put on record our thanks to those who do incredible work in incredibly difficult circumstances.
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth also mentioned the Select Committee report and noted that progress had been good, but it was from a low base. As a number of Members said, variation still exists across the country. The hon. Member talked about her six priorities. A number of Members talked about some of them, but she set out clearly where we need to do more about staffing the shortfalls. She made an important point about providing not just training, but the back-filling of positions while staff go on training. She also made an important point about parents’ involvement and engagement with such issues, because those who have been through awful experiences have the best input to give us on how to make it a little easier for those who have to face it in the future.
Clinician confidence to report issues was another important point that several Members raised. It is important that clinicians feel able to raise concerns and that they are acted on, which does not always happen. Like most Members, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned continuity of care and the importance of more research. One of the things that parents want to know is why this happened to them.
Each year, 1,200 babies are stillborn, and a third of those die after a full-term pregnancy. We know how important coroners’ inquiries can be in getting to the truth and preventing future deaths, but they are currently unable to investigate stillbirths. Does my hon. Friend think it would be helpful if the Government now responded to the 2019 consultation on extending coronial powers to cover stillbirths, so that some of that important investigative work can contribute to attempts to reduce the number of stillbirths in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her speech gave a very clear example of how that can be of benefit not just to the parents, but to the wider system. Parents will always want to know why this has happened to them. It will not always be possible to give an answer, but if we can do more to look at that, it would be of great benefit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) spoke in November’s debate as well as today, and her contribution was incredibly moving. She raised the issue of research and the need for more funding to be brought into this area. Like many Members, she talked about the huge inequalities in perinatal outcomes. She also raised an important point about data collection, which will of course inform policy moving forward. It is not just about collecting data, but about collecting it in a timely manner and accurately.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the experience of his constituents Claudia and Andy, and he made a very important point about statutory bereavement leave, which we ought to look at again.
The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about her own trust, the death of baby Winter, and her constituents Jack and Sarah, who had a similar loss with Harriet in 2016, were telling. That really was a case of many of the issues being repeated, and it sounds to me as if the trust has not done enough to learn the lessons. My hon. Friend also made a vital point about parental involvement in the review process. It seems to me that 2016 is an arbitrary date, and I encourage the Minister to engage in a dialogue with parents to make sure that the scope of the review is as wide as it can be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) made an excellent speech, highlighting just how far we still have to go with obstetrics and how inequalities in outcomes still exist. She made the important point that these issues need to be addressed in conjunction with those who have experienced a loss. Parental involvement is a theme that has come through several times today. She also made a very important point about the culture, which is not always the best for raising concerns and learning from past experiences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) also mentioned continuity of care and the workforce challenge, something that most Members raised. He said that postcode, ethnicity and income should not be telling factors in outcomes. He also told a very moving story about one of his constituents, who suffered their own loss. Unfortunately, it seems that the failings that were identified there will resonate with many trusts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke incredibly movingly today, as she did in the previous debate. She brought home how difficult it is for those who have successful subsequent pregnancies still to have to deal with previous losses, which are still on their minds, as one would expect. Again, continuity of carers and workforce issues were raised. She made a very important point about vaccines and the admissions that we have seen in recent weeks of pregnant women with covid. A very important point was put to the Minister about the priorities for booster jabs, which I hope she will address. The point my hon. Friend made most powerfully was about the three miscarriage rule, and the way she spoke brought home how cruel it is. It really does need revisiting.
Finally, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave a very heartfelt speech. Again, he raised a number of issues about staffing.
I am nearly out of time, so I will make just a couple of points. A number of Members touched on issues that have arisen during the pandemic. We know that there has been reduced access to face-to-face appointments. Partners have sometimes been excluded, leaving women to receive this terrible news on their own. That has obviously been deeply isolating for mothers, but also for fathers. Virtual appointments just do not allow for the compassion and assurance that is really needed in those difficult moments. Of course, even if the woman has had her partner with her, the wider family has not always been able to comfort them during those difficult times.
We know that, for those who have had a loss, time is of the essence. There is a direct correlation between when someone receives mental health support and how long it is needed. A survey by Sands found that nearly two thirds of bereaved parents who felt they needed psychological support were unable to access it on the NHS. We really need to do much better on that.
Finally, I want to take a few moments to recognise the fantastic work that the more than 60 charities that collaborate together in this area do and the way they support anyone who has been affected by pregnancy loss or the death of a baby. They work very constructively with health professionals to improve services and reduce deaths. I also pay tribute to Donna Ockenden and her team for the work they are undertaking. There is no doubt that the more work they do, the more it becomes apparent that there is an awful lot more to do.
It is now approaching five years since we had the first of what has become an annual debate on baby loss in the House. Those debates have seen the House at its best. Members recall their own experiences, and no one should underestimate how difficult that must be. That plays a vital role in helping to inform policy, but it also says to those who may be going through these awful experiences that they are not alone.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and a huge pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory). Many tributes have been paid to her bravery, courage and compassion and to how inspirational she is on this issue. I echo all that and thank her for securing this debate today on an incredibly important issue.
This debate has an hour and a half. If we had half a day, it still would not be enough. I have 10 minutes and a huge amount of information to respond to. I will not be able to respond to all the questions and issues raised in those few minutes. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and I have a call very soon and we will discuss Nottingham in detail during it.
I want to start by saying that the UK is one of the safest countries in the world to give birth. We are safer than Canada, the United States, France and New Zealand. I could go on listing how safe we are. We have made good progress. I want to start with that context. We have made really good progress in improving maternity safety over the past few years. The original ambition was to halve the 2010 rates of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths, and brain injuries in babies occurring during or soon after birth by 2030. We updated that ambition in 2017 to bring forward that date to 2025 and to include an additional ambition to reduce the rate of pre-term births from 8% to 6%.
In relation to stillbirths, we are making solid progress towards meeting that ambition. Since 2010, the stillbirth rate has fallen from 5.1 stillbirths per 1,000 births to 3.7, which equates to a 25% reduction in the stillbirth rate. That places us firmly ahead of our target to meet the 2020 ambition for a 20% decrease, and that means there are now at least 750 fewer stillbirths each year.
Similar progress has been made on reducing the number of neonatal deaths. According to the ONS, there has been a 29% reduction in the neonatal mortality rate for babies born over 24 weeks of gestational age of viability. I am particularly proud of that progress and acknowledge that progress on reducing the maternal mortality rate, the brain injury rate and the pre-term birth rate has been slower. However, according to a bespoke definition developed by clinicians at the request of the Department of Health and Social Care, the overall rate of brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth has fallen to 4.2% per 1,000 births in 2019 from 4.7% per 1,000 in 2014. Although that progress is slower, we are still seeing a reduction.
Because of that slower reduction, on 4 July I announced £2 million of funding to support a new programme to reduce brain injuries in babies. The first phase of the programme is being led by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the RCM and the Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute at the University of Cambridge. It aims to develop clinical consensus on the best practices for monitoring and responding to babies’ wellbeing during labour—the progress of the baby during labour has been mentioned a number of times—and in managing complications with the baby’s positioning, specifically when a baby’s head is impacted in the mother’s pelvis during a caesarean section.
Funding for the second phase of the work, beginning later this year, will begin to implement and evaluate this new approach to inform how we can roll it out nationally. On pre-term births, recent ONS provisional data shows the percentage of all pre-term live births decreased for the second year in a row, from 7.8% to 7.5%.
Although we have had a reduction in maternal deaths, there is still more work needed to address the underlying causes of why mothers die in or shortly after childbirth. In the 2016 to 2018 data, 217 women died during or up to six weeks after pregnancy. That represents a 9% reduction in the maternal mortality rate against the 2009 to 2011 baseline, but we obviously need more up-to-date data on that. Some 58% of the deaths were due to indirect causes, such as cardiac disease and neurological conditions. This means that we need to look not only at what maternity services can do during the 40 weeks or less they may care for a woman while she is pregnant, but also at a lifetime approach—supporting women to be in the best health before pregnancy.
To care for pregnant women with acute and chronic medical conditions, NHS England is rolling out maternal medicine networks to ensure that there is timely access at all stages of pregnancy. In the debate today, a number of people have mentioned staffing levels and workforce. We have recently announced £95 million towards increasing the workforce in maternity units—some 1,200 additional midwives and 100 additional consultant obstetricians. The figures have been calculated at trust level on the basis of birth rate, along with the RCOG. We have also given the RCOG £500,000 to develop a workforce tool for planning, so that we have as safe staffing levels as we can have on maternity units, when they are needed.
I am going to go on to the nitty-gritty of the problems that affect some of the outcomes that we are trying to negate during pregnancy. We know that obesity during pregnancy puts women at an increased risk of experiencing miscarriage, difficult deliveries, pre-term births and caesarean sections. I underline the importance of helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight in order to improve our nation’s health.
That is why we launched the obesity strategy in July 2020. The strategy sets out a campaign to reduce obesity, including measures to get the nation fit and healthy. We know that obesity has a huge impact on covid-19. According to the RCOG, the overall likelihood of a stillbirth in the UK is less than one in 200 births, but if a woman’s body mass index is over 30, the risk doubles to one in 100. According to Public Health England, 22.1% of women were obese in early pregnancy. If a woman’s BMI is higher than 25, that is associated with a range of additional risks, which I will not list now, but which include miscarriage.
On smoking, some 12.8% of women in the UK were smoking at the start of pregnancy and 10.4% of women were smoking at the time of delivery. With the new emphasis on public health post covid, I requested meetings with Public Health England to discuss how we once again emphasise the negative effects of smoking during pregnancy and the impact of obesity, particularly given the RCOG figures of the doubling of the risk of stillbirth for women with a BMI over 30.
I am sure it is not the Minister’s intention that the tone of the response, particularly in this section, feeds into the guilt that many women experience having suffered miscarriage or stillbirth. It feels as if the onus is being put on the woman—that the reason they have experienced this loss is entirely their fault. Perhaps, if we want to tackle the root causes of obesity and smoking and those reasons for baby loss, we would be tackling the root causes of deprivation, not necessarily focusing on personal responsibility in the way that the Minister has just outlined.
I could not agree more, but we are doing nobody any favours whatsoever if we do not inform women of the impact of smoking and obesity during pregnancy. Before covid—some time ago—Public Health England had a huge emphasis on the negative effects of smoking during pregnancy, and we think we need to focus once more on the fact that 12.8% of women are smoking at the beginning of pregnancy and 10.4% are smoking at the time of delivery, as part of this approach to continuing to reduce the number of stillbirths. To keep that trajectory moving, we have to discuss all the reasons why and all the health implications during pregnancy.
A number of Members mentioned the continuity of care programme. We are committed to reducing inequalities in health outcomes and experience of care. In September 2020, I established the maternity inequalities oversight forum to bring together experts from key stakeholders to consider and address the inequality for women and babies from different ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic groups.
In response to a direct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth, we wanted to see all women placed on the continuity of care pathway by March 2022, but that will not be possible. We are therefore focusing on having 75% of black, black British, Asian and Asian British women on the continuity of care pathway by 2024. We will have 20% of all women on that pathway at the same time. The issue of training on continuity of care was brought up, and that is the important point. We can talk about continuity of care pathways, but it is about having the right training in place and ensuring that those midwives who have those women on that pathway and are caring for them are trained in the particular inequalities that my hon. Friend mentioned. That is why it will take us to 2024, but we will have 75% of those ethnic minority women on that pathway by that date.
A number of Members mentioned covid-19. It has caused a huge amount of disruption to our lives. As the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) said, women have continued to have babies throughout that time. Maternity and neonatal services have worked hard to enable partners to be present during labour and birth. According to the latest information, all maternity partners are accompanying women to all antenatal scans and appointments in acute settings.
The hon. Member for Luton North also brought up vaccinations. She made the point that the Government need to ensure that all pregnant women are vaccinated. My daughter is 32 weeks pregnant, so no one has been more aware of that than me, but I am afraid that politicians do not make clinical decisions, and the Government are not the JCVI—the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is completely independent. The committee decides who is vaccinated.
After constantly asking why pregnant women were not being prioritised and taking a glance at the make-up of the JCVI, however, I was shocked to discover that it is made up of 14 men and three women, so I am unsurprised at the JCVI not emphasising or prioritising pregnant women for vaccination. Again, that is a point I am making in the Department and in particular with the women’s health strategy. Perhaps all scientific committees that make decisions about women’s health should have a gender balance.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Luton North that I am absolutely on to that and have been all the way through. I might just be beginning to get a bit of insight into why the JCVI has not prioritised pregnant women for vaccination. It is shameful that they were not; they should have been. She highlighted the data herself at the L&D hospital, which is one of my local hospitals, and I hope that the hospital will now begin—despite the constant requests and pressure from Government—to review its policies on pregnant women and vaccination.
I thank the Health and Social Care Committee and its independent expert panel for its inquiry into the safety of maternity services and evaluation of maternity commitments. The Department is considering the recommendations made in the report and will publish a full response in September.
In conclusion, I am absolutely proud of the progress that we are making on stillbirths, neonatal deaths and maternal deaths, but we have to do more. That will involve Public Health England, and that will involve looking at all the reasons why and all the targets that we have to beat so that we can reach those ambitions and reduce those figures.
In the short time left, I thank all Members for their kindness. I have been catapulted into this position quite recently and it was not something that I was expecting to have to advocate on, but I am pleased that I am. I am pleased that I can stand up for parents and families who have had to go through a similar thing. We have had a robust and interesting discussion.
I make a plea for two things. First, our all-party parliamentary group on baby loss is meeting the Minister this afternoon at 3 o’clock, so anybody watching who would like to come along is very welcome. Secondly, I will be applying for another debate from the Backbench Business Committee for Baby Loss Awareness Week this autumn, in October, and if the Committee is listening, please, please, may we have it in the main Chamber? It is important, and that would show the utmost respect to parents who have been through this.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered progress towards the national ambition to reduce baby loss.
Rural Banking Services
I beg to move,
That his House has considered rural banking services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. I am grateful to other Members for attending the debate. It is hot outside but there is no reason it should be hot in here. This does not need to be a divisive debate and I hope we can talk about the positives and the negatives of the issue.
I want to cover both the availability of cash and the importance of banking infrastructure in rural areas. There is no doubt that the pandemic has forced businesses to adapt and accelerated a wider move towards digital payments. That is to be welcomed and I thank businesses across the country that have bent over backwards and adapted their systems to ensure that they can provide a service to isolated or elderly customers. However, I am concerned that this has implications for some members of society, particularly older and vulnerable people, who are much more likely to use cash. Lower income households and those without internet access are likely to be the most affected.
During the pandemic, cash use has declined, often in constituencies with higher levels of deprivation. In my constituency, cash withdrawals dropped by 55% in the first six months of the pandemic and in areas such as mine, where our broadband and mobile coverage is poor, cash is extremely important for rural businesses and individuals. I am grateful that the Government are listening on this and are proactive, as I know the Minister will outline later, and we have already made some good steps in that direction.
In 2019, the “Access to Cash Review” report highlighted the need for different Government bodies and regulatory authorities to work together to protect access to cash. That was then followed with a commitment from the Chancellor in his Budget to legislate to protect access to cash. In April 2021, the Government accepted an amendment to the Bill that became the Financial Services Act 2021, which would allow consumers to withdraw cashback from more retailers without having to make a purchase. We have a real-life example of that amendment working well in my constituency.
I have been working with the community access to cash group in Hay-on-Wye, which is a group of volunteers who have gathered together to focus on the problem of cash availability. I do not know if you know my constituency, Mr Gray, but Hay-on-Wye is a beautiful town and has a wonderful culture of striking out on its own. In fact, in 1973, Richard Booth, who appointed himself the king of Hay, declared Hay an independent kingdom, so we did not need to go through the Brexit referendum—it really was that easy.
As a result, Hay-on-Wye has a culture of fixing its own problems. I want to commend the group of volunteers who have been organising this. They got together after the final bank left the town in 2018. At the same time, the post office has been going through some turbulent times after the postmaster, Mr Steve Like, stepped down from the business. I want to thank Steve and his family, who have owned the post office in Hay-on-Wye for more than 60 years. It was the end of an era when he stepped down in June.
With those two pressures in mind, a group of volunteers led by Josh Green got together to tackle the issue of cash availability. As well as creating a scheme where customers from different banks can speak to a representative from their bank in the parish hall one day a month, they have got together a large group of businesses that are now offering cashback after the Government stepped forward with the change to the Financial Services Act 2021. I want to celebrate what those volunteers have done. It is a meaningful difference and proves just how important cash is.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on bringing forward this debate. My constituency of Strangford is similar to her own. We have had a number of bank closures and the latest one is Barclays in Newtownards, just 30 minutes away from Portavogie and Cloughey in my constituency. They are closed and the options are away. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is an important parallel between banking and broadband services. More time needs to be committed to improving internet services in rural communities to ensure that constituents can use online banking efficiently, in addition to doing it in person. It doesn’t suit everyone, but it will suit a whole lot of people. The option needs to be there, perhaps as an opportunity for banks and broadband to work together.
I agree with the hon. Member. I hope the Minister will cover that in his summing up. As a beautiful constituency, we have one of the lowest broadband availability rates in the entire country, so those are twin-track problems that we need to fix at the same time.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She could well be describing Aberconwy: it is beautiful and rural, and it has trouble with broadband and, unfortunately, the withdrawal of banking services. In my constituency, the experience of the residents and small businesses of Llanrwst is that first they saw banking and counter services withdrawn from the town and going down the coast to Llandudno, and they were told that they could travel to Llandudno. Now, they hear that the counter services in Llandudno are closing, at some banks, and moving further along the coast. These are areas that do not have the benefit of extensive public transport, so it is physically difficult to move from the valley to the coast—
I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), too. I will cover later in my speech the issues that have been raised. They are common issues, and that is why we all need to work together. This involves not just the UK Government, but the devolved Administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.
This proves the point that cash is extremely important. The Lloyds group talks about a group of 3 million cash-critical people. These are not the people that we might expect: 41% of this group are aged between 35 and 54; they earn less than £20,000 a year; and they often rent their home or live in social housing. Therefore, we are not just talking about the elderly, the vulnerable and those who live on their own. We need to ensure that this extremely important group in society has access to cash.
Let me turn to my ask of Government. As I have mentioned, the Government have taken some really positive steps towards addressing the challenges, and there is currently a consultation open on access to cash. The proposals include the Treasury granting powers to require certain firms such as retail banks to provide deposit and withdrawal facilities for customers within certain distances, and the Financial Conduct Authority would have oversight for monitoring and enforcing those requirements. I very much welcome that. Those proposals suggest that the Government are introducing a legal guarantee for consumers and businesses to be able to withdraw and access their cash. That is absolutely what we need. I think that the point about certain distances will be critical for people in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. We are the largest constituency in England and Wales—the constituency is bigger than Luxembourg—and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear that in mind as the consultation goes forward. I will certainly respond to it, but it is imperative to remember that miles are not the same in urban areas as they are in rural areas.
Brecon has four banks, and that is great news, but Ystradgynlais, the largest town in my constituency by population, has only one. Builth Wells has one. Hay-on-Wye, as I have said, has none. Crickhowell has none. Rhayader has none. Knighton has none. Since the mid-1990s, the number of bank branches in the UK has been falling steadily.
My Welsh colleague is making important points on the importance of banking infrastructure. In my constituency of Pontypridd, loyal customers whose life savings have been invested in banks are being abandoned by these corporations, which claim to serve the communities that we represent. Does the hon. Member agree with me that it is completely wrong for banks to bale out of local communities such as ours and others across Wales when just a few years ago they had to be bailed out by the public purse themselves?
I certainly agree that it is wrong for banks to withdraw when there are no options left. We need to be really careful. I have worked with and spoken to a number of them in preparation for this debate, and I implore them to remember that we do need physical banking services. We cannot just push them down the line or rely on a certain urban area.
On that point, it has just been announced that Barclays bank in my constituency, in Llandrindod Wells, is about to close. From my office in Llandod, I can see the number of people who use that bank every day, and I am quite surprised that the decision is going ahead. I understand it is too late to influence that, but I make the plea none the less. It will cause considerable problems for people in my constituency: those who live in Knighton or Presteigne, or further north. I again remind the House that it is the largest constituency in England and Wales.
As much as this decision causes a headache for personal banking, businesses will also suffer. It is crucial that we recognise the value of these rural businesses. Farmers rely on good relationships with their banks, for obvious reasons. It is often said that nobody knows how to spend money better than a farmer, and it is really important that we remember how that money gets filtered out right through the rural community. One farmer sustains hundreds of businesses in a rural area, including the vet, the insurance agent, the feed merchant and the contractors that he will work with, so remembering that rural businesses need access to banking infrastructure is so important. I urge the Minister to put some real teeth behind the proposal in the consultation for a right to withdraw cash, again remembering that point about mileage. Some of my constituents who used to rely on Barclays bank in Llandrindod Wells are now going to need to travel 20 or 30 miles to get cash to pay their bills, or to give a grandchild their birthday money, so that right is absolutely essential.
The final point I will make is about the importance of banks to the high street, because nobody just pops to the bank as a one-off transaction: they pop into the post office, go into the butcher or go for a coffee. Banks are important parts of a thriving high street—again, I stress the importance of a high street to rural areas, particularly in Brecon and Radnorshire, where we do not have large urban conurbations or city centres. Our high streets are the lifeblood of the rural economy, and it is incredibly important that as we move towards a purely digital platform, we remember the need for face-to-face contact. If the pandemic has demonstrated anything over the past 18 months, it is that we all need and cherish human interaction, and it is incredibly important that we remember the impact that closures like these can have on mental health. Again, I think of the farmers in my constituency who take their cattle to market and then, while they are in Brecon market, go to the high street and into the bank. This is part of an important rural chain, and when one link goes, so goes the rest of it.
I really want the Government to think about the impact that these closures can have. Obviously, we cannot control the commercial decisions that the retail banks make, but I believe we should be doing all we can to preserve rural communities, remembering that rural banking services are so crucial. We talk a lot in this place about levelling up, and rightly so, but there can be no levelling up if we forget rural areas. I urge the Minister to think about that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing this debate and on the eloquent way in which she set out a whole range of issues concerning her constituents. I know that she has deep first-hand experience of rural affairs, given her prior role working for the National Farmers Union before she came to this place, and she spoke very clearly about the significance of bank branches for many in rural areas across Wales, England, and indeed Scotland too. I also listened very carefully to the three interventions from the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), and I am keen to address those in my response.
From my first-hand experience growing up in rural Wiltshire, as part of a family running a very small business, I know the significance of bank branches and the central role that they have in the community. However, I also have to recognise that the world that we live in today is very different from the one of a few decades ago. Technological progress means that more consumers and businesses are opting for digital payments and banking, and last year’s figures from UK Finance show that around seven in 10 adults in this country used online banking and eight in 10 used contactless payments. Although cash represented almost a fifth of the total number of payments, this was a reduction from 56% a decade earlier in 2009, so while the longer-term impact of the pandemic on banking is not yet absolutely clear, the switch to those digital methods is likely to have been accelerated by coronavirus. Times are changing and have clearly changed, and digital technology is transforming banking just like ATMs did in the 1960s.
None the less, as we have heard today, bank branches still matter a great deal to many people, and permanent branch closures can be a source of real dismay to communities across the country. Although closures can be upsetting, they are commercial matters and the Government cannot intervene. Indeed, one could argue that the UK’s financial services sector is among the most competitive and productive in the world precisely because it has the flexibility to respond to market changes.
It is also crucial that the impact of branch closures is understood, considered and, where possible, mitigated so that all consumers across the country can continue to access over-the-counter banking services as they choose. As has been mentioned, since 2017 the major high street banks have been signed up to the access to banking standard, which commits banks to ensuring that customers are well informed about branch closures and the reasons behind them, and that customers have options for continued access to banking services, including specialist assistance for those who need more help. That is not some passive intervention. The operation of the standard is monitored and enforced by the independent Lending Standards Board, which holds banks that close branches accountable for their treatment of customers. That means monitoring to see whether they help individual customers to make the transfer to using the Post Office or other solutions.
Last September, banks’ responsibilities around closures were further clarified by the Financial Conduct Authority when it published guidance setting out its expectations of firms that decide to reduce their physical branches or the number of free-to-use ATMs. Under that guidance, which seeks to ensure that customers are treated fairly, banks are expected to consider the impact of planned closures on customers’ everyday banking and cash access needs. In addition, banks should consider alternative access arrangements. On that last point, it is my understanding that within a short distance of the Llandrindod Wells Barclays, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned, there are two post offices and two free ATMs. In addition, I note that Lloyds and NatWest provide fortnightly mobile bank branches throughout the constituency.
My hon. Friend quite rightly highlighted the great significance of cash to constituents, and the Government recognise that we have to address that need and the ongoing importance of cash to millions of people, particularly those in vulnerable groups—often the elderly and the poorest. I am therefore glad that LINK has already said that it will protect the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs. It is being held to account against those commitments by the Payment Systems Regulator.
As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the Government are committed to legislating to protect access to cash for those who need it while ensuring that the UK’s cash infrastructure is sustainable. Clearly, the way it is funded and the way the wholesale system works has to evolve to reflect the changing usage pattern. That is why we brought new laws into effect at the end of June through the Financial Services Act 2021 to support the widespread offering of cashback without a purchase by shops and other businesses. That exciting development unlocks the potential for cashback without a purchase. It will provide a valuable facility for cash users and will play a major role in the UK’s cash infrastructure. As my hon. Friend highlighted, cashback without a purchase has been trialled in Hay-on-Wye—clearly a community with a strong independent streak, from what she said—for some months under the community access to cash pilots.
In addition, earlier this month we published a consultation outlining broader legislative proposals to protect access to cash. Those proposals seek to ensure that people need to travel only a reasonable distance to pay in or take out cash, and that the right regulatory oversight for cash access is in place for the future. My hon. Friend made a point about the rurality of her distinctive and distinguished constituency, with respect to its geographical size. This is obviously a matter that we must consider carefully as we move forward with these proposals.
Together, these measures will support the use of cash and help local businesses to continue accepting it by ensuring reasonable access to cash depositing facilities for small and medium-sized enterprises. The Post Office is also playing a key role; the Post Office banking framework allows 95% of businesses and 99% of personal banking customers to deposit cheques, check their balances and withdraw and deposit cash, across a network of 11,500 post office branches across the country. The Post Office is also required to ensure that 95% of the total UK rural population is within three miles of an outlet. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that the Post Office is trialling bank hubs as part of the eight community access to cash pilots around the country that I mentioned earlier. Rochford in Essex and Cambuslang in south Lanarkshire are benefiting from those shared branches. They are a significant innovation from the business hubs that were on offer a few years ago, and I am very pleased with the direction of travel in that area. The hubs will offer access to face-to-face community banking services provided by the banks with the most customers in each area. In addition, Hay-on-Wye’s post office is being refurbished to better support banking services, as part of the eight pilots. I look forward to learning lessons from the pilots and to the future industry models for supporting access to cash that they will help to inform.
A final point, which has been raised, is that there is a need to improve mobile and broadband coverage in rural areas, to make the immense benefits and opportunities of online products open to all. That is why the Government remain committed to delivering UK-wide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible, with £5 billion to support roll-out in the hardest to reach areas. As the Prime Minister mentioned in his levelling-up speech last week, we have made great progress. By the end of this year, 60% of the country will have a gigabit connection. We are working with industry to target a minimum of 85% giga-capable coverage in just four years in 2025. We will seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100% as possible.
However, while 4G coverage continues to improve in rural areas, admittedly it is not yet as good as in towns and cities—again, Members rightly raised that. As a result, the Government are providing £510 million for the shared rural network. Mobile operators will contribute an additional £532 million as part of this deal, which will extend high-quality 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. We are also focused on removing the practical barriers that stand in the way of our broadband and mobile coverage targets, through our barrier busting task force. We are looking at the difficult challenges in some communities, many of which are in rural areas, to try to make a real difference on the ground.
While technology is continually changing, the principles that guide the Government’s approach to banking services remain entirely consistent. I have been in this role now for more than three and a half years, and I continue to work with banks, the Post Office and industry stakeholders to try to find practical solutions. We are working to ensure that all consumers, in both rural and urban areas, can access the services they need. We are committed to legislating to protect access to cash for those who need it, and to maintaining the sustainable cash infrastructure that the country needs. We are determined to help the whole country benefit from better broadband and mobile coverage, so that everyone who wishes to use digital and online services can do so.
I will continue work with colleagues across the House, and with my hon. Friend, on these important matters in the coming weeks and months. I hope that that is a reasonable appraisal of and response to the issues that she rightly raised this morning. I am happy to continue correspondence with all Members, because I know that this is something that concerns our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended .
Tackling Knife Crime
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
I am sure that hon. Members are aware that social distancing is no longer in operation, but I would like to remind them that the Speaker has encouraged us, where possible, to wear facemasks when not speaking. I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates.
I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive at the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and are expected to remain for the entire debate. Those Members who are participating virtually are reminded to keep their camera on as they will be seen at all times by those viewing these proceedings. If Members experience technical problems, they should contact the Westminster Hall Clerks via their email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before leaving the room.
There are no Members sitting in the Public Gallery, and there are four speakers for this debate. Before I call the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) to move the motion, may I suggest that I intend to call the Scottish National party spokesperson at around 3.20 pm? We do have lots of time and I do not think I need to impose a time limit at any point, but that is the time at which I would like to call the first Opposition spokesperson. I call Sarah Owen.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling knife crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I applied for this debate after the recent sad death of Humza Hussain in my Luton North constituency. Humza was just 16 years old. Let me repeat that: he was just 16 years old. He had his whole life ahead of him, but he was stabbed by another young person and killed outside his school.
Over the past few weeks, people across Luton have been shaken by these events, and many people in the town rallied around all the families involved, but especially Humza’s parents, when they received the worst news a parent could ever possibly receive. My heart goes out to Humza’s family and people in Luton North who have been affected by this tragic death over the past few weeks. Today, I hope to be a strong voice for them in Parliament. I will work with whomever it takes to end this situation in which our young people are carrying knives because they are involved with things in their life and they see it as the only way out. They see carrying a weapon as the only way to feel safe. What makes this even more tragic is that it did not need to happen; every death caused by a knife is avoidable. It just takes the political will and targeted resources to stop it. Unfortunately, we have instead seen a rapid rise in knife-related crime over the past few years across the country, and Bedfordshire is no exception.
Figures from the Commons Library tell us that in 2010 there were 397 offences involving a knife in Bedfordshire. By last year, that number had climbed to 530—an increase of over a third in a relatively short space of time. It is important to say that this is not just young people; it includes knife crime committed by adults in domestic settings, as well as on the streets.
This is against a backdrop of 11 years of central Government gutting funding for our councils, forcing what few services we have left to operate on a skeleton budget or close altogether. In Luton, one of the biggest towns in the country by population that does not have city status, we have seen police officers having to operate with the budget of a rural police force. There is no single cause of the recent rise in knife offences, but in a debate like this it would be wrong not to remark that the kids who had their services closed and gutted 10 years ago are now the young adults left without aspiration, left without hope for the future, who are now falling into crime and being targeted by criminals.
Our local newspaper, Luton Today, launched a campaign after Humza’s death a few weeks ago encouraging people to “Bin Your Blade”. This is a campaign that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and I were keen to endorse, because we both want to do all we can to tackle this problem. Most people in our town want to do something about it as well, but we need support from the Government to help us to do that.
This is not a party political issue. Helping our young people make the properly informed decision not to carry a knife should not be party political. Getting knives out of our schools should not be party political. I am sure that the Minister will at least be able to agree with that.
Before today’s debate, I spoke to a brilliant officer at Luton Borough Council, Dave Collins, whose passion, after a 30-year career working on these kinds of offences, shone through. Dave told me that the public and media narrative about knife crime is often unhelpful and tends to paint a very incomplete picture. That has been echoed by many organisations working to tackle this issue, including the charity, London Youth.
Figures from Barnardo’s show that over a fifth of offences involving a knife involve somebody under 18. Last July, a quarter of Barnardo’s frontline workers said that they had supported a young person who they thought had been coerced, deceived or manipulated into criminal activity; 15% said they thought the first lockdown led to more children and young people becoming involved in serious violence and exploitation. That is exactly what it is: criminals exploiting our young people. This is a safeguarding issue. Young people, who might have experienced the trauma of early family violence, neglect or adverse childhood experiences, are put on a path at an early age—no longer with the youth services or safety net to help them break out of that cycle.
Public Health Wales research reveals that adults who experienced adversity like this in their early years are 14 to 15 times more likely to be a victim of violence or a perpetrator than those who did not. Those children are also more likely to be excluded or off-rolled by schools. From a young age, they are told that they are “naughty kids” and put on the “too difficult to deal with” pile. We have seen that pile grow over 11 years with the marketisation and academisation of our schools. When that happens, youth services play an invaluable role in reaching young people who are otherwise disengaged from statutory services.
However, spending on youth services has been cut by Government over the past decade. A freedom of information request by the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence reduction—chaired, with real commitment to the issue, by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who is a staunch campaigner on this issue—revealed that local authority funding for youth services was reduced by 40% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2017-18. It is absolutely no coincidence that, after 11 years of cuts to those services, we are seeing a rise in exploitation and these kinds of offences.
The rise in knife crime is a direct result of Government policies, neglect and austerity, all of which are related. We have seen the mistrust of police that stop-and-search fosters among black and minority ethnic people across the country. In Bedfordshire, official figures show, black people are three times more likely to be stopped and searched, with some 70% of those stops resulting in absolutely no arrest whatsoever.
Young people in Luton are scared and often do not trust the authorities or the rest of society to protect them. We have seen that a style of policing that breeds mistrust is compounded by overstretched forces that have been held back by cuts for 11 years. Rather than policing that works with communities to prevent crimes like this, we have seen an increase of 33% in knife offences, as I mentioned earlier.
Community policing and trust take the investment of both time and money, which are two things that our police forces have been starved of. I repeat the call to the Minister, from, I think, all of the MPs in Bedfordshire, for our region to be funded to city levels and not as a rural area.
For all the brilliant hard work of Bedfordshire police in getting another knife or gun off our streets through Operation Boson, more will continue to be fed in, unless the cycle is ended. Although enforcement is important, if somebody is already carrying a knife, by definition it is already too late. We should be working with people from a young age to stop them picking one up in the first place.
In the spirit of cross-party working, I welcome the funding that the Government have given to Bedfordshire for enforcement and the violence reduction unit. However, these crimes are still happening. Our local youth services and our council need the Minister’s support to tackle this.
From conversations that I have had with people in Luton North over the past few weeks, I have a few questions to put to the Minister. What extra funding can he make available for youth services? I am not talking about services that just tackle crime but services that prevent it and that truly invest in our young people. The pandemic has added fuel to the fire of a crisis in mental health services across our country—and even more acutely among young people. What are the Government doing to tackle that? Will the Minister commit to approaching the issue of knife crime in a way that seeks to prevent it, rather than just fight it—an approach that deals with it as a public health issue and gets to the root cause of the problem?
Will the Government end the short-term approach of the past and really invest in early-years support and funding from a primary age for families at risk? Will they give schools the funding necessary to be able to support children to stay in education as long as possible and to support families through that process? Will they commit to looking again at the funding formula for Bedfordshire police, which covers my constituency? As it is, that force is currently funded as a rural force, yet Luton North has very little in the way of rural crime.
The final question I give to Qazi Chishti, the imam at Jamia Islamia Ghousia Trust in Luton, who said last week: “Knife crime has become one of the most widespread issues affecting not only our community but the UK as a whole. It affects not only the lives of the victims and perpetrators, but their families and communities. In the 40 years I have served my community, I have presided over the funerals of three young men who were the victims of knife crime. Each one has remained with me. Unfortunately, knife crime has only increased over time and it is now rife within our communities. The most recent attack left a family and an entire community in shock and pain. A barely lived life was lost and another will be lost to prison. The Government must take steps to tackle this issue. More must be done for those living in areas with high levels of knife crime. I urge the Government to fulfil its promise of tackling this issue and ridding our communities of this.”
Is the Minister able to tell me, Imam Chishti and the entire community of Luton North, that he will fund and take the necessary steps to give our young people hope and better opportunities than picking up a knife? I will work with whoever it takes in Luton North and across our town to end this problem. The will exists in our community to fix it, but we need the support from people in power and those with the purse strings in this place to make it happen.
Without a big, comprehensive plan to take on what is an all-encompassing issue for our communities, the Government risk just tinkering around the edges and allowing this form of exploitation to grow even stronger roots. It simply cannot go on. No parent deserves to be on the end of that phone call, hearing their child has been killed. No other child deserves to have their life ended before their time.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on an excellent introduction. I feel for her constituents. She told a heartbreaking story about her 16-year-old constituent who was murdered. I am afraid that I shall give some examples of very similar stories from my constituency.
In Sefton and across the Liverpool City Region, we have very good practice in the prevention of violent crime, including knife crime—in stopping people being stabbed in the first place, which we would all agree must be the absolute priority. It means working with young people. It means working with parents, as my hon. Friend said, right from the early years, all the way through. It means challenging gang culture in the Liverpool City Region and the carrying of guns and knives. It means addressing in young people the kind of risk taking and antisocial behaviour that is synonymous with what leads to taking and using a knife and, indeed, with carrying a knife in the first place. It means disruption; it means redirecting. It means finding other interests for young people to be involved in, so that they do not want to be involved in crime in the first place.
The projects that Sefton Council for Voluntary Service is responsible for co-ordinating are life-changing for those involved and they save lives, but building relationships takes time, because a relationship of trust is critical, especially for young people. That takes time, and more than a year of funding. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North said, this is a public health approach across numerous agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
I fully support the Merseyside police and crime commissioner, Emily Spurrell, in her work. She is reversing some of the significant cuts in police numbers, such as the 1,500 police who have gone in Merseyside since 2010. She is working with partners across all those sectors, building alternatives to crime for young people. This is not just in one borough, but across multiple boroughs, or in one region. Of course, we know the way that criminal gangs and organised crime like to engage with young people to get them to cross county lines, particularly with drugs.
Emily Spurrell and Sefton Council for Voluntary Service need help from the Government, because, as I alluded to before, funding is often too short term. It is often last minute, in response to the latest problem that has come up. That is not a basis on which to build the kinds of relationships, services and successful partnerships that are needed to redirect young people from serious and violent crime in the first place, or to prevent them from picking up a knife and getting involved in crime longer term.
In order to have those resources, the cuts made since 2010 have to be addressed. The cuts have to be reversed; that is true for the police and for local government, as well as for grants in the voluntary sector. Those cuts have made it much harder to tackle the causes of knife crime, as well as knife crime itself. The consequences and the human side of knife crime are utterly devastating.
Take what happened to Sam Cook from Crosby. Sam was on a night out celebrating his 21st birthday. His girlfriend, Charlotte, was assaulted and Sam intervened to protect her. Sam was stabbed through the heart. Sam’s grandad died of a broken heart hours after a court convicted Sam’s killer, Carl Madigan, of murder. Sam’s mum, Gill Radcliffe, told me she found it difficult every single day, for months after Sam’s murder, just to get up and get on with her day. That is the human side, both for the person who dies and for their families and loved ones left behind.
Talking of love, Sam loved football and in his memory his mum has been involved in the Liverpool No More Knives campaign, which talks to young people after football matches to encourage them not to use knives. Using sport to get people away from the danger of becoming involved in violent crime is a great example of an effective intervention.
What happened to Sam is the reality of knife crime, as is what happened to Jacob Billington and Michael Callaghan, friends from primary and secondary school, also from Crosby. They were two of the eight people stabbed in Birmingham city centre in September last year by Zephaniah McLeod. Jacob sadly died but Michael was saved, despite the fact that the knife had severed his carotid artery, his jugular vein and his vagus nerve. The quick thinking of their friends saved Michael, but sadly they were unable to do the same for Jacob. I cannot begin to imagine what Jacob’s family have gone through and I know from talking to Michael’s family just how difficult it has been for them.
In 2001, 21-year-old Colin McGinty was stabbed 15 times. His killers have histories of violence and were part of the Liverpool underworld of the time. Colin’s sister, Laura Hughes, is an amazing woman I have had the privilege to get to know a bit recently. Laura and his mum and dad are all dedicated to saving the lives of knife victims in Colin’s memory.
I mentioned the way Michael’s friends saved his life. They stopped him bleeding to death while waiting for the paramedics. Laura and Colin’s parents want bleed control kits to be available in public places so that more people can be saved if they are stabbed. Laura is asking for funding for the kits. They were designed by Liverpool surgeon Nikhil Misra as part of the Liverpool KnifeSavers project, and they cost about £95 each. Laura is looking for places to put the kits, which can be used to reduce bleeding while waiting for an ambulance or paramedic. They can of course be applied to any situation where someone is bleeding heavily—for example, a road traffic accident.
We can only imagine the devastation caused to the families of knife victims. The lives of Sam, Jacob and Colin all ended in violence, and Michael’s life changed forever. He was in a coma and suffered a stroke. He is recovering slowly 10 months after the attack, but as he says,
“In time I will recover, but I can’t get Jacob back.”
Jacob was his best friend from school.
We have heard of the importance of prevention and of investing in the long-term activities needed to disrupt potential knife attacks, and of the need for investment in services and support across organisations and sectors. It is not just a policing matter, or a matter of responding when an attack happens. I have also given the amazing examples of how Michael Callaghan’s friends saved his life and how Colin McGinty’s inspirational sister, Laura Hughes, is campaigning for bleed control kits, which improve the chances of saving lives. Laura does not know whether a bleed control kit could have saved Colin’s life—or Jacob’s, or Sam’s, or the thousands of lives of knife victims across our country—but she knows that bleed kits would have given them a better chance, had the kits been available.
My plea to the Government and the Minister is for long-term funding for prevention to support the long-term relationships that develop the trust that is needed to ensure young people decide not to be involved with serious and violent crime in the first place. I also plead with the Government and the Minister to take a good look at what Mr Misra of Aintree University Hospital has developed. It is very similar to battlefield first aid and it uses the same principles, with gauze and shellfish enzymes that help blood clotting. We need funding for prevention and funding to save lives when things go wrong. Tackling knife crime is about both. It is about prevention and response, but we need the Government to intervene, reverse those cuts and provide support for prevention and response.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this important debate. Knife crime is a deeply sad fixture of our society. It destroys lives and can tear them apart. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) has given us some sad and distressing, but very pertinent and important, examples.
In order to truly tackle knife crime, we must do more to support those who fall into it. The victims and perpetrators of knife crime are varied, but today I will speak about children and young people. In London, the victims and perpetrators are children and young men, often from black backgrounds, who are used by drug lords. Many of them are victims of growing up in Tory austerity. They have been stuck in overcrowded housing and have lived in poverty. Crucially, their access to youth provision has been stripped away from them and their local authority budgets have been slashed.
Statistics provided by Barnardo’s show that funding for youth provision fell by 40% between 2014 and 2018, and it has only got worse. My constituency, which is one of the most deprived areas in London, does not have any youth provision at all except what has been provided by faith groups. The media and the over-policing of black children and young men in London and other regions of the country contribute to crushing the dreams and aspirations of these people. They are told they will not amount to anything—except, in some situations, a criminal. That is a lie, and we need to change it.
When an experienced criminal manipulates or threatens a black child or young person into delivering jobs and carrying knives, it means that that child or young person is helpless and controlled by the criminal masterminds, and pressurised by their peers who are already involved in this awful way of life. Who is behind the criminal masterminds? Where are the drugs coming from, and what is being done to stop this trade? We do not have enough answers to these questions. What does our country need to do? What do our families need, and what does the child need?
First, they need a Government who care enough to want to make the right changes and to invest in young people, not just a Government who want to build more prisons and put pressure on police officers to boost data, arrests, charges and imprisonment. Our Government need to focus on preventing the exploitation that leads to gang involvement early on, rather than tackling the crime when it is too late. We need more women’s centres and community alternatives to custody. We need to invest in after-school clubs in school holidays. I remember going to after-school clubs in the school holidays. What has happened to them? They have disappeared. We need youth services so that young people have a safe place to go and safe people to speak to, and so that they are supported physically and emotionally in their development from the early years to older ages.
We need schools to be resourced and teachers to have new skills, new passion and new aspiration. They need the support and the confidence to be able to support young people, to keep them safe, to keep them out of crime and to keep them away from people who put pressure on them. We need our teachers to be supported with the skills to keep young people safe. We need better solutions than putting young people in prison and forcing them to grow up there.
There must also be recognition of when the perpetrators of knife crime are also victims. If our Government are serious about ending knife crime, they must seek to end the social and economic deprivation that leads people into crime. Crime ultimately comes out of poverty, and we need to do more to tackle poverty. If we tackle poverty, we help to tackle crime. The Government must protect young people so they can confidently go to the police for help. In the main, they find it difficult to go to the police for help, because they experience hurt from the police. The police can hurt them with abusive words, and by using handcuffs on the streets while doing stop and search. The police hurt black children and young black people by humiliating them in public, and by making them turn out their pockets or get partially undressed. They feel intimidated, embarrassed and like a criminal. Often, the parents know none of this.
What do we need to do to bring about change? It has to be through adults, not children. A child growing up in prison is not the answer to ending crime in our society. A child’s brain stops growing at the age of 25, so why are we expecting children to behave like adults? We need a compassionate society that cares for the vulnerable. The Government must put strategies in place to protect young people and their families. I am convinced that children and young people and their families will come forward to say who the real criminals are and who is carrying knives, because nobody wants knives and drugs in their society and their community. I will be more than happy to further this conversation and to help in these matters where I can.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for her powerful speech, which highlighted how important this subject matter is, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for their powerful contributions. They set out some of the statistics and facts, and I am sure that the Minister was quite aware of them in his former role as deputy Mayor for policing.
As the MP for Vauxhall and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence reduction, I see the devastating impact that knife crime is having on our families and the communities of those affected. We see life-changing injuries that victims have to live with for the rest of their lives. Most tragic is the avoidable loss of life—mostly among young, male black people. Just two weeks ago, the latest stabbing occurred in my constituency. On 5 July, a short walk away from my constituency office near the Oval, 16-year-old Keane Flynn-Harling was stabbed.
We know the journey towards committing knife crime starts from a young age. More than a fifth of offences involving knife crime were committed by children under 18, some as young as nine years old. I have a six-year-old. She will be nine in three years. It is impossible for me to imagine a scenario where a nine-year-old child could be charged with stabbing somebody. A nine-year-old is just a child, but a 17-year-old is also just a child. They may look and sound more mature, but they are still a child, both in the eyes of the law and according to our values as a society. However, the criminal justice system does not see that those children and young people are as much victims of child criminal exploitation as perpetrators who have committed a criminal act. We have to recognise that, as victims, these children need our help and our protection.
The National Youth Agency report “Hidden in Plain Sight” highlighted that gangs have been running recruitment drives of vulnerable children, especially girls, because they are less likely to be stopped by the police. We know that young people were coerced into dressing as key workers during lockdown so that they could move around freely with a supply of drugs. These criminals will stop at nothing to exploit people. They will stop at nothing to exploit young children.
At the all-party parliamentary group, we have heard from many frontline workers and experts in the field about measures that the Government can take to help tackle this epidemic. We have to acknowledge that it is an epidemic—children are dying. We cannot put this in the “too difficult” box, as unfortunately we have done for many years. A number of those practitioners call for a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. We know that agency safeguarding responses differ from area to area because there is no overarching statutory definition. This is an area that the Government are looking into, so can the Minister tell us what progress has been made?
Secondly, it is essential to look at the measures to tackle knife crime and make sure they are co-ordinated in a multi-agency approach and across a geographical area. A number of practitioners call this the public health approach. I congratulate the Government on introducing serious violence partnerships in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I welcome that. However, those duties do not specifically cover criminal exploitation and serious youth violence. The practitioners could provide a clear partnership and a vital means of support for children who present with signs of exploitation and serious violence. Can the Minster confirm that the serious violence partnerships will cover child criminal exploitation and serious youth violence?
Lastly, we know that youth services and activities at the local level are a vital tool in the box to reach young people who are disengaged from statutory services. In my humble opinion, if we view social care as the fourth emergency service, youth services are the fifth emergency service. The basis of youth work is built on trust, with professionals working with our young people. They are in such a unique position in building that trust with those young people, who some people describe as hard to reach. They are not hard to reach; we just have not found a way to reach them. Youth workers do, and in many cases, their work saves lives. They have the vital information that the police, our teachers and social workers need, so they should be supported.
I have long campaigned for youth services to be a statutory provision so that all young people can access free, high-quality youth services to help to develop and support them in their formative years. Youth services must be part of the holistic approach, linking up with public health, children’s social care and housing. I pay tribute to the youth workers, voluntary groups and community groups across Vauxhall and right across the country, who are working flat out to support our young people day in, day out. When we are all away, at home with our families or on vacation, they are working—some of them on a shoestring budget, and some of them chasing application after application to support our young people.
Over the last decade, we have seen severe cuts in this sector, leading to reductions, and in some cases closures, of vital youth provision. Cuts to youth services are a false economy, because young people will continue to be exploited and violence will increase. I ask the Minister to work with the Treasury to look at how we can truly restore funding to youth services and invest in our young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for setting the scene so well, and I associate myself with all her comments. As I always do, I am trying to put myself in the hon. Lady’s position in relation to her constituent, and I would have found it very hard to deal with that situation. It is never easy.
This is a topic that I feel we have been discussing and debating for years and, sadly, it seems to be an ongoing issue, with crime figures still on the higher side and continuous calls for the Government to act. I am of a certain age, and I was a member of the boy scouts. I remember well that we each had a small penknife. What did we use them for? To make bows and arrows, to carve sticks and for all the innocent purposes a boy scout would. Today, however, in the society we live in, things are very different.
I want to go back to basics and ask why knife crime is such an issue to begin with. Knife crime is a complex social problem, as hon. Members have said when they have spoken about the issues in their own constituencies. It is a symptom of toxic environments that are created around younger children. Socialised by their peers from a young age, these children grow up to become the perpetrators of such violence. Knife crime figures may be higher in certain sections of the United Kingdom, but such crime impacts on all regions of the United Kingdom, including back home in Northern Ireland.
I will give an example. I told you this story at the table last night, Mr Paisley, and I told it to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) beforehand. My son is the manager of a shop in Newtownards. I met him on a Monday morning when I went to collect the paper as usual, but he was outside and the shutter was down. I asked, “Jimmy, what’s wrong?”, and he said, “Dad, I was robbed last night at five to 10.”
The guy who came to rob him had a long-handled fish-knife, and in all honesty he was probably spaced out. Jimmy said to him, “Look, the tills are cleared. We clear them early. All we have here is the £50 float.” The man pushed by him with the knife, and Jimmy said, “If you want the float, take the float; don’t stab me. Take the two bottles of Buckfast and move on.”
As I said to the hon. Lady beforehand, in this case, the better part of valour was to do nothing. It is not as if Jimmy is not courageous or does not stand up for himself; he was also a manager of a shop in a different part of Northern Ireland and he got to know people like that quite well. On other occasions, when he knew who the people were and they tried to rob him but they did not have knives, he took them on. In many cases, the police were called to arrest them.
The point I am making is: why do these people use knives? The knife this man had was a large fish-knife. We have a fishing community in our area; did the knife come from there? Those knives are incredibly sharp. One wrong move, and we could be looking at a very different situation. The point is that it is not just a problem in the constituencies of the hon. Members for Luton North, for Lewisham East, for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). It is a problem across the whole of the United Kingdom, and it is particularly worrying. It is worrying because a person can get a knife from their kitchen. They can take one from their job down in the fishing ports in Portavogie. They can lift one up in a shop, or from the hardware shop two or three doors up. That is how easy it is.
Recent police recorded crime figures published by the Office for National Statistics show a 2% increase in the number of knife offences recorded: from 35,146 in the year ending March 2019 to 35,815 in the year ending March 2020. It has continued to increase since 2013. I am looking to the Minister—I am not being critical, by the way, and I always try to be constructive in my comments—but the frustration is, how do we stop this crime? That is the question we are all asking. How can we stop it happening? I look to the Minister in the hope that he will give us some encouragement. I know that the Government are doing lots of things; I always like to give credit where credit is due. They have lots of strategies and policies, but I want to put forward something for down the line, which I hope the Minister, in conjunction with other Ministers, will take on board.
We have proof that current ways, means and legislation are not working. I say that really respectfully. Across mainland England there is an increasingly concerning issue with knife crime in schools. In 2019, 45,000 young people aged 10 to 17 were sentenced for carrying a knife or offensive weapon, with more than 1,000 of these weapons found on school property. In my day, school was always a safe place to be. We have to ask how we can make it the safe place that it was before. Every one of us today wants to make sure that that can happen again. Why do they carry knives? I cannot fathom why they do. If they carry one, the use of it is not too far away. It is easy to pull it out and then the inevitable can happen. We want to stop that.
The police recorded 275 murders involving a knife or sharp object in the 12 months between April 2019 and April 2020; 23 were children under 17 years of age. Why are under-17s being stabbed to their deaths, and what further action can we take to stop that from happening? The Ben Kinsella Trust, a leading charity in tackling knife crime, has also revealed that from April 2020 to July 2020 there was a 54% increase in hospital admissions for those who were victims of knife crimes. What discussions has the Government had with the Ben Kinsella Trust? There are charities working on the frontline. They must know the symptoms and must have an idea of how to respond to try to control it.
As a possible way forward, there should be more mandatory resources available, particularly for young people, where the danger of knife crime is brought to light. If it happens in a certain area and if it happens on a regular basis, we need to put resources and time into trying to address the issues. All too often, children are blamed and stereotyped for societal issues surrounding knife crime, but the bigger picture is not evaluated. It is all very well to sometimes point the finger without looking at the source of why the problems happen.
For example, I stated earlier that these situations are created around younger children. Ultimately, it can be said that they do not know any better. In some cases, they might not, but they have to be taught what it means to carry a knife. Growing up, we were all taught to do as we were told and to obey our elders. Again, that is a generational thing. I think a lot of us will subscribe to that. Can we really place full blame on the young people?
I believe there is a partnership for the Minister on schooling and education; I hope we get an assurance on that when he replies. This is a crucial element in the debate. It is critical. It is not just the responsibility of the Minster here today; it is the education Minister’s, too. A partnership of the two together could try to address the issue.
Schools are a safe place for children, and the correct facilities should be in place to reassure them that they can talk about issues surrounding knife crime. How do we do that? We need to have teachers available to engage with children and look out for them. I am not saying that they are not doing that; teachers are very responsive to their pupils. However, if young people are worried about getting mixed up with the wrong crowds, support needs to be available.
If a pupil tells a teacher that their friend carries whatever it may be, we need to be able to respond, to take that pupil away and to address the issue for their friend. I therefore call again on the Secretary of State for Education—it is not the responsibility of the Minister—to ensure that schools in England have the funding to add that support for children, so that partnership between schooling and policing can work successfully.
I would also like to mention the relationship between local communities and our policing systems across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need to focus on maintaining a steady and trusting relationship between the two. It is really important that local communities and the police come together—another partnership—to work out how we can provide safety for our young people, as opposed to provoking violence and hatred.
The hon. Member for Luton North referred to the “Bin Your Blade” campaign, and I commend her for supporting it. I hope that it encourages people to come forward, discard weapons and seek help to become better people. It is the second time today that the hon. Lady and I have been in a debate: we did the first one this morning, we are doing another this afternoon. These are important issues that we are dealing with on behalf of our constituents.
There is no time for complacency when it comes to any crime, but especially when it is a crime that is killing hundreds of our young people. It cannot go on. When I read about cases in the press or see them on the TV, I do not know the cases, but I always see the pictures and they tell me about a family that is devastated because their loved one has been killed by knife crime. That has a lasting effect on everyone in the family. Mr Paisley, you and I, coming from Northern Ireland, know that the ripples from those things go long and deep. I cannot begin to imagine the harrowing phone calls that parents must face.
I therefore call on the Minister to encourage the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary to work in partnership. I encourage the Minister to ask communities groups and police to engage together in a more effective way. All those bodies, Ministers and local bodies must get together and take all the steps that they can to reduce knife crime in the United Kingdom.
If we can save one life, and we can stop the heartache of others, we will have done a good job. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response; I look forward to the SNP spokesperson’s and shadow Minister’s responses as well. What the Minister has heard today is a small capsule of what we all think: what we need is something more effective. I hope that the Minister will have answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for the first but hopefully not the last time.
Knife crime, crime involving an object with a blade or a sharp instrument, is a persistently worrying concern, especially as it disproportionately impacts our young people and the disadvantaged. Worryingly, knife crime in England and Wales has risen each year since 2014. In the year ending March 2020, there were around 46,300 offences involving a sharp instrument, 6% higher than in 2018-19 and 51% higher than in 2010. That trend is obviously a cause of great concern.
I bring to the attention of Members some positive news and hope for optimism in the fight to reduce violent crime overall, including knife crime: the success of the Scottish violence reduction unit. Less than 20 years ago, knife crime was the basis of Glasgow’s unenviable reputation as the murder capital of Europe. The Scottish violence reduction unit was established with funding from the Scottish Government in 2005 to stem the tide of homicides, gang violence and knife crime. Its strategy, based on a public health approach to violence, treated it like a disease and dealt with the causes, rather than the symptoms, which was motivated by the belief that violence is preventable, not inevitable. It has been hugely successful. This approach refers to a whole school of thought that suggests that, beyond the obvious health problems that result from violence—the psychological trauma and physical injuries—violent behaviour itself is an epidemic that spreads from person to person.
In the last 16 years, the number of homicides in Scotland has more than halved, from 137 in 2005, of which significant numbers involved knives, to just 64 last year. The approach has received worldwide attention and is endorsed by the World Health Organisation. It is a strategy that works. The deputy Mayor for policing and crime in London, Sophie Linden, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, visited Scotland in 2018 to learn about the successful public health approach deployed in Glasgow. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has already incorporated elements of that public health strategy in his knife crime strategy. It was announced in 2019 that London will echo Scotland’s approach to tackling serious violence by treating it as a public health issue. A violence reduction unit has been set up in London, which includes public health staff, police and local government. Through that violence reduction unit, the Mayor is investing in programmes that can tackle the causes of violence and promote opportunities.
A key programme focuses on reducing school exclusions, keeping young people in education and enabling youth practitioners to reach out—a point made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi)—visiting people in A&E and in the custody suites, providing support for parents or carers and creating resilient home environments, and providing young people with positive opportunities to develop skills and broaden their prospects for employment and life chances.
It is very welcome that Scotland’s world-leading approach is being replicated in other areas across the UK and the world, but there is more that we can do as politicians. We can fundamentally change the underlying conditions leading to knife and violent crime. The violence reduction unit in Glasgow and the trainers at the College of Policing, know only too well that the causes of knife crime are complex and numerous, but poverty and lack of opportunity play a large part, brutalising lives and making them in turn prone to brutal responses.
Just last year, researchers at Birmingham University found that one of the most important factors in the significant increase in knife crime is unemployment. They found that a 1% increase in unemployment on the previous year increased knife crime by 1% to 2%. In terms of numbers, a rise of unemployment levels from 5% to 6% would lead to more than 3,600 more knife crimes annually.
Unemployment, though important, is only part of a much bigger story and according to analysis by the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence, the rise in knife crime can be linked to austerity budget cuts, which have dramatically scaled back youth services in parts of England and Wales. The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to that point. The link between inequality and homicide rates has been shown in as many as 40 studies and the differences are large—there are fivefold differences in murder rates between countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia compared with those in Scandinavia, which is all related to inequality.
The most important reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is that it is often triggered by people feeling marginalised, hopeless and without the opportunity to improve their lives and life chances. There is much that the police and other public services can do to manage and even reduce violent crime, but we as politicians have a bigger task on our hands in countering the effects of poverty and deprivation, which is inevitably linked to the prevalence and increase of not only knife crime, but all crime.
Violence is preventable; it is not inevitable. We need to continue to develop strategies that adopt a multi-agency approach to the reduction of crime, rather than dealing with it just as a criminal justice matter.
Recently, having sat on the Public Bill Committee on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—now with the House of Lords—I was pleased to see measures are being introduced to reduce violent crime through the introduction of a legal duty for local authorities, the police, education authorities and others to collaborate, plan and share information to prevent and reduce serious violence, including knife crime. As politicians, we need to do all we can to reduce knife crime by tackling poverty and inequality and addressing the factors that cause knife crime by providing hope and opportunity for all in our society. That, along with other measures, will I hope bring significant reductions in knife crime in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Apologies for my tardiness at the start, coming in a bit late. I had made the schoolboy error of going to Westminster Hall itself, but of course we are not there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate and on her speech. I congratulate everyone who has spoken on the knowledgeable and thoughtful way in which they approached a difficult topic. It is easy to have a sense of moral panic, which does not lead to solutions. I hope that the Minister has listened to everything that has been said by Members today on what needs to be done.
Practical measures, for example, include what my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said about bleed control kits. I have heard about and seen that campaign, and I have talked to Emily Spurrell about the great job that she will do and about the support that she needs. My hon. Friend and all Members present are doing an incredible job on behalf of their constituents, trying to reduce violence. That has to be the first job of us as politicians, to keep people safe. What more important job do we have?
We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) who, like me, are from south London constituencies and have particular issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East talked about relationships with the black community. It is of course incredibly important to understand that although I might feel that if something happens to me I can go to the police as my place of safety, there are communities that do not feel that. That needs to be fixed.
I pay tribute to my police force in Croydon. Every single week on Friday morning, the community and the police meet. They have built relationships ever since the death of George Floyd, to the point where there is a new trust and respect on both sides and a much better approach to things like handcuffing during stop and search. On that front, some brilliant activities by the police are going on. We need to harness and replicate those.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, who now chairs the APPG, which I founded and was absolutely my baby for three years; these things are so important. She is doing a brilliant job keeping up the campaign.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an interesting speech. He was talking about what I was talking to some police officers about the other day: people who are in the Scouts learn how to use pocket knives. People should learn how to use knives and what the implications might be, the knock-on impact, of using them wrongly and stabbing somebody. Many young people I have met have no concept of what might happen if they stab someone in the leg. They think, “They will be fine”, but of course they are not—the chances are, they will die. If we had more uniformed organisations teaching people how dangerous those things are, but how to use them safely, we might have a slightly different approach to some of the issues.
The spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), talked about the Scottish approach, which I know well. I visited and spent a long time with people from the violence reduction unit in Scotland and with others in America who have done similar things. The public health approach is absolutely the right one. There is plenty of evidence, which the Government are yet to pick up or act on, sadly.
Yesterday, I was with a senior police officer who said to me, “We are in a perfect storm. We have had years of cuts to services.” My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North, I think, said that the children who suffered the cuts 10 years ago are now the teenagers who are involved in knife crime, and that is exactly what the police officer was saying to me yesterday. He added that, on top of that, we have had a year and a half of covid restrictions with people in lockdown. Now potentially we face a summer of violence.
Knife crime reached its highest level on record in 2019-20, at more than 50,000 offences. That is an extraordinary number, which has doubled since 2013-14, when there were 25,000 offences. Between 2010-11 and 2019-20, knife crime rose in every single police force in the country. Since 2014, there has been a 72% increase in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds admitted to accident and emergency for knife wounds and the most common age group for victims of homicide recorded in the year ending March 2020 was 16 to 24-year-olds. That was followed by 25 to 34-year-olds. While the effects of lockdown saw a fall at the beginning of the year ending September 2020, there were still 47,119 offences: an average of 120 knife crimes a day.
Last week, the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner found that for the first time more children than adults were identified as potential modern slavery victims last year. The commissioner’s annual report found that of the 10,689 potential victims referred to the national referral mechanism, 4,849 were children. The unrelenting rise, which Members have discussed today, in county-lines drug dealing, where criminal gangs exploit children, is fuelling violence. and the Government are simply not doing enough to stamp down on criminal drug gangs. The Minister for Crime and Policing said last November:
“Back in the early part of the previous decade, we thought we had beaten knife crime, but unfortunately it is back.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 595.]
He may be good at acknowledging that there is a serious problem with serious violence in this country, but not so good at actually doing something about it.
More than 20 teenagers have been killed in London this year and many more have had their lives cut short across the country. How many children will die before the Government recognise this as the violent epidemic that it is? I came into the House in 2017 determined to tackle the scourge of rising levels of serious violence. I set up and chaired the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime, and it is very sad to be speaking in the House today when yet another young life has been lost in my constituency. Two weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy called Camron Smith was murdered in his own home in front of his mother in a horrific murder that could have been avoided.
Last week in the Chamber, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), whether the Government would commit to helping every vulnerable child this summer. She replied by saying that they were doing that through increased investment through the Department for Education funding over the summer, but that funding is limited. It amounts to a few pennies per child and excludes a large number of children who might otherwise need safeguarding support. The Government’s education recovery proposals are one tenth of Labour’s offer and, unlike Labour, contain no money for breakfast clubs or extra-curricular activities. The Under-Secretary referred to the Youth Endowment Fund, which is welcome, but it is £200 million over 10 years. Again, statistically, if we look at the number of children we need to help, that sum is small fry in comparison with what is needed.
I do not need to repeat the level of cuts to youth services that we have seen over this period of government, as well as the cuts to local government, policing, police staff, domestic-abuse risk officers and forensic officers. We have not just lost police officers on the beat; we have lost the whole apparatus behind that of people who actually help prevent and solve crime. We have 8,000 fewer police staff now than we did 10 years ago and more than 7,000 fewer police community support officers. We know that PCSOs were a key link between communities and the police: people we know, see and understand, and we and know their names. We have a relationship with them and they might talk to someone’s mother if that person got into trouble. That has been decimated by the Government.
We have heard many solutions and I think we would all be happy to sit down with the Minister and talk about those further. We know it is possible to reduce violence. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) says, violence is not inevitable. We know that things can be done. We know that knife crime goes in peaks and troughs and when there are interventions, violence goes down. However, those interventions need to be long term and rooted in communities.
It is important that the Government, local authorities, the police and the voluntary sector are able to join together to prevent, recognise and respond to violence. Central to that is the need to prevent the criminalisation of children, as well as early intervention to prevent young people from becoming involved in violence in the first place. So many cases of youth violence tell the same sad story in which the victim and the young person inflicting violence have both had adverse childhood experiences.
We need to look to authorities such as Lambeth Council. Over the summer, Lambeth has taken the approach of identifying the most vulnerable children—the 100 most vulnerable, say—who are at risk of getting involved in crime or who are already involved in crime. The council has a plan for what each of those children will be doing over the summer and where—for example, this week, that child will be going to this activity; the following week, they will go to that one, and so on. That is a really interesting and important approach, and one that we can look at replicating. The amount of money that we spend on interventions with our young people— social care, council and police interventions over the years—is probably absolutely extortionate, but all those interventions do not actually amount to the protection we need to give those children so that they are not getting involved in crime.
It is time that we looked at the justice system and sentencing. That is a really difficult area because we are talking about children. We know that prison is not the answer, but the police would say that if a vulnerable and exploited child becomes involved in a criminal gang, and he carries a knife, no one will tell the police, so they do not know. If he stabs someone in the leg as part of the criminal activity, that person will go to hospital, but no one will tell the police, so they do not know. If he then gets caught with a knife, the police know, but there is no intervention to take him out of that situation. He will be referred to the youth offending team and there might be some kind of intervention.
This is very difficult, but I know of cases where young people have been caught carrying knives and, because there was no intervention at that point, they have gone on either to commit murder or to be murdered themselves. This conversation is very difficult because they are young children. Of course, we need to do all the prevention and intervention, but we also need to think about when we do it. I know of a case where somebody was caught carrying a 3-foot zombie knife and nothing happened as a result. I think the Minister needs to look at that.
That is exactly what knife crime prevention orders are for.
As well as prevention, at some point, we need to think about wrapping our arms around those people. I do not think that knife crime prevention orders are the answer, but they are being piloted. [Interruption.] The Minister talks about them from a sedentary position. He announced them with great fanfare in the middle of the knife-crime panic a couple of years ago, but nothing has actually happened yet. They are being piloted now, two years after they were talked about as the answer to everything. I am just saying that we need to have a conversation about the pathway and about exactly what happens to young people when they come to the attention of the police.
As I said in the Chamber last week, our summer holidays should be full of opportunities, including youth work, mentorship programmes, sports clubs, mental health support, as well as good neighbourhood policing, of course. In the medium term, we need proper wraparound support for at-risk children, including different housing when it is needed—moving people away from the area where they are susceptible to violence is a huge issue—people to talk to, mentoring, and proper youth services. In the longer term, we need to completely change the way that we tackle violence. The Government need to do more work in schools to better detect, prevent and eliminate violence, and they need to work with the NHS to properly treat the epidemic and immunise our society.
Under this Government, criminals are getting away with it, pathways to crime are wide open, and our children are being exploited by criminal thugs and groomed into violence. Our justice system is not taking the right response, and our Government are not taking the problem seriously. My question to the Minister is: where is the emergency summer plan to stop our children fighting and murdering one another over the summer holidays, and how does he plan to stop riots over the summer? Knife crime prevention orders have not been piloted yet; the education recovery plan is one tenth of what it needs to be; the Youth Endowment Fund is spread super-thin over 20 years; and the summer activities fund amounts to pennies per child. We need action. The scale of the problem needs to be matched by a proper response, because at the moment, drug use is rising, crime is rising, and the Government have no summer plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I should begin by recognising the important reason that the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) referenced for raising this particular issue in debate, and expressing my condolences to the family of Humza Hussain on that horrendous event, recognising that his family are sadly going through something that too many families have gone through. Like the hon. Lady, I have sat with too many of those families over the years and seen the devastation that is wrought by these terrible acts, within the family, among friends and loved ones, and in the wider community that is affected by these events.
It is clear from today’s debate that this is an important issue to lots of Members from across the country, as indeed it is to me and to the whole Government. It should come as no surprise that it is an issue of importance, given that the Prime Minister was previously Mayor of London and dealt with a similar knife crime epidemic in the capital, which was reflected across the whole of the country, and he dealt with it successfully over that period, if I might say so. It is not enough, but we managed to get the number of teenagers stabbed and killed in the capital down from 29 in 2008 to just eight in 2012, and kept it at a low level. That is obviously eight too many, but nevertheless we learned a lot during that period, and we are trying to put that learning into effect as we do our work now.
We are taking significant steps, and I had hoped that they might be recognised across the House, because a number of Members here represent areas of the country that are particularly affected by knife crime—areas where we have been both putting in significant extra resources and galvanising effort to try to achieve a step change in the response of all the partners who are required to tackle knife crime: not just the police, or indeed the Government, but everybody else as well. That has involved personal effort as well as investment across the piece, not just with the police but in local government.
I will begin by reflecting on the police. As Members know, we are recruiting a huge number of police officers at the moment: the latest published figure is approaching 9,000. We are well ahead of schedule on getting 20,000 extra police officers, with many parts of the country back to where they were pre-2010 in terms of numbers. In important parts of the country, of course, police-officer numbers have remained high. For example, in London—we have three Members representing London here today—the number of officers in the Metropolitan police has been consistently higher than it was at the all-time low for murder in the capital, which was 2014. That number has been consistently higher ever since; much of that has been down to Government funding, and obviously, that number will go higher still. We believe that those police officers will make a big difference—including the 74 in Bedfordshire so far, with more to come—and that by having a significant police presence in a focused way, we can do an awful lot of preventive work tonight.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) has referenced the experience of Glasgow. I met Karyn McCluskey, who was leading the charge in Glasgow all those years ago. It is often forgotten that police enforcement played a very significant role in the fight against knife crime in Glasgow. Certainly in the early years, it was the use of heavy police enforcement, identifying and removing knives from the street, that created the space for some of those other, more supportive, therapeutic interventions to take place, and police enforcement still has a part to play. Although Scotland has had success on knife crime, sadly it is still plagued to a certain extent by this offence: we have seen machete gangs openly attacking people in the street in recent times, as we have across the rest of the United Kingdom. The experience of Glasgow is obviously something that we would love to learn from and benefit from across the whole of the country.
Critically, we are rolling out significant resources to police forces across the land as we speak. Over the past couple of years, there has been a surge fund focused on those 18 forces in whose areas knife crime and violence is most prevalent, and that funding has been used to good effect by the police. We are bringing a sharper focus to it this year, with the allocation of what we are calling GRIP funding, which is looking at hotspots where we want police to take a very targeted, analytical, data-driven approach towards dealing with violence in particular parts of their geography. That is now embedding and will be in place during the summer. It is part of our plan to deal with a possible resumption of violence, post release from lockdown.
The hon. Lady is right that we saw a significant reduction during the past year, with a spike in August as we were released from lockdown. We have put in place comprehensive plans with the police to ensure that we stay on top of any such repetition over the summer. That funding is rolling out now. I am personally driving that programme, and I have met lots of those forces to talk about how they are going to put that funding into place.
We are now in year three of violence reduction units, which similarly received significant funding as part of our £130 million package this year. In my experience of year three, we are seeing a much greater sophistication in violence reduction units, and a much greater level of partnership in areas that receive that funding. For example, I sat down with representatives from Greater Manchester this morning, to go through their plans and look at their violence reduction work. It was very powerful and a sign that those units have matured in terms of the identification of individuals and what they are going to do to support and assist them in turning away from knife crime.
That is a critical part of our architecture in 18 parts of the country. Bedfordshire has a unit that has received funding of £2.6 million. It is a valuable hub for the co-ordination of work that is needed to fight violent crime. We have now funded eight interventions across Bedfordshire, reaching about 12,000 young people. I hope that that will have an impact in the hon. Lady’s constituency, as it will across the rest of the county. A number of Members made the point that, at the same time as looking towards the police to help with enforcement immediately—tonight, because we know there are people out there carrying knives—we must also do the long-term work that targets the crime at its root. That will be done, as the hon. Lady said, by investing in prevention and early intervention.
The hon. Lady disparaged the amount of money that is being invested through the Youth Endowment Fund, but that misunderstands what the fund is there to do. It is investing in transforming our understanding of what works, ensuring that it sits alongside other organisations, funding grants and evaluation programmes, so that they can maximise their spending, whether that is local authorities, police and crime commissioners, police forces or health services, many of which will have to work alongside one another in the fight on serious violence, once the serious violence duty comes into place later this year.
We want to ensure that every pound spent has significant impact. In my experience of talking to many of the groups working with young people to prevent crime, although they are often well meaning and committed, there is often a paucity of evidence, a lack of an investable proposition that what they are doing is working, beyond the anecdotal. There are some programmes that we are investing significant amounts of money in, which we know have an effect, and where there is evaluation.
For example, there is our investment in programmes that look at teachable moments, where young people have a moment of crisis that allows us to get into their thinking and steer them on to a different path, either in police custody or accident and emergency, hopefully the former. Investing in that holds enormous promise and the evaluation shows that it is a strong way to get people out of violence and, in particular, out of gangs, and to move them on to a better life.
We want to ensure that all the money we spend is spent on trained, professional, therapeutic intervention. There are other funding pots that can look at the more general provision around youth services, and I recognise what has been said about those over the years. We want to ensure that our crime prevention focus is sharp and targeted, to ensure that we can exactly target the young people the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) pointed to in Lambeth, to ensure that they head towards a life of truth and light.
Alongside that, there is a lot we can do from a legislative point of view.
Alongside that, there is a lot we can do from a legislative point of view. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been referenced. As I mentioned, that contains the important serious violence duty, which for the first time will put a statutory obligation on all partners in an area to come alongside the police and work to prevent violence, plan, understand the data, look at what the funding streams might be and leverage off each other.
In my contribution, I referred to the need for a strategy or partnership between the Minister’s Department and education. Is that part of the strategy? If it is, I believe that is core to changing the mindset but also to improving the situation. I just ask the question.
That is a good question. It is certainly the case that violence reduction units, which are led locally, include wider education programmes, and I have seen good examples of that. They are there to generally educate young people about the dangers of carrying a knife, and the fact that someone carrying a knife is more likely to be a victim than to protect themselves. I have seen some imaginative use of such programmes. I was in the west midlands a couple of weeks ago, where a virtual reality set-up was used with schoolchildren to indicate to them the best way in which to continue their lives.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a strong interest in the Bill. It contains serious violence reduction orders, which give the police the power, as the hon. Member for Croydon Central pointed out, to stop those individuals who are known knife carriers, and are known to have been convicted in the past and to have shown a proclivity to violence. They are designed to discourage and deter people from carrying weapons, given the increased likelihood of getting caught, and to protect offenders—to give them an excuse to move away from being drawn into exploitation by criminal gangs.
They have been through significant scrutiny. Obviously, they will be rolled out subject to evaluation, as we are doing with knife crime prevention orders. As the hon. Lady said, we are piloting those at the moment in London. Those orders have both a positive and a negative impact. For example, somebody subject to a knife crime prevention order can be stopped from going into Croydon town centre, but at the same time in the same order be required to attend an anger management course or some kind of training course—some positive activity that would steer them in the right direction. We will look at any innovation that comes forward and pilot it and try it. Such is the urgency of the problem that there is no monopoly on ideas; we should be willing to try everything.
We can also do more to remove knives. Last week, we commenced the provisions of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, bringing in a ban on a range of knives and other weapons: specific firearms; cyclone knives, which are a sort of spiral knife—Members may have seen those deeply unpleasant weapons for sale online—and rapid-fire rifles. Anyone who possesses these weapons could now face up to 10 years in prison. We think that this ban will help save lives and get more weapons off the street. Certainly, as part of the surrender programme, enormous numbers of these weapons have been surrendered to us.
Although I understand the desire of Members present to push the Government to ever greater efforts, I would like to reassure everybody that there is an enormous amount of effort and commitment going in, both at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and more widely at the Department for Education and among all those partners who are required to drive down this problem. I know that there has been a lot of challenge this afternoon about the amount of resources going in. I just point out that when I was deputy Mayor of London dealing with a knife crime epidemic back in 2008, that was when spending under Gordon Brown was at an all-time high. Police officer numbers were similarly high and there were youth groups all over the place. Yet still our young people were stabbing each other in great numbers. The connection between knife crime and social structure is not as simple as people sometimes portray.
No, because I am running out of time.
I finish by posing a question. We think this is a priority and we are putting enormous effort into it, but the challenge has been made that the issue is very much about poverty. What if it were the case that violence causes poverty, not poverty, as a number of Members have alleged, that causes violence, and that our job, in order to create prosperity in Luton, Vauxhall and everywhere else, is to clear that violence out of the way so people can build the lives for themselves and their children that they deserve?
We have covered a lot of ground during these 90 minutes and I want to touch on a couple of points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) made a point about funding being too short term. It was great to hear the Minister reel off the pots of funding that have suddenly been made available, but that is reactionary and short-termist. What happens next year and the year after? Children deserve to be invested in, which was the point that my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) made so eloquently. We are talking about children and they deserve a future that is much brighter than the one that is currently on offer from this Government.
When it comes to tackling poverty, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East said it perfectly: if we tackle poverty, we tackle crime. Our shadow spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), said precisely what the police officer had relayed to her: austerity and deprivation are a perfect storm for criminals.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) eloquently pointed out the importance of investment in youth services. Those are essentials, not additional extras. They should be an essential part of every young person’s life growing up.
I thank everyone for their heartfelt, thoughtful and intelligent contributions. I am surprised that the Minister was by himself representing the party of Government, given that we know that knife crime and serious and violent crime have increased in every single force over the last 10 years. We should all tackle this matter together, across the political divide. I know the problem cannot be solved in this room in 90 minutes, so is the Minister willing to meet me and colleagues from Luton North to tackle the issue and continue the work that is going on, but in a long-term and strategic fashion, not in the short-term and reactionary way that has failed children time and again?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling knife crime.
Welfare System and Child Poverty: Wales
Welcome to this afternoon’s debate. As you know, there are special arrangements in place because of covid. I only remind Liz Saville Roberts, who is appearing virtually, that she will be on camera the whole time. I know she will already be aware of that, but I say it for the record.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the welfare system and child poverty in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Paisley. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I wish to debate the welfare system and child poverty in Wales.
The current welfare system in Wales is failing many thousands of children. Even before coronavirus, almost a quarter of people in Wales were in poverty, living precarious and insecure lives. That included 200,000 children. Something institutional is happening to drive a longer-term rise in child poverty, with 20 of Wales’s 22 local authorities seeing an increase over the past five years. Of course, covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality by hitting low-income families hardest, which means that Wales now suffers the highest rate of child poverty of any nation in the UK. Shockingly, one in three children lives in poverty. I am sorry to say that the situation is likely to deteriorate further, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 39% of children will be living in poverty by the end of the year. As Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for social justice and equalities, Senedd Member Sioned Williams said recently:
“It’s a national scandal; a damning reflection of the impact of Conservative austerity and 20 years of the failure of Labour in Wales to do little more than manage poverty.”
The United Nations convention on the rights of the child sets out the rights to which all children are entitled and against which the performance of Governments, both in Westminster and in Cardiff, should be measured. For children living in poverty in Wales, many of those rights go unmet. Children and young people are going hungry, and they are unable to access the basic clothing and equipment necessary for school. When a family cannot afford to pay for the oil to heat water, meaning that they cannot have a bath, it takes no great leap of the imagination to understand why children will not go to school to suffer bullying and teasing, and little further imagination is needed to see how children’s education suffers as a result. That is what we mean when we say that children living in poverty are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences—those are the real effects on individual families—and to face economic and social exclusion, resulting in worse life outcomes as adults. It is important that we have an illustration to bring that home to us.
Although poverty is not inevitable, it is a structural feature of the current welfare system that has been exacerbated by the failure of the Welsh Government to address the cost of living, which led them to miss meeting their own target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. In today’s debate, it is important to show how the jagged edge of devolution—the incoherent illogicality of what is devolved and what is retained—indicts both the UK and Welsh Governments. It is worth considering the drivers of poverty: namely, people’s incomes and their cost of living. On the former, with universal credit as an example, the current temporary £20 uplift was a step in the right direction to bolster incomes from the effects of the pandemic. The number of people claiming universal credit has nearly doubled in Wales, to more than 280,000 by June 2021. However, the uplift is not enough, and it has been estimated that 26,373 Welsh households, including 38,014 children in those households, are still unable to meet their costs, even with the uplift. The uplift is now due to be removed, and modelling carried out by Policy in Practice estimates that 47,543 Welsh households, including 53,065 children, will be unable to meet their costs. The numbers are huge, but they should not blind us to the reality of the experience of every family and every child.
In an answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed on 6 July that no assessment had been made of the impact of the uplift’s removal on child poverty in Wales, yet Wales is the UK nation most afflicted by poverty. Does the Minister really believe that it is not possible to produce an assessment of the impact of their own universal credit uplift policy, and that it is appropriate not to do so in relation to child poverty? I would like a response from the Minister on that.
Not only is the removal of the uplift utterly damaging to children, it makes little economic sense. Rather than pulling the rug out from under people midway through the year, retaining the uplift permanently would help secure the UK’s family safety net and boost consumer spending in Wales, aiding the long-term economic recovery. The End Child Poverty network has said that any
“credible plan to end child poverty…must include a commitment to increase child benefits.”
That should include revoking the removal of universal credit uplift and extending it to those people on legacy benefits.
Despite the Government’s promised levelling-up agenda, the chair of the UK Social Mobility Commission said today that it is “nowhere near” achieving this aim, as the UK lacks proper plans and policies. Its social mobility in 2021 report also criticises the punitive two-child benefit cap in universal credit. That was echoed by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who this year called on the DWP to lift the cap, noting that it is a significant barrier to alleviating child poverty, given that the loss of benefits is worth £2,700 per child per year.
The cost of living was recently illustrated in the Bevan Foundation’s report entitled “A snapshot of poverty in spring 2021”, which gives grim account of the situation facing families and children in Wales. It found that households with children are more likely to face rising costs and a squeeze in living standards compared with households without children. The increase in the cost of living for families with children is likely to be exacerbated by the predicted increase in inflation over the coming months. The UK’s annual rate of consumer price inflation was 2.5% in June, up from just 0.7% in March, and is set to go higher. Of course, that will affect the cost of living. In response to the Bevan Foundation report, the Welsh Government said:
“The key levers for tackling poverty—powers over the tax and welfare systems—sit with the UK Government, but we are doing everything we can to reduce the impact of poverty and support those living in poverty.”
Sadly, Labour in Wales seems to want to have it both ways. It acknowledges that the key levers of policy are controlled at Westminster. Yet First Minister Mark Drakeford opposes having control over those levers, as he believes—for some reason—that the powers are better off at UK level. That prompts the question of whether Labour in Wales is serious about tackling child poverty or content to avoid the implicit responsibility if it were to be equipped with the means to make a difference.
The claim that the Welsh Government are doing all they can with their current powers is a questionable and dubious one. Free school meals are just one example. Labour here in Westminster has praised Marcus Rashford for his relentless campaigning on the issue in England, while simultaneously running a Government in Wales that refuse to extend free school meal eligibility to all children whose families are in receipt of universal credit, which is some 70,000 more children. That is despite extensive reports, including their own child poverty review, on the benefits and how expanded provision could be funded within the existing Welsh budget.
It is also within the gift of the Welsh Government to do more with the other powers available to them, such as the consolidation of housing, education and emergency health benefits, which are complementary to the reserved UK system, to develop a distinct Welsh benefits system. Those measures would certainly help mitigate, but ultimately they would not end child poverty.
That leads me inevitably towards what we could do if welfare powers were devolved from Westminster to the Senedd. First, there is the more limited proposed devolution of the administrative powers over welfare, which would still allow the Senedd to take positive steps to tackle child poverty by boosting the incomes of struggling families via increasing frequency of payments, ending the culture of sanctions and ensuring payments to individuals rather than to households. That is something that Mark Drakeford himself has said that he wants, and it has already been recommended by the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.
I therefore ask the Minister what conversations the DWP has had with the Welsh Government about the devolution of administrative powers over welfare. Of course, the administration of welfare is merely a stopgap towards the devolution of welfare powers, with the aim of bringing Wales to parity with Scotland at the very least.
In 2016, the UK Government gave Scotland control over 11 welfare benefits and the ability to create new social security benefits or policy areas. The Wales Governance Centre subsequently published a report in April 2019, which stated that giving Wales the same powers over benefits as Scotland could boost the budget of Wales by £200 million a year. Under those proposals, the Senedd would have the power to determine the structure and value of benefits, and replace existing benefits with new ones, in line with the legislative framework.
An example of just one such new benefit is Plaid Cymru’s proposal for a targeted child benefit. That would involve payments of initially £10 a week per child, rising to £35 per week over a Senedd term, to families living below the poverty line. It would be a direct intervention to address child poverty. Implementing that policy would require the devolution of welfare powers from Westminster, with an agreement to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions—this is important—would not claw back any payments. Does the Minister agree that the proposed targeted child payment would indeed help alleviate child poverty? What reason or reasons can he give for not supporting the devolution of such powers to the Senedd, in line with Holyrood, especially given that they would be of financial benefit to the Welsh budget?
The Welsh Government have yet again decided to defer the issue of pursuing further powers as they are waiting for further evidence to emerge. Just such an opportunity will arise during the Welsh Affairs Committee’s upcoming review into the benefit system in Wales, which has broad terms of reference and deals directly with the questions of what reforms are needed to the benefit system and what the further devolution of powers might be able to achieve. I therefore ask the Minister whether his Department will commit to take forward the Committee’s recommendations in full, even if that does indeed involve the further devolution of welfare powers to Wales. Will the Department approach this with an open mind and with that commitment?
Tackling the injustice of child poverty is vital if the potential of every single child in Wales is to be realised in full. It is disgraceful that in one of the richest states in the world, poverty is such a widespread feature of our society. With the full devolution of welfare, Wales could develop a more compassionate system as part of the creation of a Welsh wellbeing state, which would ensure that no child is held back by their family’s lack of wealth or status. Plaid Cymru laid out that bold agenda in our Senedd 2021 manifesto, which included a new child poverty Act as a road map to eradicate child poverty, and a target of reducing the number of children experiencing relative poverty to 10% by 2030. The abolition of poverty and inequality needs to be a core national mission but, as I have outlined, that cannot be achieved if we do not have our hands on the key levers of welfare and tax policy.
Poverty is a multi-faceted problem that requires a range of interventions to address it. We cannot do that in Wales without those key levers, in the form of power over welfare. I therefore implore the Government to respond when the evidence is overwhelming and give control over welfare to the people of Wales so that we can end the blight of child poverty in our communities for good. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing a debate on this hugely important issue. I share many of the concerns that she has expressed about poverty levels in Wales. I do not want to see a single child in Wales, which she knows I have huge affection for, or anywhere else in our United Kingdom, growing up in poverty.
It is absolutely right that all Governments are held properly to account for the effectiveness of their policies for tackling child poverty. Although I do not have all the levers to tackle child poverty within the Department for Work and Pensions, I assure the right hon. Lady that I take this issue incredibly seriously, and I am working with my counterparts across Government to identify and address the root causes and drivers of child poverty.
Our working relationship with the Welsh Government is well established and positive. The commitments made to Wales by the UK Government are central to delivering policies and services across the Union. We will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on the commitments set out in their programme for government 2021 to 2026. An example is our collaboration with Careers Wales to revisit our redundancy offer and develop the service through a digital platform. In adapting our approach, we maintained distance support, one-to-one advice and fully engaged with employers to guide them and their workforce through the full package of support from both the DWP and the Welsh Government.
Over the past year, our priority has been to help families in all parts of our United Kingdom withstand the financial hardships brought about by the covid-19 pandemic. Such unprecedented times and circumstances have called for an unprecedented response. The Government have delivered this by spending over £407 billion on support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. That has helped to protect jobs, keep businesses afloat and help families get by.
Spending includes an additional £7.4 billion injected into our welfare system to further support those most in need, targeted at those facing the greatest economic shock and financial disruption, and raising our total spend on welfare support for people of working age to over £111 billion in 2020-21. Extra funding includes the temporary £20 increase in the universal credit and working tax credit standard allowances, which the right hon. Lady referred to. In addition, nearly £1 billion has been spent on increasing local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local market rents, which we are maintaining for a further year at cash level.
As we look to economic recovery, tackling child poverty will be very much at the heart of our mission. We have long championed the principle that the best way to do so is to support parents wherever possible to move into and progress in work through our reformed welfare system, which ensures that families of all backgrounds are better off in work. The Department for Work and Pensions in Wales, in partnership with the Welsh Government, delivered two community project: Communities for Work, helping the economically inactive and long-term unemployed in some of Wales’ most disadvantaged wards; and Parents, Childcare and Employment, for those for whom childcare is the main barrier to employment. Through these projects, eligible parents can access support for childcare while training and gaining skills to get a job. Since both projects started in 2016, Communities for Work has helped almost 11,500 customers to move off benefits and into work.
Statistics for 2019-20 show that before the pandemic the UK was in a strong position overall, with record levels of employment, rising incomes and 1.3 million fewer people, including 3000,000 fewer children, in absolute poverty after housing costs, compared with 2010. In the right hon. Lady’s constituency, the proportion of children in absolute low income reduced by three percentage points to 16% before housing costs in 2019-20, compared with 19% in 2014-15. However, there is still a huge amount to do.
Helping people back into work is also key to levelling up across Great Britain. My Department is playing a central role in the Government’s ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs, which is already delivering for people of all ages across the country. This includes over £7 billion on new schemes, such as the kickstart scheme, which in Wales is running alongside Youth Offer Wales for people aged over 16. Since the kickstart scheme launched last September, over 8,000 kickstart jobs have been advertised in Wales, and over 2,000 young people have started in roles.
During the last financial year, we fulfilled our commitment to recruit 13,500 more work coaches across Great Britain and our jobs army is working across all regions to give people the support needed to find employment. Each work coach receives specialist training to give in-depth knowledge of local labour markets, matching the skills of the claimant with the needs of businesses in their area. Under our rapid estate expansion programme, or REAP, we are opening new job centres to accommodate the work coaches. I refer the right hon. Lady to the opening on 19 May of a new site on Queen Street in Cardiff, which is now fully operational, with over 63% of interventions carried out face to face. Plans are underway to open additional REAP sites in Wrexham, Rhyl and Swansea.
The evidence is clear that parental employment, particularly full-time employment, substantially reduces the risk of child poverty. However, we know that having a job is not always enough to lift families out of poverty. People also need the right skills and opportunities to progress in their roles, so that they can increase their earnings and build their careers. The independent in-work progression commission published its report on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay on 1 July. We will consider its recommendations carefully before responding later in the year. I encourage the Welsh Government and employers in Wales to do the same.
The right hon. Lady raised a number of issues, and I will do my very best to respond to as many as possible in the time remaining. First, she referred to devolution in Wales. The Department for Work and Pensions is committed to delivering the St David’s Day agreement in full. As she knows, the Wales Act 2017 implements the parts of the agreement that require primary legislation. However, employment and social security, as she mentioned in her speech, did not form part of that agreement. The previous Welsh Government commissioned work on the question of more devolution in the administration of the benefits system, but they have made no request to the UK Government for further powers in that area.
A single labour market needs a system of financial support for jobseekers and workers that provides a common framework of support, conditions to be met in return for that support, and access to employment and training opportunities. As the right hon. Lady knows, that is delivered through universal credit and associated employment provision, operated locally by Jobcentre Plus across Wales, and reflects both local labour markets and the differing needs of individuals. That not only ensures a coherent system across a single labour market, with equal treatment regardless of geographical location; it also allows for a pooled risk system that flexes and is able to accommodate asymmetric economic circumstances in different parts of the country.
The right hon. Lady knows that in the Department for Work and Pensions, and in particular within my remit, there are two potential levers for tackling child poverty: benefits and support for those of working age, and support to get people into work and to progress in work. However, she will know that some of the other drivers of child poverty, the root causes, are housing, education, health, addiction, family breakdown and debt. Many of those are issues on which the Welsh Government can take action. I know that they are doing so in many areas, and she may wish to push them further.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the removal of the universal credit uplift. As she rightly said, universal credit has provided a vital safety net for over 6 million people during the pandemic. We announced the temporary uplift as part of a £400 billion package of measures that will last well beyond the end of the road map. However, it is right that we now focus on our multibillion pound plan for jobs, which will support people in the long term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find more work.
The right hon. Lady rightly referred to a response to a written parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), in which I said that it was not possible to produce a robust estimate of the impact on child poverty of removing the £20 uplift. That is particularly the case at the moment because of the uncertainty around the speed of our economic recovery and how that will be distributed across our population.
The right hon. Lady also rightly mentioned food insecurity, which is an issue that concerns me too. We take the issue incredibly seriously, which is why we have, for the first time, published data on household food insecurity from the family resources survey, in order to get a better understanding of the lived experience of families. I have gone one step further: in subsequent editions of the survey, we will now ask questions specifically on food bank use.
The most recent data from the survey shows that most households were food secure, with either high household food security or marginal household food security—high household food security at 87% and marginal household food security at 6%. A minority of households were food insecure, with low household food insecurity at 4% and very low household food insecurity at 4%. That is why we want that additional data, so that we can really get to the bottom of the core drivers of food insecurity.
The right hon. Lady referred to the two-child policy. We have a benefits structure that adjusts automatically. If we were to set up, as she would like us to, a benefits structure that adjusted automatically to family size, it would be unsustainable. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that, in 2020, of all families with dependent children, 85% had a maximum of two in their family, and for lone parents the figure was 83%. The Government therefore feel that it is proportionate to provide support through the child tax credit and universal credit systems for a maximum of two children. What I will say, though, is that we recognise that some claimants are not able to make the same choices about the number of children in their family, and that is why exceptions have been put in place.
I am conscious of the time and would be very happy to pick this up with the right hon. Lady at a later date to discuss some of the issues that I have not been able to cover as part of my response now. To conclude, I restate the Government’s firm belief that the approach that we are taking to support families back into work is the right one for families, wherever they live across our United Kingdom, if we are to tackle child poverty in a way that is sustainable and to level up opportunities across our country. Of course it is absolutely right that as the country begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, we ensure that our welfare state continues to support the most disadvantaged; and as we have done throughout the past 16 months, we will continue to assess how best to target taxpayers’ money on support for the most vulnerable families beyond the pandemic.
Question put and agreed to.
Stoke-Leek Line: Reopening
Members are very welcome and are of course aware that the social distancing rules no longer apply. They are no longer in operation. Members attending physically should clean their spaces when they arrive and when they leave. I think that is all I have to announce. It gives me great pleasure to call Karen Bradley to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reopening the Stoke-Leek line.
Or, as I like to call it, the Leek-Stoke line.
This is a first for me. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I know you are an impeccable Chair and your timing is even more impeccable, so I am delighted to serve under you. I am not sure whether you have visited the Staffordshire Moorlands. It is very much like the constituency that you represent—a beautiful rural area. It has amazing scenery, lots of great dairy farms, which you will understand, and some great tourist attractions, although, unlike the Giant’s Causeway, we have Alton Towers.
Many people come to visit the Staffordshire Moorlands. They come to see our amazing scenery. The Roaches, for example, is a place that people travel to from all over the world to do rock climbing and just to observe the views; from there it is possible to see lots of different counties—I think I once counted 16 of them—and all the way to Snowdonia. We cannot quite see the Isle of Man or Northern Ireland, but we can see into Wales.
We have the Manifold Valley, the beautiful Thor’s Cave, and a bit of Dovedale, which is also one of the great tourist attractions. As well as Alton Towers, we have the Peak Wildlife Park and Biddulph Grange Garden—beautiful places that people come to visit. We have amazing hospitality venues such as the Lazy Trout in Meerbrook, the Yew Tree at Cauldon, the Stafford Arms at Bagnall, and the Auctioneers—a community-run pub in Caverswall that I helped the community to buy and is a fantastic place to visit. We have wonderful independent shops in all our towns and villages, but in Leek we are very proud of our “Totally Locally” campaign and our local markets. We have a heritage railway in the Churnet Valley railway. We have so much to offer.
The question one might ask when looking at the map and seeing those wonderful attractions is, “How on earth can I get there?” I am afraid to say that unless someone has a car it is a struggle. Last summer—we are seeing it again at the moment—the villages of the Staffordshire Moorlands were totally overwhelmed with traffic; we got to the point where emergency vehicles could not get through. Villagers felt like prisoners in their own homes because of the cars that were parked, and there is simply no other way to visit the Moorlands than by car.
We have a fantastic mainline station only a few miles away in Stoke-on-Trent; the same line runs on to Macclesfield, of course. The train from Euston to Stoke takes one hour and 24 minutes when we are not on a reduced timetable as we are at the moment. If I can make a plea to Avanti rail: we need two trains an hour to Stoke-on-Trent as soon as possible, because it really is not working at the moment with only one an hour.
We have some buses, but I am afraid they are an endangered species. They are very difficult to find. If someone does find a bus, they might be able to travel into the Moorlands, but it is not easy. If someone gets to Stoke train station with a view to visiting Alton Towers, which puts on special buses, or the Roaches, the Manifold Valley or any of the other great attractions, they find that the only way to get public transport is to walk about a mile and a half to Hanley where the bus station is—because, of course, the bus station is not in the same place as the train station in Stoke-on-Trent. That person would then have to wait for a bus that is usually hourly. Perhaps they might be lucky and the buses might be every half hour, but it is not easy and it takes a significant amount of time to get to the Staffordshire Moorlands.
Even if someone can get to Stoke-on-Trent station by taking a taxi or finding a very amenable friend to give them a lift, to get from the station to Leek—which is where I live: the centre of the constituency—they could drive along the main Leek road, which is the A52, the A5009 and the A53. To do so means travelling through the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) before reaching the Staffordshire Moorlands.
This route passes through some amazing parts of the city: Joiners Square, Abbey Hulton, Milton, then entering Stockton Brook and then on through Endon, Longsdon, and finally into Leek. The problem is that it is a single-lane carriageway. Actually, there is not a dual carriageway anywhere in the Staffordshire Moorlands constituency. One cannot legally go faster than 60 miles an hour, even though some motorcyclists believe otherwise. It is a genuinely beautiful route, which runs along a disused railway line. It is absolutely stunning, but it is a very slow road.
Alternatively, there is the A520, taking a route through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and then on to the Moorlands. That goes through Fenton and Longton, Weston Coyney and Meir, to Cellarhead, Wetley Rocks, Cheddleton, Leekbrook and then into Leek. All of these places are beautiful, ancient villages; they do not have capacity to make the road any wider. On visiting Wetley Rocks, one discovers it really is rocks, driving along the edge of the cliff, so there is nowhere to go to extend that road.
So I ask: what can we do? If you are lucky, Mr Paisley, you might find you could get off the train at Stoke and I would be waiting for you with my car, because I would be delighted to give you a lift to Leek—obviously socially distanced with appropriate facemasks and so on. If we were lucky, it could take about 30 minutes. However, I must say that I have driven from Stoke-on-Trent station back to my home in Leek, and it has taken over an hour and a half. During rush hour, those two A roads that are the main roads into Leek from the city are absolutely full. They happen, at the moment, to have an enormous number of roadworks on them as well, which does not help, but in normal times they are still absolutely full. There are some very difficult junctions on them, particularly the junction at Endon going up to Clay Lake and Brown Edge and on the A520. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and I both know about the issues around the Advanced Proteins site and the fact that we have an awful lot of very heavy vehicles travelling along that road and turning into the plant, causing congestion.
It really is not an easy journey, and it is getting harder. Given the volume of traffic and the demand for journeys between the Moorlands and the city, I do not see that it is going to improve any time soon, and the fact is that the Moorlands is missing out on the advantages of being only a few miles from the west coast main line. It is missing out on the opportunities that the Government’s investment in Stoke-on-Trent as part of the levelling-up agenda is bringing to the area, because people simply cannot rely on being able to work or live in the Moorlands and commute to the city given that the commute is so unreliable. We really do need an alternative.
There are two alternatives, and the debate title gives us a clue about what one of them is. There is another one, however, and it is that we could use the canals. We have a fantastic canal system built by James Brindley for the purposes of Wedgwood, to bring the raw materials from the Moorlands into the city where the potteries were founded in Burslem—the mother of the potteries in my hon. Friend for Stoke-on-Trent North’s constituency —but also around the whole city.
There are still fantastic potteries in the city, but it was the canals that made that possible. I love being on the canal—it is a really wonderful day out—but I think we would agree that it is probably not a good alternative for commuting into the city, given the speed at which one could travel. That then leaves us with one remaining alternative: to reopen the railway line between Leek and Stoke-on-Trent that closed as a victim of the Beeching cuts. When it closed it was probably not very well used, but I know now that the demand is there, and that people want to get back to being able to commute into the city from the Staffordshire Moorlands. Not only do we not have a dual carriageway, but we do not have a mainline train line running through the constituency. It would be wonderful to bring these things back.
This could be a fantastic clean, green alternative to roads. Residents live very close to the road, with houses along the whole way. My hon. Friends from the city will describe the experiences of their constituents who live alongside those roads, and the pollution and noise they suffer. We have this alternative; the line is there. Only a couple of weeks ago, the four of us here—myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central, for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent South—together with the leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Councillor Sybil Ralphs MBE, visited where the line travels between the Moorlands and the city at Stockton Brook. The line and track bed are there and we stood on them. There is quite a lot of weed but the line is there; it can be reopened. We were pleased to be there and see for ourselves that that could be done.
A bid has gone in to the Restoring Your Railways Fund. The bid is led by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and Councillor Sybil Ralphs, and is supported by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and its leader Councillor Abi Brown. We have the support of the local enterprise partnership, Staffordshire County Council, North Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, the Peak District national park, local businesses and the key partner, the Churnet Valley railway. As I mentioned earlier, we have this wonderful heritage railway in the Moorlands, which has kept the track going for pleasure visits around the Moorlands on its steam trains. That heritage railway, with its use of the line, is a really important part of the bid.
I know the Minister is stepping in for my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who has sent his apologies. It is wonderful, though, to see the Minister in her place. I am hoping she will say that she will put personal endeavour into pushing this bid through. The bid has been submitted and we want to ensure that we get the funding we need, so that we can explore the possibilities.
We can see what could be achieved. We can see what the opportunities are for passenger services. That might be light rail; it might be different from what was envisaged when people closed the line—what it looked like then and what it might look like today. We want to see what the possibilities are for freight on the line, but we need to have that time and the expertise of officials at the Department for Transport to work with, to explore what is possible.
The line could not only go to Leek, but the line that the heritage railway uses now—to Froghall, through Cheddleton and Consall—could be used. That line goes to the village of Alton, where Alton Towers is. We have one of the largest cement plants in the UK at Cauldon, which is also the line used by the heritage railway. There are real opportunities to get freight off the road and on to the railway line.
In conclusion, I say to the Minister that all we want is a chance to see what is possible. I know she will use her best endeavours to support us on this. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friends, who are all fully behind this bid.
I thank Karen Bradley for moving that motion and painting such a pretty picture postcard and advertisement for the Staffordshire Moorlands. She probably won the record for name-checking every single village in a constituency. If Members wish to remove their jackets, please feel free to do so because it is stifling in this room today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on securing this excellent debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) to her first time responding on behalf of the Government. I thank Ministers and the Department for Transport for the support they have given so far. The Restoring Your Railways Fund has been a model of excellence and innovation, about which the Government should be incredibly proud. Ministers and civil servants across Government should pay great heed to it in developing future similar schemes.
There is a clear need for reopening the Stoke-Leek line. Our roads are full and one in three households in Stoke-on-Trent has no access to a car; in some wards, it is as high as 40%. For access to skills and jobs, this severely limits aspirations and opportunities. The situation is made worse by the fact that our bus services have declined by around a third in the last decade. Congestion and air pollution have only become worse.
Additionally, there are no direct bus links between Leek and Stoke station, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands described, nor do they directly serve Fenton. Operators have said that the main reasons for bus decline are the challenges faced by running a reliable service, given how congested some of our roads are. In many cases, they now run fewer services during peak hours than during the rest of the day, because they just get stuck in the congestion.
Our roads are operating well above capacity and where others may have seen recent improvements, with more people working from home, our local manufacturing, distribution and retail industries mean congestion is almost back to normal levels. Victoria Road in Fenton Manor is notorious for sitting traffic and it is under ministerial directions to improve on the significant breaches of air quality limits, including nitrogen dioxide levels. I fully support the city council in its efforts to address that; a proposal was submitted recently to Ministers.
Better public transport will also be a key part of this. Fenton once had two stations: Fenton Manor was lost in 1956 and Fenton station on the Crewe-Derby line closed in 1961. Those were the bad old days of the north Staffordshire railways decline, exacerbated by industrial decline. Where many parts of the country have seen local stations and lines return since that axe fell, there is a great chasm in north Staffordshire where nothing has reopened. In fact, it got worse with the west coast upgrade, with services removed from Wedgwood and Barlaston, and Etruria closed entirely to shave off just a few minutes. I am pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) in her bid to reopen Etruria station.
Improving our local public transport, both rail and bus, is absolutely vital. New employment and housing growth cannot be accommodated within the constraints of current car-focused networks. We are one of the fastest growing cities: housing development numbers are way above target, with more than the average London borough, and 99% are on brownfield land.
Stoke-on-Trent is on the up and the reindustrialisation of the local economy over the last decade needs an efficient and comprehensive transport network. That includes options for rail. Reopening the Stoke-Leek line would not be happening in a vacuum. Work is under way to deliver on the Transforming Cities Fund, improving local bus flows, revitalising Longton station and creating a transport hub, with Stoke station connected by a dedicated last-mile bus corridor through the city centre.
The reopening of Meir station, east of Longton, which was lost under the Beeching Act—something that I have championed—is an advanced project under the Restoring Your Railways Fund. We are actively seeking to reopen a station, also lost under Beeching, to serve Trentham. By delivering all these priorities, we can build that critical rail mass for north Staffordshire to make public transport a much more viable option, particularly with the development of integrated ticketing.
Employers, educators and providers right along the line all support the benefits that would come through reopening the line, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands suggested. A station at Fenton Manor would be vital to serve many of my constituents. St Peter’s Academy and the main Fenton Manor sports complex would be directly served by a station at Fenton Manor. Fenton Park would also be within easy walking distance. Most importantly, increased numbers of Fenton residents would have easy access to rail, opening up employment, education and leisure opportunities, including the Moorlands countryside, as my right hon. Friend eloquently described.
Equally, this would plug a whole number of communities along the line directly into proposed High Speed 2 services feeding Stoke station and beyond. Public transport journeys between Fenton Manor and Leek would plummet from 55 minutes to around 18 minutes, and fall from 20 minutes to just three minutes between Fenton Manor and Stoke station. Properly integrated with the bus network, with funding that we also hope to secure through the Bus Back Better Fund, journey time savings from reopening the line could be felt much more widely across the whole of north Staffordshire. It could halve public transport journeys across my constituency alone. Only through enhancing public transport will we fully realise the benefits of HS2. The alternative is that a journey for just the final few miles will end up taking longer than the entire HS2 journey.
By more than halving journey times—potentially, more than two thirds at peak times—the real benefits of enhanced transport connectivity can be fully realised. By freeing up some of the road capacity, there will be advantages for motorists, too, and more reliable buses attracting people back on to public transport. It is also worth noting that single-stop rail travel between local stations in Stoke-on-Trent is often considerably cheaper than single-journey bus travel.
To conclude, reopening the Stoke-Leek line is a highly realistic option for levelling up opportunities in one of the most deprived cities in the entire country. It would reconnect communities and radically reduce journey times. Crucially, it would help us to reach a critical mass of public transport provision that we currently lack. I hope that our bid to explore reopening in detail is won and that the Government support our proposals fully.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I congratulate my constituency neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on securing this important debate. We are hearing the hymn of us all singing to the same tune. Ultimately, it is so important for the connectivity of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire Moorlands and north Staffordshire that we see not just the Stoke-to-Leek line, but the Meir station bid, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and the Etruria station bid put in by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). I am proud to be a co-signatory and co-supporter of the Stoke toLeek line.
It looks like we want all the sweeties from the jar, but we are saying that Stoke-on-Trent and the Staffordshire Moorlands have been long overlooked. My right hon. Friend lives in Leek, so she knows that it is one of the largest towns in the country, at 21,000 residents, and yet one of the only towns of that size that does not have a rail station in it, which is utterly bizarre in itself.
If we are ever to hit net zero, which is an important agenda that we should be aiming for, there have to be public transport options to enable people no longer to have to use the car. If we are to allow people from Stoke-on-Trent opportunities to work at, maybe, one day in the future, Alton Towers, which supports the bid and has discussed the potential of linking the line to its theme park at a later date, there is a long-term benefit for tourism opportunities. Alton Towers gets about 2.1 million visitors directly and, pre-covid-19 pandemic, Stoke-on-Trent city received about 6 million visitors a year. The problem for Stoke-on-Trent, however, is that 5.7 million to 5.8 million of them were day visitors.
A public transport network can link the Peak national park and, potentially, Alton Towers. It can connect our fantastic cities, so people could visit the fantastic and award-winning Gladstone Pottery Museum in the south or the mightily superior Middleport Pottery museum up in Middleport, where shows such as “Peaky Blinders” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown” have been filmed. We can then start to say to people that tourism is more than just a day visit to the north of Staffordshire; it becomes longer term and creates more jobs. Given that tourism is our second largest employer in the whole of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent combined, it is an important market. Let us not forget that the pandemic has made it so difficult for that sector, so better connectivity can only help us bounce back quicker in those types of industries.
I am proud to serve Stoke-on-Trent, North. We have fantastic schools, for example, such as the Excel Academy in Sneyd Green, a council ward I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. A railway line could link that closely, as it could the Birches Head Academy in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Parents would not have to go on already congested roads and the children would have an opportunity to access the city and to get to and from school, pretty much door to door, by the railway network.
That would also mean that the people of Leek and of Milton—a fantastic little village, which again I share my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central—could think about getting to and from Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College, with its UK-leading digital T-levels, and Staffordshire University, which is the UK leader in video games technology. We, the Stoke-on-Trent MPs, want to make Silicon Stoke our real agenda. With our gigabit broadband already in the ground, and with those students, better connectivity will create business opportunities.
There are hectares of brownfield land along that track, waiting to be unlocked, but that requires the railway line back open and the critical rail mass back within north Staffordshire. By doing that, we are more than happy to play our part in meeting the Government’s housing targets.
In Stoke-on-Trent, we are planning for around 14,000 new homes, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has already said, we are well above our targets. We are building—there are cranes going up everywhere—and we have put in some fantastic levelling-up fund bids to focus on regenerating one of the largest city centre regeneration sites in the west midlands, the East-West Precinct, as it is known. We have also had the fantastic opportunity to partner with Capital & Centric, which has put in £55 million of private sector investment, and with the gap funding from the levelling-up fund, we will unlock hotel space, office space and homes right by Stoke-on-Trent railway station. We also hope that the Home Office will make that location their new HQ for the 560 new jobs that the Stoke-on-Trent MPs and Councillor Abi Brown have secured as part of the Places for Growth programme run from the Cabinet Office.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South always uses this line, and I absolutely love it: getting to Stoke-on-Trent is not the problem. We have the M6, the A50 and the A500, we have the west coast main line, and we have HS2 with the Handsacre link coming, so getting to us is not the issue. Getting around the city is the problem: getting around north Staffordshire is where the problems lie, and when roads such as the A50 and the A500 are at 110% capacity despite the fact that 30% of the people of Stoke-on-Trent do not have access to a private vehicle, there is clearly a big gap in the market for public transport.
We would love to be able to say that we just want the railways, but we need buses as well, because we have had a massive reduction in our bus usage over the past decade, from 15 million to 9.3 million journeys. This reduction means that people in Brindley Ford, which I represent, in Great Chell and Packmoor, which is superbly represented by Councillor Janine Bridges, in Milton, which used to be represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and is now represented by Councillor Dave Evans, Councillor James Smith and Councillor Carl Edwards, and in other remote parts of the constituency cannot get to and from, or around, the city. We seem to have bus links that do not link up our main retail units, our main business parks, and our main hubs of transport and the city centre. That means that bus fares have become too expensive, and that means that people are not using the buses, as I said. That is why I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we do not just want rail: we need to “bus back better” if we are ever truly going to make sure that we deliver for our constituents in Stoke-on-Trent.
I want to moan a bit about the roads as well, because if we do not get this line, I will be banging on the door of the Department for Transport relentlessly to talk about the funding formula for national roads. I represent Kidsgrove and Talke, which is part of Staffordshire County Council, so I am sure that Councillor Alan White and maybe even my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands will not thank me for this, but large county areas with lots of minor roads, for example, will always benefit from a larger pool of funding when it comes to fixing potholes or resurfacing our roads. The city of Stoke-on-Trent simply does not get its fair share.
I was very happy to have a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, because it is something that my hon. Friends from Stoke-on-Trent have raised time and time again. We want to fix our roads, but we need more money, and the funding formula cannot just be based on mileage of road: it has to take in the usage of roads and the congestion on those roads. If we did that, Stoke-on-Trent would get a fairer share of the money. We are not asking for a U-turn, with Staffordshire Moorlands getting nothing and Stoke getting everything. We are asking for a slightly bigger slice of the cake. We have the fantastic JCB Pothole Pro machine going around our city now. We are the first local authority in the country to procure that machine, which fixes potholes in half the time and at half the cost to the taxpayer, and we are already seeing the benefits in Councillor Abi Brown’s ward, where it is being trialled. However, ultimately, we need more money.
Going back to the important reason why we are here, this is not just about connectivity: it is about the economic opportunity that the Stoke-to-Leek line brings. As I say, the village of Milton has one of the finest high streets I have ever seen. It is a beautiful traditional village, with a local butcher, local nail salon, local card and balloon suppliers, local florist and local café—The Teapot At Milton, which I frequent too often, hence the size of the gut. This is the issue: we have that beautiful little village, but not as many people are accessing it as we would want, because the problem is that parking becomes difficult. It is a very narrow high street, so having the railway line would mean that people from Leek could come and experience the benefits of Milton, just like the people of Milton would go to Leek to experience the benefits there. There are some fantastic markets in the Staffordshire Moorlands that many of my residents would want to access. If this railway line came back, they might even set up a second market in market towns such as Burslem. That town has a market already—Our Burslem—but that could be expanded with a Sunday farmer’s market, depending on what happens in the area.
We want to make sure that at the end of the day, we do not get left behind or forgotten about. We have already seen fantastic Government commitment: we have received £29 million through the Transforming Cities fund and £800,000 for upgrading our bus network, so that 15 of our old buses will become brand new and the rest are going to have newer engines, which means we can improve our local air quality. I have no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central will mention that in her speech, because she has been a doughty champion on the issue for the city and for her constituents.
Alongside that pot of money, we must make sure that we have Meir station open, get Etruria station open and open the Stoke-Leek line, which has the unanimous support of all four Members of Parliament here today, the fantastic leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Sybil Ralphs, the fantastic council leader, Councillor Abi Brown, the Staffordshire local enterprise partnership, the city centre business improvement district, local schools and numerous parish councils from the numerous villages in Staffordshire Moorlands—I cannot bear to name them all, as I might forget some.
There is support not just from national representatives, and at local level with local government, but on the ground, from local schools and businesses. I hope we will have the opportunity to get the £50,000 we need to top up the money provided by the city council and Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and that we can then go away, put a really good business case together and, by all means, allow the Department for Transport to decide whether this is a project that is worth investing in in the long term.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on securing this debate. Members may think that, having pulled the graveyard slot, there would not be anything to add—quite frankly, I think we have named every village along the line, every tea room and every pub— but I do have a few things to say.
Reopening the Stoke-Leek line is a key need in a series of public transport projects that will level up opportunity for deprived communities across central Stoke-on-Trent. Like my colleagues today, I want to see the reopening of the stations that were lost when the line closed to passenger traffic in 1956. In the area of the old Bucknall and Northwood station, an interchange is possible with the existing bus routes westwards into Hanley for the city centre and eastwards to Bentilee, Townsend and the full length of Werrington Road.
In addition, I want to see a new station convenient for Abbey Hulton and Birches Head and their significant residential estates that were never served by the old line. Such a station could serve Birches Head Academy, Abbey Hulton medical centre, Abbey Hulton football club and the remains of Abbey Hulton itself. Getting the location right needs investigation and the Restoring Your Railway fund is an excellent means of exploring the necessary detail—so long as we win the bid. Reopening the Stoke-Leek line is entirely complementary to reopening Etruria station, too. If we are to reach a critical rail mass for Stoke-on-Trent, we need to win both bids and share commissioning efficiencies for the necessary research.
The current public transport journey time from Leek to Etruria would easily be halved from an hour-plus to perhaps as little as 25 minutes. In a city with chronic congestion and ministerial directions on air quality at both Etruria and Fenton, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, we simply cannot afford to leave the Stoke-Leek line mothballed. It needs to be open to passenger use.
A third of households are carless, buses struggle to be reliable in congestion, and our growing economy is being held back. Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, but the opportunities that brings must be accessible to many more communities across the city, including those who suffer from the urban splintering caused by what we know locally as the D road.
Reopening the Stoke-Leek line, along with Etruria, will create a U-shape around the city centre. The Transforming Cities fund is already establishing a fast corridor from Stoke station to the south of the city centre. Etruria would establish one from the west and a Stoke-Leek line station at Bucknall Park would establish one to the east. When we look at the map, the Stoke-Leek line joining the Stoke-Crewe line around the city centre looks strikingly like the wires around a bullseye on a dartboard.
Staffordshire University and Staffordshire sixth form college are both solid supporters of reopening the line for pupil and staff use. I know from the vice-chancellor that some university students had to drop out because of transport difficulties, which is an unnecessary tragedy, given that the university is pretty much right next to Stoke-on-Trent railway station. Given the increasing importance of the university and the apprenticeship training centre for local businesses, connectivity to the university quarter is vital to many more young people than the traditional academic student. I very much hope that Stoke College and the Goodwin engineering training school will also be more accessible to left-behind communities.
We struggle with the current inadequate public transport system. The Transforming Cities fund is a great start, but it cannot be the end. I do understand that there are some local concerns about noise from services and the loss of what might be seen as a green corridor—the walking route. But the line is a mothballed rail line, not a pedestrian link. It is so dangerous at Abbey Hulton that the bridge over Leek Road is completely fenced off. We are establishing a new green corridor through the city, with the rewilding of the River Trent, that is accessible to pedestrians, which we must continue to pursue. There is no alternative train or light rail route to Leek, but there are alternatives for better cycling and pedestrian routes.
For far too long, Stoke-on-Trent has had a public transport system in decline. It was not just Beeching; in fact, Etruria was closed by the last Labour Government. What we have now is a real chance to look properly at how to reverse that. It will level up life chances and make Stoke-on-Trent an even better place to live, visit, study and work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on securing today’s debate. As we heard from all Members, there is plainly a great deal of local support for reopening and re-imagining the Stoke-Leek rail line. What was once constructed to carry limestone, cement and other freight should now be seen as a potential part of a modern, clean and green post-carbon railway. That makes the decision by Government to turn down the bids for funds from the Restoring Your Railway fund for even more frustrating and perplexing. No wonder local MPs and councillors are so exercised on behalf of their constituents, and campaigners are so vocal.
Ministers have simply got this wrong; if they do not allow the rail line to happen, it will be to the detriment of the local area and, indeed, the wider region. We have heard the benefits for local businesses, communities and places such as Norton, Stockton Brook and Milton. We all know that a new railway would help cut carbon emissions and reduce the number of lorries on local roads—particularly the aforementioned A53, A520, A52 and A523—and benefit the communities living along those A roads. It would create new opportunities for local businesses in Stoke, Leek and across north Staffordshire. The reopening would create new jobs in construction and the supply chain.
Most of all, it would tackle social exclusion, open new labour markets and help people in the area travel for work and leisure, particularly since, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), 30% of local people do not own a car. In some areas of Stoke-on Trent, that percentage is even higher. The railway remains one of the safest, cleanest and most convenient ways to travel.
By creating the Restoring Your Railway fund, the Government have unfortunately set community against community, creating a forced competition with winners and losers. Worst of all, they have abdicated their responsibility for a strategic national plan to reopen mothballed railway lines. We need a strategic plan, not a competition. The Campaign for Better Transport has shown through its research that huge social and economic benefits would accrue from a strategic approach.
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s full-hearted support, and I hope it puts even more pressure on the Government, but I firmly disagree with the idea that competition is bad. It was entirely appropriate for the Government to make us submit a good bid and to make sure that the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed. Ultimately, that is to make sure we are being serious. We could end up getting a very large amount of funding from the Government, and at the end of the day it is Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands taxpayers’ money, so we need to ensure it is spent appropriately and delivers for them in the long term. While we are here enjoying discussing what we want from the Stoke to Leek line, we need to make sure it is economically viable in the long term.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but we must agree to disagree on this issue. Although it is okay to have competition in certain arenas, in this arena what is required is a national strategic policy. As we have seen, in parts of our country there have been accusations of favouritism and of politics coming into play, rather than an overarching policy that would benefit our country.
The Campaign for Better Transport has shown through its research that huge social and economic benefits would accrue from a national strategic approach. It points out that adding 343 miles to the network, including 166 miles of reopened route, would create 72 new stations and 20 million new journeys, bring half a million people within walking distance of a station, create 6,500 new jobs, serve more than 100 of the most disadvantaged wards in the country, enhance air quality, cut carbon, and generate an annual gross value added of between £155 million and £245 million, as well as indirect benefits to our economy.
So many communities, like the ones in north Staffs, are crying out for this kind of investment. We must never lose sight of the need for new freight lines, as the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said, as well as passenger lines. According to the International Energy Agency, rail uses as much as 90% less energy than road transport per unit of freight, yet the Government have set a high bar of financial sustainability, with predicted fair income underwritten by the scheme sponsor.
Network Rail’s governance for railway investment projects is conservative in its approach, according to the Campaign for Better Transport. That combination of factors explains why progress has been so slow. Ministers’ attempts to expedite projects—in particular, the rail network enhancement plan—contains the fatal design flaw that each scheme is viewed through the lens of local demand, not an overarching strategic approach to meet our national needs. It feels like road is still the Government’s favourite, and rail is still the runner up.
I congratulate the campaigners for the Stoke to Leek line, who have come so far. I appeal to Ministers to clear the leaves off the line and let the people of north Staffs have the railway, but let us be equally ambitious for all communities campaigning for reopened lines. Let us finally bury the Beeching axe. Let us offer a vision of local lines with well-lit, safe railway stations with beautiful architecture, full access for people with disabilities, sustainable energy use and integration with cycling, walking, trams and buses. Let us offer services that are frequent, convenient and on time, and digital ticketing that reflects the new realities of when and how often people want to travel—one national railway, owned by the people and viewed as a vital national asset.
To begin, I would like to pass on the apologies of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who had planned to attend this debate. He is self-isolating after being pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app and asked me to stand in. I am delighted to have been asked to respond, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on securing this debate on the proposals for reopening the Stoke-Leek line—or, as she said, the Leek-Stoke line. I thank all Members who contributed. My right hon. Friend is a committed advocate of this scheme, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have spoken passionately with one voice in today’s debate. Their collective campaigning to reinstate the Stoke-Leek line is second to none. I am sure the description that my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands gave of her constituency will definitely have put it at the top of the tourist map for those who are listening to the debate. I also pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members who have sponsored applications to restore rail lines and stations in their own constituencies. I know just how much these schemes mean for local communities. Those Members are great advocates for the restoration of their railways.
This Government are committed to levelling up the country, and a strong, effective railway is central to that ambition. As part of that levelling-up agenda, in January 2020 the Government pledged £500 million for the Restoring Your Railways programme to deliver on our manifesto commitment to start reopening lines and stations. This investment will reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. The Beeching report led to the closure of one third of our railway network—2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of track were identified for closure. Many places that lost their railway connection have simply never recovered. For the towns and villages left isolated and forgotten by the Beeching cuts, restoring a railway line or station has the potential to revitalise the community. It breathes new life into our high streets, drives investment in businesses and housing and opens new opportunities for work and education. Ilkeston station, in my constituency, which reopened in 2017 after more than 50 years of closure, is a proven example of this positive impact.
It was a long-fought battle, like that which my right hon. and hon. Friends in the room are fighting.
More broadly, investing in transport links is essential to levelling up access to opportunities across the whole country, ensuring that our regions are better connected, local economies flourish and more than half a century of isolation is undone. By building back with a real focus on better connections and supporting left-behind communities, we are delivering our promise to level up this country, as set out last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
The Restoring Your Railways Fund has three parts, with part of the £500 million fund allocated to the ideas fund. Aimed at early-stage proposals, the ideas fund is helping communities to develop ideas to restore railway lines and stations across England and Wales. These proposals are led by the affected communities, supported by their local Member or Members of this House, giving them an opportunity to make the case for how the railway can transform their area. The Department is funding 75% of the study costs of successful proposals, up to a maximum of £50,000. Over the first two rounds of the ideas fund, 25 promising schemes across England and Wales have been awarded up to £50,000 in development funding to help them get to the strategic outline business case stage.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands has taken advantage of this opportunity and submitted a proposal to restore rail services between Stoke and Leek—or between Leek and Stoke—to the first round of the ideas fund in spring 2020. While the bid had the potential to deliver benefits, it was not successful at that time, and the rail Minister wrote to the right hon. and hon. Members who sponsored the bid to inform them of the outcome. Feedback on the bid was provided at the same time, setting out why it had not quite made it in that round of funding and what could be done to further strengthen the proposals. I know that the rail Minister was therefore pleased that earlier this year—I think it was on 5 March, the deadline for applications for the third and final round of the fund—one of the more than 85 bids that the Department for Transport received was a revised proposal for the Stoke-Leek line.
As my right hon. Friend explained, the proposal details the many benefits that restoring the Stoke-Leek line would bring to the area—she was so graphic earlier about all the benefits—including providing residents of Leek with direct access to education and employment opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent and the opening up of Staffordshire Moorlands to the tourist trade. The assessment process for those bids is currently under way. The Department expects to announce outcomes over the summer. Decisions on bids are made by an expert panel, which the rail Minister chairs. It is informed by analysis from the Department for Transport, technical advisers and Network Rail. The standard of the applications is, as ever, very high.
In nearby Meir, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, a proposal to reopen the railway station has already been successful in the ideas fund. This scheme used the funding awarded to create a strategic outline business case, which the Department will be considering soon. If delivered, the scheme would reconnect the people of Meir to the rail network for the first time since 1966, giving them access to new educational and economic opportunities, making new housing developments in certain areas viable and levelling up a region that suffers from poor productivity relative to the rest of the UK.
Advance proposals for the second part of the £500 million Restoring Your Railways Fund are being used to accelerate the development of closed lines and stations that are already being considered for restoration and have existing business cases. As a result, certain reopened railways will be connecting commuters again very soon, with regular passenger services set to be restored for the first time in almost 50 years by the end of 2021. The third strand of the Restoring Your Railways funding has been used to provide £32 million for a third round of the new stations fund, which is funding six new stations and providing development funding for a further two stations.
This country has a rich railway history, which puts it on the world stage, with its Victorian pioneers, its commitment to innovation and its engineering achievements. Thanks to record levels of funding, which will help us to build back better as we recover from the pandemic, we will also deliver the biggest modernisation programme to the railways for more than a century.
Of course, new rail lines are not the only way to reconnect our communities. Last week, the Prime Minister announced a £4.2 billion city region sustainable transport fund, which local leaders can spend on projects, such as new tram lines or bike lanes. The west midlands will receive a share of this fund, providing further opportunity for the constituents of my right hon. and hon. Friends to benefit from improved transport infrastructure.
In Staffordshire, we are just on the edge of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Mayor Street does a fantastic job of delivering public transport, but I want to make sure that any money does not come at the detriment of areas, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands, that are not part of combined authority areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has put that on record, and I am sure it will be listened to and noted.
Additionally, Stoke-on-Trent has been awarded £34.5 million from the Transforming Cities Fund towards improvements at Stoke-on-Trent and Longton rail stations, new cycling and walking schemes, installation of electric charge points and upgrades to the city centre bus station. The local growth deal is also investing £121 million of transport infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, including constructing new highway infrastructure to improve access to business and employment sites around Stoke-on-Trent, new access to the Etruria Valley enterprise area and the new Stafford western access route, which will provide an alternative route to the town centre this year. All this investment will improve transport connections for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, helping residents access new opportunities.
I conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands for securing this debate and thanking my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent the area for all their thoughtful contributions. I can reassure the House that there is a tremendous amount of work being done in this area to reconnect smaller communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to jobs, homes and education. I will make it my personal commitment to ensure that the rail Minister is fully updated on the compelling case for the Stoke-Leek Leek-Stoke line, which I have heard loud and clear this afternoon.
I have really enjoyed this debate, and it has been good to hear from all the Members who would be affected positively by the reopening of the Stoke-Leek or Leek-Stoke line. I am grateful to the Minister for her words and for the support from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi).
Mr Paisley, you suggested that I had mentioned every village in my constituency. This is only an hour-long debate, and therefore I have not been able to mention them all, but they are all very important to me and they could all benefit from the Stoke-Leek line.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) referred to some people who were worried about the reopening. I understand that some people who live along the line are concerned that there will be an adverse impact on them. That is why it is important that the funding is provided so that we can explore the implications and look at what can be done to reassure those people who are concerned, as well as helping those who are really enthusiastic.
I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that many, many people are very enthusiastic. In fact, when we had our photo opportunity in the drizzle in Stockton Brook a few weeks ago, a couple were walking their dog down the side of the canal, where the canal and the railway line up next to one another. They stopped and said, “Wow, are you looking to reopen this? I remember this line when I was a boy. I can’t tell you how exciting it would be to see this line reopen and see trains back along this line.”
It is important to note that the plan is part of a wider project. It is not just another project to be seen in isolation; it is part of all the work being done to transform the whole of north Staffordshire, including the stations at Meir and Etruria, which we all want to reopen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) spoke about day visitors. He is absolutely right: we suffer in that we have an enormous number of visitors, but they are day visitors. They do not come to stay overnight; they drive in and then drive out again. We have some fantastic places for them to stay. I put on the record that only last week, I visited the Tawny Hotel in Consall, a brand-new hotel next to the heritage railway line of Churnet valley. It is another fantastic place for people who want to visit and stay in the Staffordshire Moorlands and north Staffordshire.
The reopening could bring so many opportunities. Around the whole of north Staffordshire, the vision that the reopening of the line would be a part of is tangible, and it would be such an exciting thing to see. The Minister said that this country has a rich railway history. I want it to have a rich railway future, and I want the Stoke-Leek line to be very much part of that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reopening the Stoke-Leek line.