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Westminster Hall

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 January 2022

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Eye Health and Macular Disease

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind you all that you should have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the parliamentary estate, and give one another plenty of room when entering and leaving the Chamber. I call Jim Shannon to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of eye health and macular disease.

Thank you, Ms Nokes. This is a very important issue. I suppose all issues are important, but this one is very important, as I shall illustrate in my speech. I place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, as always, for agreeing to schedule this debate, and to the Macular Society, which is working with Fight for Sight and Roche pharmaceuticals in the Eyes Have It campaign group—we say “The Ayes have it” in the House many times, and the eyes have it literally this time—for its support in securing the debate.

I thank all the hon. Members who are here for taking the time to discuss this important issue. I have spoken to some of them, and they will all bring their individual comments and contributions to the debate. I am very pleased, as always, to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), in his place, and it is a particular pleasure for me and for all of us to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) in her place. We look forward to her response as well.

As someone who had glasses from a young age—eight years old—and who has had diabetes for the last 15 years, I can say that eye health is a matter of great personal import, as well as a constituency issue that affects a huge swathe of my constituents. Every day, 250 people start to lose their sight. At least half of all sight loss is avoidable. That is the key issue in this debate, because if sight loss is avoidable, the question is what steps we take to ensure that people do not lose their sight. With that in mind, I look forward very much to the Minister’s response.

More than 2 million people have sight loss, and 350,000 people are registered blind or partially sighted. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in adults, leading to 50% of blindness. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), when we spoke last night, told me that she herself has this. Therefore the contribution from the hon. Lady, out of everyone in the House, will be particularly poignant and relevant to the debate.

I was shocked to learn that more people in the UK are living with macular disease than with dementia. We hear lots of stories—I am not saying we should not, by the way—about dementia, but just to give an idea of the magnitude of the subject of this debate and its importance, there are more people with macular disease than there are with dementia. Macular disease is a particular risk for the nearly 4 million people in the UK who, like me, are living with diabetes. I have long been instructed that poor control of blood sugar and insulin levels can damage the blood vessels of the eye, causing fluid retention in a condition called diabetic macular oedema. About one in every 14 people with diabetes develops DMO, which will result in a noticeable loss of vision.

Why should this topic be flagged as urgent for every Member of the House? Well, the issue is not just the physical health problems but the financial costs. The cost of eye conditions to the UK economy has been estimated at £25.2 billion per year, and without action, that is forecast to rise to £33.5 billion per year by 2050, so there is clearly a financial equation to this issue. It is about prevention and about reducing the costs for the health service as well. But cost is not the only important factor. The fact is that it is an awful thing to lose one’s sight and—for many people—one’s independence. Members across the House will know—perhaps through their own experiences or those of a loved one, or perhaps through the stories shared by their constituents, which we see in our constituency offices each and every day—the impact that sight loss can have. Loss of vision can have an impact on quality of life by undermining patients’ ability to live and work independently. For example, I recently met a member of the Macular Society, Bryan, who was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration in 2012 and told me that something as simple as catching a bus can become very challenging.

Sight loss can also have a profound impact on emotional wellbeing. Sight is considered by many people to be the most important sense. Patients with macular disease, who are at risk of losing their sight, report feelings of isolation, shock, anger, anxiety and hopelessness. Those feelings may grow as individual sight deteriorates, with patients increasingly cut off from the world as they had previously experienced it. Losing one’s eyesight makes one particularly lonely; those who lose their eyesight do not know what is happening around them. I often think that, of all the senses that one could lose, eyesight is—with no disrespect to those who have lost other senses—the most important.

At the same time, macular disease can put pressure on the family members, friends or neighbours who act as carers for people with macular disease. This means that, although macular disease is more common among older people, its effects can be felt across the working-age population as well. Such feelings are understandable.

Without treatment, sight loss can be rapid. For example, wet age-related macular degeneration—wet AMD, where blood or fluid from abnormal blood vessels leaks into the macula, causing scarring—can cause significant sight loss within a matter of weeks. That is why this is so urgent. It is vital that patients are diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. Can the Minister tell us what has been done to achieve the early diagnosis of AMD? It is so important that sight loss is addressed urgently. Other hon. Members in the debate will reiterate what I am saying shortly.

In 2018, the Royal College of Ophthalmologists found that there was a need for an extra 230 consultants and 204 staff and associate specialists over two years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that recruiting and retaining staff in the ophthalmology workforce needs to be a primary consideration?

I certainly do, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That was one of my points; the Minister has heard it said there, and I will not repeat it. The importance of having the staff in place, to which the hon. Lady referred, is one of the asks in this debate. How can we address that? If we have the staff in place, we can address the issue of eyesight loss earlier.

We are all aware of the demand for NHS eye-care services over recent years. Ophthalmology is now the busiest outpatient specialty in the NHS, with some 7.9 million attendances in 2019-20. That gives one an idea of the magnitude of the issue. That is why this debate is important, and why today we need to look to take things forward. Waiting times have been made worse by the covid-19 pandemic—we understand that. The pandemic has meant that some patients faced a waiting time of up to six months to access care. We know that the wait can be a matter of weeks, but if patients have to wait six months for a diagnosis and medical response, their eyesight can deteriorate significantly in that time. Up to 22 people a month may suffer severe or permanent sight loss as a result of delays to follow-up care. Can the Minister tell us what we can do to address those issues, and what has been done to catch up on that in the pandemic?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have seen massive innovation in the NHS during the covid pandemic? It has been able to deliver huge treatment gains. Does he agree that it is also important that the science of things like macular deterioration is picked up and taken forward? A company called PolyPhotonix, in my constituency, has developed an amazing solution that needs to be driven through to end state. I encourage the Minister to visit the company, because we are very close to making a major difference to treatment both in and out of hospital.

The hon. Gentleman has, I think, passed on that information to the Minister. It is important that we see where innovation has moved forward. PolyPhotonix, the firm to which the hon. Gentleman referred, can bring beneficial and positive changes to those with eye issues. I thank him for that intervention, and I look forward to the Minister being able to visit the company.

Care for patients with diabetic macular oedema was deprioritised during the pandemic, and delays have led to a doubling in the number of patient with DMO losing between one and three lines of vision. It is very important that that issue is addressed. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to staff shortages, and again I look to the Minister to see how we can address that issue.

We know that, as with other areas of healthcare, there are inequalities in eye care. Some parts of the population are not accessing regular sight tests, even if they might be eligible for them for free on the NHS. Can the Minister tell us what can be done to ensure that people are accessing that care? I know that the pandemic has changed many lives, but how do we address that? It is about solutions, not about negativity, but we have to say these things in the introduction to the speech so that we can look to the changes that we wish to see.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We are coming up to the winter Olympics, and if there was a ski slalom for getting Westminster Hall debates, my hon. Friend would win the gold medal every single year. Given the localised comments that he has very appropriately made about the need for people to get their testing done, it is often the case that when the reminders come through for an ophthalmology appointment, they are overlooked. It is important that people take them up and any problems are identified very early on.

How pertinent that intervention is. I will give a couple of examples now that I was going to give later because they are pertinent to this. The opticians and ophthalmologists in Strangford and Newtownards town have told me of two occasions in 2021 when people who went for their test were sent straight away to the Ulster hospital in Dundonald because they had a tumour. They had no other ailments, but their ophthalmologist or optician spotted something early on. They say the eyes tell the health of the whole body, and I think they do. In that case, two lives were saved, and there are probably many others.

Following that point, it is really important to use the available data effectively in understanding the level of serious eye issues experienced across the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that streamlining data sharing across all health care providers should be mandated?

It is always important to have the data on health issues. The Minister, the shadow Minister and hon. Members will know that. If you have the data, you can respond to where the problems are. The hon. Lady is right; we need to have that data in place.

In 2018, the APPG on eye health and visual impairment took evidence from the charity SeeAbility. People with learning disabilities, including children in special schools, are much more likely to have a sight problem, but much less likely to access NHS sight tests. Last night, in a different debate on the welfare cap, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to those who will feel the pain of the welfare cap, but those with disabilities will feel it more. That is very real when it comes to health issues and it is why this issue is so important.

With that in mind, the APPG and SeeAbility asked for sight testing and glasses dispensing facilities in all special schools, which has now been taken forward by NHS England. That is excellent news and it shows that sometimes—hopefully all the time—APPGs and their partners can bring about changes. This will reach around 130,000 children and help to address and prevent avoidable sight issues and reduce the need to use hospital eye clinics.

The commitment by NHS England to reform must continue as these children have an equal right to sight. We will all follow matters closely, and I would like to see the rest of the UK following Northern Ireland. The excellent work by the Ulster University Centre for Optometry and Vision Science in special schools has also shown the same need. When we see that issue being addressed, it is good news. Let us all look at the opportunity for reform in England and in the devolved nations and seek to improve sight testing for adults with learning disabilities in the community too.

There are targeted schemes with optical practices in every area. Unfortunately, Minister, at the moment we see a patchwork across the UK. In some areas the service is good and in other areas it is not. We need to act across the board in all postcode areas to see the level of care and attention that we seek in today’s debate.

The health inequalities experienced by people with learning difficulties justify more attention. People with learning disabilities are dying of avoidable health issues at least two decades before their peers. We cannot have people living without good sight and even going avoidably blind because national health services overlook their needs. That cannot happen and should not be allowed to happen.

I have outlined the issues, but I want now to look at the good news; the positive, glass-half-full news about how we make the changes to address those issues, including improving the quality of life for people with macular disease and the pressure on family and friends that inevitably comes with that.

With rapid and appropriate treatments, whether those are pharmaceutical treatments, laser treatments or surgery, we can do the job better, working alongside opticians. They are keen to be involved, and to address these issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, when a person gets an appointment from their optician, they should go to it: it is so important that they do so, and we want to make sure that people do that. So many cases of sight loss could be either treatable or preventable.

As the UK builds back from the covid-19 pandemic, there is an opportunity to transform eye care services, increasing capacity to deliver rapid and appropriate treatment for macular disease and other causes of sight loss. NHS planning guidance for 2022 focuses on tackling elective care backlogs. Minister, what has been done to address those backlogs? I understand that there are many backlogs—we know them all too well. We need to deliver 110% of pre-pandemic elective activity, but we must also support the NHS to transform services for the long term, to ensure there is enough capacity to treat patients who start to experience sight loss. Improved integration of eye care services must also be a priority for integrated care systems as they move towards implementation. That should include supporting lower-risk patients to be treated in the community, freeing up specialist service capacity for those patients who need it most. At the same time, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, data sharing needs to be improved, for example through the electronic eye care referral system. That is just one example of what could be done to ensure that everyone has the information they need to improve the quality and timeliness of care.

We must also ensure that the NHS is making use of the most innovative treatments—the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) has referred to one of them—especially those treatments that help people living with sight loss to manage their condition as independently as possible, with less frequent need for hospital visits. If we can reduce hospital visits and improve care, we will reduce costs and improve long-term health. We must invest in the workforce we need to deliver current and future eye care. I am very pleased to note that the Government have already confirmed that the process to appoint a new national clinical director for eye care has begun. I hope that this role will provide much-needed leadership and drive forward a transformation of NHS eye care services, including improved integration, better use of data and expansion of the workforce, which I believe is essential to provide the high-quality care that will, in turn, deliver better outcomes for patients. That national clinical director should therefore be appointed as a matter of urgently, and I look to the Minister and to Government to give us a clear timetable for making that appointment.

To ensure accountability and transparency, the national clinical director for eye care should report to a single Minister with responsibility for eye care services across primary, secondary and community care. The role of that individual is critically important for outlining a strategy and moving forward. Sight loss is widespread, and its implications are significant for the NHS. The cost of sight loss to the public purse cannot be ignored, but it is most important for the patients whose lives will be irrevocably altered by a diagnosis such as macular disease. Timely access to appropriate treatment could quite simply be the difference between someone losing and keeping their sight. We want to ensure that people can keep their sight, so it is vital that we do all we can to ensure that every patient can get the treatment they need, when they need it—the earlier the better. When it comes to sight, every day matters. Every appointment is essential, and that principle must underpin our approach to the necessary changes to macular eye health in this post-covid world.

I thank the Minister again for offering her time. People will say, “Well, that’s her job”, but she comes here with a passion and an interest in this issue. It makes it much more pleasurable for me introducing this debate, and for other Members as well, that we have a Minister who can respond positively. I welcome the opportunity to continue these discussions following today’s debate—I know that the Minister is always agreeable to doing so. In anticipation of their speeches, I also thank all of my colleagues, right hon. and hon. Friends and Members, in this Chamber. Working together, we can and will achieve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for leading this morning’s vital debate on eye health and macular disease, which affects many millions up and down the country. Indeed, more than 2 million people in the UK suffer from partial or complete sight loss and the loss of vision is extremely detrimental to someone’s health and wellbeing. Things that many of us take for granted in our daily lives—driving, reading, recognising faces or experiencing colour—are taken away unfairly from those suffering from loss of vision. We know too that loss of vision can lead to further complications, greater care needs and loneliness.

I was pleased to receive reassurance from Ministers in response to my recent written questions that steps are being taken to address waiting lists, including prioritising urgent treatment for sight-threatening eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, which affects 23% of those with sight loss. I welcome the steps being taken to reduce the waiting times and backlogs in our health service, including £2 billion committed this financial year through the elective recovery fund to reduce waiting times. I am pleased to learn that the Government have also committed £8 billion between 2022 and 2025 to transform elective services and increase activity. That is joined by a further £5.9 billion in capital funding to support elective recovery, diagnostics and the vital technology that our health service needs to provide accurate diagnosis.

The NHS’s national eye care recovery transformation programme should ensure that existing money will go into improving effectively and efficiently the quality of the service and outcomes for patients. Through the Health and Social Care Bill, integrated care boards will improve patient access and empower primary care providers to tackle eye health and macular disease quicker and without putting further pressure on GPs and hospitals. The forthcoming appointment of a national clinical director for eye services in England, as outlined by the hon. Member for Strangford, is most welcome but long overdue. I know that that appointment will be welcomed by many with an interest in sight loss.

Tackling the issues of poor eye health goes further than just prevention. We must do more to help the sight loss community up and down the country. In my constituency, there are a number of projects and campaigns underway to improve the quality of life for those who are visually impaired. It is right at this point to pay tribute to Darlington’s phenomenal Darlington Action on Disability, led by chairman Gordon Pybus and chief executive Lauren Robinson. The association has been leading the way in campaigning to improve the life of members of Darlington’s visually impaired community. I am proud to support their current campaign to have tactile paving installed on the platforms of Darlington’s Bank Top station and I urge the Minister to lend her support to the push for Network Rail to install such paving when the station undergoes its £105 million refurbishment and expansion.

Yesterday, I spoke to Gordon, who highlighted to me the further problems facing people with sight loss in my town. They include vehicles parked on the pavement, which are both an obstruction and a hazard, with wing mirrors at head height, which cannot be located by someone using a cane or a guide dog. Other members of the community I serve have raised concerns with me about issues such as the rapid increase in the number of e-scooters on our streets, the poor placement of street furniture and other street clutter such as A-boards outside businesses, and the risk posed to those with sight loss from near-silent electric bikes and vehicles. Every Member of the House will have heard the same concerns in their own areas and I urge the Government to continue to listen to those most affected by poor eye health and macular disease to take steps to make our streets safer for them.

I am proud of the work being done by the Government on the matter, tackling waiting lists and investing in preventive measures. However, I urge the Minister to maintain and extend the level of support and investment over the coming years to ensure that we continue to support the visually impaired community in the UK.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I wish you, and everybody here, a happy new year.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate on this neglected topic. Not for the first time, my comments will echo those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), because today I will focus on the damage that refractive eye surgeries can do to health. In particular, I would like to talk about my constituent, Darren Clixby.

Like many of us, Darren had lived much of his life needing glasses or contact lenses for short sight. As many people have, he heard the messages about laser eye surgery, and its promise to make life easier and better. He also heard the statistics that are bandied about regarding the rarity of serious complications, so he paid his money and went for it in January 2009, but I am sorry to say that the damage immediately after the surgery was awful.

Darren was in tremendous pain. He could not open his eyes at all until the following day and, when he did, his vision was unrecognisable. It was filled with sunbursts coming from light sources, with halos arounds them, with images that overlapped and with many floaters, which are small objects that persistently stay in the vision no matter where someone looks; I have loads of them in my eyes.

Having such damaged vision was distracting, disorientating and very distressing. Darren could not function. He had been told that this was merely a temporary effect and that it would go away after surgery, so he took sick leave and he persevered in that hope. The weeks passed, then the months, and the problems with his vision simply did not go away. Understandably, Darren became increasingly distraught, anxious and depressed. At check-ups, he was told time and again that it was temporary. He was fobbed off with steroid eye drops, which did nothing.

He was then offered another procedure with the same company, using an alternative refractive surgery technique, then another, via a private referral to Moorfields Eye Hospital, and then another. Darren has now had five separate refractive eye surgeries, four of which were to correct the damage of the first. None of these operations have helped. In fact, Darren believes they have just made things worse.

All of this time, Darren’s mental health was deteriorating. He found his work as a solicitor increasingly impossible because of the psychological damage that resulted in a diagnosis of severe depression and anxiety, which remains 13 years on. He resigned from his job and endured 18 months out of work. Even now, after getting a new legal role, he has found it difficult to continue and he had to resign 18 months after starting that job. Eventually, in 2012, Darren had to stop the process of repeated surgeries, and disengage to protect what was left of his mental health. It has taken him many years to come to terms with what has been done.

I thank the hon. Lady for sharing what surgery can be like. I have a diabetic constituent who asked a consultant if laser surgery would be appropriate. Unfortunately, as a result of that surgery he lost his eyesight in its entirety. Today, he has no sight in either eye. When it comes to surgery, the hon. Lady is absolutely right and I thank her for the reminder that it does not always work. People need to be careful and aware of that.

Darren now believes that there is nothing that can be done significantly to repair the damage to his sight. He has uncomfortable, dry eyes every day of his life, which become far worse after reading or concentrating for long periods. He cannot see clearly in low-light conditions or drive after dark. Even crossing the road can be dangerous because it is hard to judge the distance between cars.

Darren believes that he was not fully informed about the risks before his surgery. He has no trust in what little regulation or self-regulation exists via the General Optical Council and the General Medical Council. This was a private, elective procedure that Darren paid for. Surely to heavens, the company that performed the surgery should be responsible for the best possible aftercare, and for making it right. In 2017, Darren again contacted the company responsible for the original surgery. It was made absolutely clear that it would offer him nothing. Effectively, it told him to go away, to stop being a nuisance and to stop getting in the way, frankly, of it making more money.

As always, the NHS has been left to pick up the pieces after poorly regulated private medicine has failed. I ask the Minister how much is this costing the NHS across the country? It would be good to know. Does she have any information to hand on that? We need to create a system where patients are genuinely informed about the real risks; a system where there is proper recourse to a regulator when things go wrong, and where private companies are held responsible for their failings and the cost.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate.

I first became interested in eye health as a child when I wore glasses and had extreme myopia. That manifested itself in 2011 when I had my first detached retina and experienced the possibility of losing my eyesight. I had a second detached retina that necessitated an operation at Moorfields. That was two detached retinas, and I subsequently required cataract operations on both eyes.

My clinical experience at Moorfields was very good and I had no problem with that. However, when I had subsequent check-ups for glaucoma, there was an excessive number of people per session. On occasion, my consultant was treating up to 100 people in under three hours, which greatly concerned me. This is an issue about which I have always been passionate, more so when constituents came to me and said that they had experienced problems, not only with glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration but with cataracts. I realised that this was a problem across the whole of society.

In 2019, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) called for a national strategy for eye health, which I support. More recently, in response to a written question, the Government stated that there were no plans to develop a national strategy for eye health and that, given the size and variety of health needs in England, the approach should be managed locally.

That is not a view that I share. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, the number of people waiting for treatment on the NHS for eye-related conditions has increased during the pandemic. We are certainly aware of that, but what is most troubling is that clinical commissioning groups ration the number of operations for conditions, including cataracts. A survey in 2017 of ophthalmic leads shows that some CCGs apply even stricter access to patients needing surgery on a second eye. That means, as has been said, that people are unable to drive and, certainly, unable to read, and have great difficulty accessing normal sight due to the need to wear a single glass lens in a pair of glasses, rather than glasses for one eye.

I have struggled with the possibility of losing my sight, both as a Member of Parliament and as an individual. May I tell the Minister that it is a difficult diagnosis to receive when someone says, “If you do not have this operation, you will lose your sight. If you have it, you will probably save your sight. We have to tell you that, if you do not have it, you will definitely lose your sight”?

I have been keen to campaign for more eye clinic liaison officers. I have repeatedly asked Ministers about the number of eye clinic liaison officers and how we could have more. The response has always been that they are funded by CCGs based on assessment of need. In dealing with the impact of sight loss, the actions of ECLOs in helping people through their support and rehabilitation has always been judged to be of great value. In September 2021, a response that I received to a written question said:

“Eye clinics and their staff, including Eye Clinic Liaison Officers, are commissioned, and funded by individual Clinical Commissioning Groups on the basis of local assessments of need, details of which are not routinely collected centrally.”

Once again, we go back to the point of having the issues decided at local level, with the Department of Health and Social Care not knowing how many officers are in attendance.

The Department is keen to highlight the additional £2 billion that is going into the NHS this year—£8 billion over three years—to increase activity on the elective care backlog caused by the pandemic and other factors. We welcome that, but I have a problem with Ministers never identifying where any of the money will be awarded. Eye health is never identified, so we do not know how many elective operations will occur in the next year or the next three years. The Department also says:

“NHS England and NHS Improvement’s National Eye Care Recovery and Transformation programme aims to transform secondary care ophthalmology services by using existing funding more effectively to improve service quality and patient outcomes.”

That seems to counteract an assertion that any of the £2 billion this year, or the £8 billion over three years, will be allocated directly to eye care.

I have two asks of the Minister. The first is to establish, promote and publish a national eye health strategy for England. The second is to identify and allocate resources to ophthalmology so that we can say to our constituents that, when they need the NHS at a moment that could effectively end their productive life through the loss of their sight, we will be there for them.

I join others in thanking the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I congratulate him on providing a service to us all by securing so many debates on so many relevant issues. I concur with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), that it is time for a national strategy; we have been calling for one for a while.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I will talk about refractive surgery. I completely concur with the hon. Member for Strangford, and the general tone of the debate, about the need for longer-term, stable investment, and the worries that we all have about the postcode lottery in access to eyesight assessment, and services to tackle any problems that are identified. Part of the problem of the postcode lottery is that people who have concerns about their eyesight can become desperate and resort to alternative methodologies, one of which has been refractive surgery.

Refractive surgery is often successful, but there is always a risk. We are talking about both laser surgery and lens replacement, in larger numbers every year. It is a growing issue. Thousands upon thousands are receiving refractive surgery, basically from three main companies: Optical Express, Optimax, and Optegra. Tragically, of those thousands, many hundreds are now experiencing serious problems. They have failed to find a solution to their eyesight problems by turning to surgery, but in many instances have been harmed by the surgery itself.

I have been campaigning on this issue for over a decade. I have worked with other MPs and campaigners. We have had private Members’ Bills, ten-minute rule Bills and debates in the House. I pay tribute to the external campaigners. Sasha Rodoy from the My Beautiful Eyes Foundation has brought together literally hundreds of cases, providing people with support and exposing some of the appalling practices. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham referred to the GMC. There are specific examples of where the GMC guidelines are ignored, resulting in real harm. The guidelines basically say that the surgeon undertaking the surgery should meet the person who is to be operated on. There should be a proper assessment of their suitability for the surgery, and advice should then be provided.

Over the past decade, we are finding too many examples of where the assessment has been given largely by salespeople rather than clinically qualified staff. Often, the person will not see the surgeon until the day of surgery. Owing to the oligopoly of the companies involved, the pressure of meeting sales targets seems to be more important than achieving good outcomes for the clients or patients involved. Inadequate advice then leads to unsuitable judgments and people undergoing surgery that damages their eyesight.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned one tragic case, but there are so many others: paramedics who can no longer pursue their career; police officers who are unable to drive professionally any more; and, as hon. Members may have seen in the media, one health worker who took his own life as a result of the distress.

When things go wrong, the companies often deny responsibility. Sometimes they accept that they need to do something, but they will often delay appointments with the surgeon beyond 12 months and then refuse to accept any responsibility, with people having to be sent off to the NHS for treatment. I want to raise the same issue with the Minister as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. It would be really helpful if we ensured that the NHS collated the information about the work it has to undertake and the investment it has to put in to correct the damage and harm caused by those private companies. There was even one company that went into administration and therefore denied all responsibility and liability to patients, only for it to restructure itself and form a new company to continue providing the same services.

On the complaints, I have to say there have been numerous complaints to the GMC and the General Optical Council. Unfortunately, it is often judged that the case does not meet the seriousness threshold and therefore little or no action is taken by those bodies to regulate and monitor companies that are not abiding by basic guidelines. We have discovered that people are operating without being professionally qualified even in cases that are coming up this year. Those shocking examples demand a response now, after all these years.

I am happy to meet with the Minister or, as I know she is busy, with her colleagues and officials to talk through the review that needs to be undertaken into the operation of refractive surgery, as well as what needs to be done to improve regulation and to ensure that the harms caused by the operations largely being carried out by private companies are addressed and that people are supported in the very distressing situations they have found themselves in.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. As he alluded to earlier, I have macular disease, and I want to speak about what macular disease is and its effects.

When I was diagnosed 20 years ago, my eye specialist told me that I was going blind. Anybody who does not really understand about going blind might think that one day the lights will switch off, but that is not actually the case. The macula is a particular part of the retina that deals with detail. Over time, it becomes very difficult for people to see in the centre of their vision; there is difficulty reading, recognising faces and writing. It poses a number of challenges, but there is life after a macular disease diagnosis. Hon. Members will notice that I am using my iPad—technology performs a huge service to people with issues such as mine.

I would like to talk about some of the causes. We have talked about diabetes and age-related macular degeneration, but it also happens to younger people. It happened to me when I was young, as secondary to high myopia. Councillor Daniel Westcott, a colleague and constituent of mine, was diagnosed at the age of 17 with Stargardt disease, which is a loss in the macular area of the eye. Despite it ending his career as a plasterer—he could no longer see enough detail—he trained as a teacher and is now working as both a personal trainer and a councillor. Those people who experience the shock and concern of being diagnosed can certainly still have a very positive life that contributes to society.

I want to talk about the importance of going to the optician. We have talked about ophthalmology, but as the hon. Member for Strangford said, it is going to the optician regularly that spots these serious issues. With the retina in particular, speed is of the utmost importance. I went to my optician because when I was reading I noticed that the lines on the page of my book had a dip in them. I went to the optician not thinking anything of it, but it was actually the start of the back of my eye bleeding and causing a bubble. Imagine looking through a window through a raindrop—that is the effect that starts to happen. If anybody hears of someone having that kind of issue, they must go to their optician, who will give them an urgent referral to the hospital. If they cannot get to the optician, they should go to accident and emergency straight away and explain; they will then get straight in to the eye specialist. My constituency is Great Grimsby—that is where I live—and Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital has a fantastic ophthalmology team. Mr Kotta, Mrs Bagga and the whole team are fantastic; the nurse specialists really are specialists, and they are fantastic at care and treatment.

It is incredibly important that we support technology companies being able to continue helping with this. In my case, 20 years ago there was no treatment for my eye condition. However, when it went into my second eye, there had thankfully been a lot of development in technology. I had 11 injections directly into my right eye in order to save my sight. Companies such as Regeneron and Novartis have produced medicines that go directly into the eye. If they had not been available, I would now be registered blind. The effects of those 11 injections meant that my eyes improved five lines on the acuity test. That is quite amazing, and it allowed me to continue to drive. I obviously still have some issues, and colleagues will know that they have to prod me because I do not always recognise them—especially on a dark night. Stem cell research is the real pinnacle, and will hopefully mean that people’s eyes will work better for them in the future.

I want to highlight computer technology, and in particular Apple computers. Twenty years ago Apple had the foresight to ensure that accessibility was built into their operating systems. If it was not for Apple’s technology and foresight, I could not have continued in my previous job of teaching, video production and camera operating. When a camera operator is told that they are no longer going to be able to see, that can be a little bit of a problem. Computer technology allowed me to continue to be able to do what I do, and Members can see that I am working with large text today. It is absolutely vital, and I say to other producers of computer operating systems and programming systems that they should really think about simple things to allow people to zoom in and to magnify. All those things are now on the market and they really do make a difference to people’s independence.

If someone does not lose all of their sight, it is very difficult for people to understand. They do not walk into things, and their peripheral vision is fine. It is the detail that is the problem. For a lot of people, that affects their independence. They can no longer read a telephone bill or look at something on the internet. If they love reading, they can no longer do that either. Writing is also affected because they cannot see what they are doing. There is much hilarity in our household when people say that I should become a professional prescription writer because they cannot read anything that I write any more.

Most important, for me, is the role of employers. When I was first diagnosed, my public sector employer—whom I will not embarrass by naming—was appalling. They were not supportive; in fact, they went into panic mode. I would like to say to employers that when somebody comes to you to say that they are having eye problems, do not go into panic mode, because they can continue to be a positive, important part of the team. It just means that they will need slightly different ways of working. I continued to run a television station, keeping a close eye on my editors and camera operators, who always used to say that I may have eye problems, but I could still see their mistakes.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People in particular was fantastic. Its staff will come and do a free assessment in the workplace and offer advice to the employer. I also thank the people at ACAS because when my employer was being downright dirty, they were fantastic in advising me in what I was able to do. Rather than people with eye or macular disease having issues and becoming vulnerable, they can actually become a positive and important part of the team—even more so than before their eye problems. I send this message out to employers: embrace the team member who has these issues, because they will continue to be a fantastic part of the workplace.

I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing forward this debate on a hugely important subject. Macular disease is the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK, with up to 40,000 people developing wet age-related neovascular macular degeneration every year, with wet macular degeneration being the worst of all known eye diseases.

Age-related macular degeneration is a common condition that affects the middle part of a person’s vision. It usually affects people in their 60s and 70s, rising to a rate of around one in 10 people aged 75 and above. However, it can strike at any age. It can happen in one eye or both and, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), it affects the middle part of a person’s eye. AMD can make things such reading, watching television, driving or even facial recognition difficult. Other symptoms can include seeing straight lines as wavy or crooked—which was how the hon. Lady established that she had a problem—objects looking smaller than normal, colours seeming less bright, or seeing things that are not even there.

AMD is not painful and does not affect the appearance of the eye. It does not cause complete or total blindness, but it can make everyday activities incredibly difficult. Without treatment, vision may worsen gradually over several years, which is known as dry AMD, or quickly over a few weeks or months, known as wet AMD. The exact cause is unknown; it has been linked to high blood pressure, being overweight, smoking or having a family history of AMD.

I am sure Members agree that the figures and statistics prove the seriousness of the disease, and why pre-emptive measures should and must be taken. I am proud that that is exactly why we are leading the way in optometry in Scotland. We are currently the only country in the UK to provide free, universal, NHS-funded eye care examinations. Since 2006, adults in Scotland have been able to attend a free eye health check biannually, with children under the age of 16 and adults over the age of 60 entitled to an annual visit. That proves that the Scottish Parliament is committed to delivering a world-leading eye care service for its people.

An NHS eye examination in Scotland is more than just a sight test. It provides a general eye health check that can detect early signs of sight-threatening conditions and other general medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, tumours, dementia, or even arthritis. Optometrists in Scotland deliver a system of eye care services in which all areas of the ophthalmic workforce are truly at the top tier of their professional competency and expertise. That enables higher quality, safe, effective and person-centred eye care services to be delivered in the community and closer to people’s homes, freeing up hospital services to focus on the most complex eye conditions and urgent patient cases.

Community optometrists are already the first point of contact for any eye problems and they can diagnose and treat a number of conditions without the patient requiring an appointment with their GP or an ophthalmologist, easing pressures on an already burdened health service. An increasing number of community ophthalmologists are also registered independent prescribers and can issue patients with an NHS prescription to treat their eye problem or condition.

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the opticians in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill just yesterday. Tuite Opticians in Coatbridge is a family-owned optician currently run by Eamonn Tuite, which has been at the heart of our town since 1973. Tuite understands the needs of the community it serves and always goes the extra mile to ensure the best healthcare and support are provided to all service users. As a result, it not only provides eye examinations in the practice, but also a bespoke service for the housebound, ensuring minimum fuss is required by the patient for such a vital check. I am pleased to be able to place on record my gratitude to the optometrist Stephen Kirley, who took the time to explain to me in great detail the impact of macular degeneration on individuals and why early intervention is so important in treating the disease.

That all lies within and is covered by the free eye test and the fantastic policy of the Scottish Government. By ensuring there are no barriers to accessing eye care, optometrists such as Stephen have a positive impact on patients’ health needs. In return for every eye test carried out, the Scottish Government provide practices such as Tuite with a fee to cover the cost of its work and ensure the business can continue to support as many in the community as possible.

Tuite Opticians was kind enough to carry out my own eye test yesterday and I sure all Members will be happy to learn that I have a clear bill of health—all the better for keeping a beady eye on this Government.

I went for my eye test yesterday. I could not get an appointment in Hayes, my constituency, so I went to Uxbridge. Unfortunately, at the same time the Prime Minister did an official visit to the eye test and disturbed it. How inconsiderate could he be?

That is so surprising. This Prime Minister is known for his consideration of others.

I put my thanks to Tuite Opticians on the record, not only for having me, but for its tremendous commitment to the wider community of Coatbridge for over 30 years.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his positive contribution to this debate. The other good thing about going to an optician, is that if he has any concerns, he can refer the patient on—it does not necessarily have to go through the GP. I did that when I went to my optician in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast to get all the tests necessary and ultimately was given the all-clear. An optician can put someone’s mind at ease.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The optician can highlight so many things. We know the burdens across the NHS, particularly on our GPs and this can lighten the load. However, as he correctly outlined, unfortunately, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the situation can sometimes be difficult. Optical practices are not so fortunate in that there is no governmental support and provision for free eye tests for the general public.

In England, a typical eye examination costs between £20 and £25 for all, except children, the elderly or people registered as partially sighted or blind. Having a monetary value attached to an eye examination would undoubtedly deter those unable to afford the crucial health test and endanger their long-term health and hamper the early prevention tactics that so evidently work. This in a country where health care should be free at the point of need is unacceptable. I believe it is unacceptable to administer a charge. The rest of the UK should follow suit. We have heard repeated calls for a national strategy—the example set by Edinburgh should be followed. Scottish citizens do not have to pay to have their eyes examined. Seeing is a privilege that so many of us will struggle to appreciate, but ensuring that there is universal access to eye tests means that those who require them do not have to think of any cost ramifications.

Scotland not only leads the way in the universal accessibility of eye tests but is the first country in the UK to enable access to important treatments for macular disease. Treatment depends on the type of AMD. Dry AMD accounts for 80% or 90% of cases. There is no treatment, but vision aids can help reduce the effects on day-to-day life. Wet AMD, which affects 10% to 20% of sufferers, may require regular eye injections and, very occasionally, as we heard from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, a light treatment called photodynamic therapy, to stop vision getting any worse.

The other nations of the UK are missing a trick not only in determining new treatment methods for macular disease, but when it comes to understanding the importance of addressing such issues in terms of the impact on the wider health and social care system.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for all that he is saying with regard to macular degeneration. From speaking to surgeons such as James Neffendorf at King’s College Hospital, I know that treatments are absolutely crucial, but what will help to save people’s eyesight, whether in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales, is the public awareness of macular degeneration, so that those signs can be picked up earlier across the United Kingdom. Will he agree that the Government should ensure that there is a public campaign across the country to pick up those signs earlier, so that people can know when those symptoms arise and get best treatment early on?

That is a fantastic idea. Any attention that we can draw to this, we must.

Macular degeneration, both wet and dry, leads to visual impairment, which can in turn lead to depression in many patients. The loss of one’s sight is so catastrophic that it often leads to clinical depression or other mental health issues—up to a 50% increase compared to non-affected patients. Furthermore, sufferers also have a 25% increased risk of developing dementia. The role of optometrists in administering primary care in the community is therefore critical to identifying these conditions at an early stage and minimising the impact on other areas of healthcare. If the protection of the wider health service is not a reason to address the shortcomings in eye care, I am not sure what is.

Eye care and macular health is vital. It is important that we, as a Parliament of the people, address needs in this area and remove any barriers, financial or otherwise, to affording our constituents the ability to access sufficient care on a regular basis. Universal free eye examinations enable optometrists to detect sight-threatening and other medical conditions without depending on how much money a person has or the ability to pay. Let this Parliament follow the example of the Scottish Parliament; let this Parliament put healthcare at the heart of everything that we can achieve. Only by doing so will we fulfil our duties to protect all citizens and communities within our reach.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate. We have had some powerful contributions. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) for setting out her personal experiences. It is those experiences that make for such an informed debate, and I thank her for putting those on the record.

The RNIB estimates that there are currently more than 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK. Fight for Sight estimates that by 2050 that number will reach 4 million. Without support, ophthalmology services will be stretched to capacity. As we have heard in the debate, eye health and macular disease are important issues. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to respond to this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

As has already been made clear throughout the debate, the demand for ophthalmology services has risen at a rapid rate. Referrals from primary care were up by 12% in December 2019 compared to 2013-14. With an ageing population, it is likely that referrals will increase still further. Around 600,000 people are living with age-related macular degeneration in the United Kingdom. Degenerative sight loss not only is physically traumatising but can have a severe long-term impact on mental health and quality of life. Some 90% of vision impairment is treatable, but treatment must be fast and accessible to limit impairment.

Back in 2018, the all-party parliamentary group on eye health and visual impairment published its report, which found that the current system of eye care is

“failing patients on a grand scale”.

It found that services are delaying and cancelling time-critical appointments, resulting in some patients not receiving sight-saving treatment and care when they need it most. The Government promised to consider the recommendations of the report, yet here in 2022, people are still suffering sight loss on an unprecedented scale.

Nationally, almost 35% of patients—more than 592,000 people—are waiting longer than 18 weeks to start ophthalmology treatment. Shockingly, at the end of October 2021 around 28,000 patients in England and Wales have been waiting a year or longer to begin treatment. It is important to note that there is stark regional inequality in access to eye health services. At the Tameside and Glossop trust, one of two that covers my constituency, over 50% of patients wait more than 18 weeks to begin treatment. That is around 15% higher than the national average. Those figures represent individuals whose eye health is deteriorating rapidly, and who are incredibly anxious and scared about what their future may hold. If they do not receive adequate treatment and care, they will suffer a permanent alteration to their vision and quality of life.

The Government have to tackle this situation, because we know that the figures largely represent the state of the NHS before the pandemic. Waiting lists for treatment have got worse because of the pandemic, but the situation was far from perfect before the covid storm hit these shores. The problem in eye health care is not new; for several years, many organisations and people, including Members of this House, have been calling for the Government to act on it. It is too easy to simply point to the pandemic to excuse lack of action. It will not wash with us or with members of the public, who understandably are frustrated and worried about their own treatments.

I would be grateful to the Minister, whom I respect a lot, if she could outline the Department of Health and Social Care’s current assessment of ophthalmology waiting times and what her Department plans to do to ensure that patient safety and care remains a priority over the next few months, particularly given the acute staffing challenges that the health sector is facing.

In December 2019, the getting it right first time programme’s national specialty report was published. The report was endorsed by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, and is the product of two years of painstaking work. Over 120 trusts were visited across England and several recommendations were made. I am sure many Members are familiar with the contents of the report, but I want to highlight just a few key points that I believe are instructive to the debate.

The two most common medical retina conditions are diabetic and age-related macular degeneration. Despite how common age-related macular degeneration is, it is important to note that macular disease can affect people at any age, including children. The getting it right first time report recommended that attention be paid to improving the accuracy and efficiency of diabetic retina screening. By utilising cutting-edge 3D imaging techniques, we can generate more detailed images of the retina and thereby increase referrals for diabetic maculopathy. However, the report found that in 2019, only 45% of providers utilised optical coherence tomography to refine referrals.

What we do know—I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the recommendations—is that the Government and her Department need to improve access top treatment and referrals for eye conditions. Specifically, I would be interested to hear what the Department makes of calls to train more staff to deliver specialist AMD injections.

I would also like to draw attention to the proposed Health and Care Bill, and specifically its provisions relating to new integrated care systems. For those to be effective in tackling the crisis in eye health, the Government must ensure that ICSs can co-ordinate community optometry and hospital ophthalmology services, to ensure that patients are seen promptly and at the right time. I would be grateful for any clarity that the Minister could give on how ICSs can be best placed to deliver those important changes.

In conclusion, we cannot continue to overlook the challenges that ophthalmology is facing. It is the busiest outpatient service and was under extreme pressure before coronavirus. The Opposition have repeatedly called on the Government to be straight with the British public about the current strain in the NHS and to urgently set about addressing it. We have time and again urged the Government to undo some of their more damaging policies on the NHS. Waiting times have soared and patients have been let down before covid, yet there is no detailed plan, and patients, staff and people across the country are now looking to the Government to deliver on their promise to improve NHS care and to drive down waiting times and waiting lists. We look forward to seeing the detail, but as has already been mentioned in the debate, there needs to be a real consideration in the plan for eye health and how waiting times can be driven down. I ask that the Minister reflects on the points made during the debate, because people who are suffering poor eye health need to have reassurances from the Government that they are doing everything possible to address the concerns of healthcare leaders, staff and patients.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate. Before the Christmas recess, the last sitting in Westminster Hall was on surgical fires, and it is a pleasure, so soon after the recess, to be debating with him again.

The prevention, early detection, access to diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions is such an important issue, and we have heard from many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who raised the impact on people’s day-to-day life, on simple steps such as trying to catch a train, and the impact of e-scooters and street pavement furniture. There was also a very moving speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). We cannot replace that insight and knowledge of how living with sight problems has an effect on every aspect of life and the simple improvements that can make a big difference.

There are many conditions that affect the eyes, as we have heard about today, and many of them share common risk factors, including some that are unavoidable, such as age and medical conditions such as diabetes, which the hon. Member for Strangford so eloquently described. However, we have not touched on some lifestyle factors that can impact on eye health—for example, obesity and smoking play their part. After age, smoking is the second-most consistent risk factor for age-related macular degeneration, with an increased risk of up to four times. Obesity is also a risk factor for age-related macular degeneration, but also for diabetic retinopathy, retinal vein occlusions and stroke-related vision loss. Morbid obesity is associated with higher eye pressure, which can increase someone’s risk of glaucoma.

When addressing eye health, it is important to tackle some of the low-hanging fruit of what can be preventable in affecting someone’s eye health. The UK is a world leader in tobacco control, and we remain committed to reducing the harm caused by tobacco. Later this year, we will produce a new tobacco plan that will set out how we will support people to give up smoking or to not start in the first place, because there are still 6 million people in England who smoke, which obviously has a knock-on effect on the possibility of eye problems further down the line.

We are also committed to a healthy living and weight loss management programme through our obesity strategy, building on the progress made on nutrition labelling. New rules on products that are high in fat, salt and sugar will come into force from October this year and, from January next year, we will introduce restrictions on the advertising of such products before the 9 pm watershed. We are also delivering a £100 million investment in promoting healthy lifestyles. In the years to come, all of those measures will have a knock-on effect on the number of people presenting with eye conditions.

That said, as we have heard today, there are many unavoidable causes of eye problems. Diabetes is one of the lead causes, and the diabetic retinopathy screening programme offers annual screening to millions of eligible people with diabetes. I place on record my thanks to all the staff of that screening programme who have carried on during the pandemic, because for the first time in 50 years, diabetic retinopathy is no longer the leading cause of certifiable blindness in adults of working age. That is a tremendous achievement.

There are other causes that can affect people of any age. For children, the healthy child programme sets out the schedule of child health reviews from pregnancy through the first five years of life. That includes examining the eyes of the newborn at six weeks and during the two-year review, as well as recommending that children should be screened for visual impairment between the ages of four and five. As we heard from the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), we know that at all ages, regular sight testing can lead to early detection of eye conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby spoke very well about the importance of the appointment with the optician. Combined with early treatment and prevention, we can prevent people from losing their sight, so today’s message of “Attend your eye tests” is very important indeed.

I thank the Minister for her very positive response. This is not just about a person’s visits to their opticians, but their appointments with their GP as well, especially if they are diabetic like me and attend their GP’s clinic twice a year. They should do a retinopathy test as well: the GP’s clinic can do all the things that can indicate whether that person’s sight is going backwards, staying level, or indeed improving. There are lots of things that people can do, and part of that is attending their GP appointments. Do not miss them: they are equally important.

Absolutely: we have heard today about the impact that overall health has on eye health. We know that NHS sight test numbers were impacted at the peak of the pandemic, but there has been a strong recovery, with 9.7 million sight tests carried out between April and December last year. Again, I thank the NHS, and particularly primary eye care providers, for their efforts.

It is vital that once a problem is detected, individuals have access to timely diagnosis and any necessary treatment. Age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of sight loss in the UK, and is a devastating disease that can seriously impact a person’s life. The vast majority of people with age-related macular degeneration suffer from “dry” degeneration, for which there is currently no effective treatment, although vision aids can reduce its impact. For those with “wet” degeneration, this condition can be far more serious and sight-threatening. There are a number of available treatments for that form of AMD, and I point colleagues to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guidelines: a person should be referred within one day if their condition is considered to be wet active AMD, and offered vascular endothelial growth factor drugs within 14 days of a referral. It is important that patients are able to access that treatment, as indicated by NICE.

Although we do have some effective treatments for macular disease, we do not rest on our laurels. Medicine continues to evolve, and we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) about the potential of sleep masks—evidence is still being collected about that treatment. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, who is the expert in this area, about the exciting developments in stem cell research and the possibilities that they could create in future.

During this time, the NHS has continued to prioritise urgent and life-saving treatments, including for sight-threatening eye conditions. I am pleased that the number of ophthalmology patients seen last October was almost back to a pre-pandemic level.

To help the NHS drive up activity, we have provided £2 billion this year through the elective recovery fund, and a further £5.9 billion of capital funding will support elective recovery, diagnosis and technology. That does include—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) asked about this—the ability to expand capacity for new surgical hubs that will drive through high-volume services, such as cataract surgeries, so that they are high on the agenda in tackling the backlog. The NHS has also been running the £160 million accelerator programme, which includes 3D eye scanners and other innovations that are helping to develop a blueprint for elective activity in the NHS.

Ophthalmology is one of the largest out-patient specialties. Change is needed to ensure the NHS can both be sustainable for the future and deal with the growing numbers of people needing eye care services. To address these challenges, NHS England has developed the national eye care recovery and transformation programme to work across all systems and look at everything from workforce to the services provided. It is working with local systems to prevent irreversible sight loss as a result of delayed treatment.

In recognition of this important work, I am delighted that NHS England is recruiting a national clinical director for eye care. That person will oversee services at a national level, which will filter down to tackle the inequalities and disparities we have heard about in certain parts of the country. Much good work is happening, but it is important that the public health outcomes framework is used to identify gaps in services. The framework tracks the rate of sight loss across the population for three of the commonest causes of preventable sight loss—age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. The data is openly available and is being used to match areas where services and outcomes need to be improved.

I want to touch on the points raised by the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) about her constituent, Darren, and those raised by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I am concerned about issues around laser surgery and the impact they are having. I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, and other colleagues, to discuss that. The Care Quality Commission regulates that area, but I am concerned by the information shared today and I am happy to look at the issue further. It is important that the situation of people with minor eye ailments is not made worse by having surgery that may, or may not, be suitable for their needs.

We have had a good debate today. I hope I have reassured colleagues that eye health procedures, treatment and diagnoses are part of the post-covid recovery process. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby that this is about more than just diagnosing and treating; it is about improving the lives of those with sight loss, to enable them to live the most productive and fulfilling lives they possibly can. I am pleased to hear that the Royal National Institute of Blind People and ACAS were instrumental in helping her and others who are trying to improve the workplace experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington also pointed out that technological changes can have a positive impact but that things such as electric cars can have a negative impact on people with sight loss, as those vehicles are so quiet.

To conclude, maintaining good vision throughout our lives is very important. Some preventable factors, such as smoking and obesity, can help improve eye health, but there are many unavoidable issues that we need to deal with.

Are there plans in any part of the national strategy to remove the financial impediment, so that English, Welsh or Northern Irish people can get a free eye test?

Many people in England qualify for a free eye test. We are not seeing that issue as a barrier to people coming forward, but I have outlined the many measures we are putting in place to improve the outcomes for people with significant sight loss problems. As we emerge from the pandemic, our priority remains tackling the elective backlog and ensuring that we have high-quality, sustainable eye care services for the future.

First, I thank each and every one of the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen and Ladies who have made a contribution. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) referred to the innovative company in his constituency, which I think can help. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) clearly outlined the issues for those who are blind when it comes to obstacles such as street furniture, e-scooters and so on. He also referred to the strategy in his constituency.

I thank the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) so much for what she said. It was a reminder to us all that corrective surgery, unfortunately, does not always work. She referred to its being regulated. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) referred to his own personal experience and to how he has better vision today because of the steps that were taken. He also referred to the eye strategy for the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to the data. Data is critical to all health issues. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the fact that people must attend their optician appointment. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), in a significant contribution, referred to the longer-term investment that is needed. He also said, “Listen to clinical and medical advice and don’t listen to the salesperson.”

I think every one of us was moved by the contribution from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). It was a real step-by-step story of the hon. Lady’s situation, and we thank her for all that she said. She referred to modern technology, buy-in by employers and computer advances.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), in a significant contribution, referred to what is done in Scotland. I wish that we in Northern Ireland perhaps had something similar to Scotland. That is something for us to look at as well. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) referred to a public campaign being needed. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), in a very good contribution, referred to some people waiting more than a year for treatment. He pointed out that all ages are affected, and it is good to remember that it is not just people of a certain generation; it is younger people as well. Waiting times have soared, and people have been let down.

The Minister, in her response, has been incredibly helpful, as she always is. She understands the issues and understands the concerns of each and every one of us here. We said to the Minister—I think the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington also spoke about this—that if we could have a meeting with her, we would certainly do that. In relation to AMD, diabetes and glaucoma, a national eye care director is being put in place. There are certainly significant programmes. The issue is to ensure that those programmes are available across the whole United Kingdom, in every postcode. The Minister is committed and certainly very positive, and we look forward to working with her, all of us together.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of eye health and macular disease.

A1: Peterborough to Blyth

I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please give each other plenty of room when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber. I will call Alicia Kearns to move the motion. I will then call Gareth Davies to make a short speech, and the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of the A1 between Peterborough and Blyth.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The A1 is not fit for purpose. I am not saying that for dramatic effect; that is the case, and it is why we are here today. The A1 is failing us as a critical artery for our country and a critical piece of national infrastructure. Ultimately, it is failing the people of Rutland and Melton. We are tired of heartbreaking accidents and severe delays.

It is between Peterborough and Blyth where the road is most grievously failing our communities. That 72-mile stretch serves 1.9 million people, and the issues are numerous. We have substandard junctions; dangerous right-turn movements across the carriageway; safety issues, including accident blackspots all along the corridor; a lack of alternative routes during closures; severe congestion hotspots, which often lead to queuing on the carriageway; a large number of local junctions and small service areas with extremely poor merging, which I drive through every single week as I go to and from my constituency; and slip roads made of just a handful of metres.

Critically, there is also a lack of safety technology, including CCTV and even SOS telephones, along this section of the road, so those in danger are unable to get the help that they need. As a result, the rate of fatal collisions on this section of the A1 is significantly higher than the strategic road network average for an A road dual carriageway. Over the past five years, 27 deaths have been recorded, and there have been 201 closures—more than one a fortnight. The average clear-up and therefore closure time for an incident is five hours, although more recently the road has been closed for over 10 hours at a time. That is not just an inconvenience for our communities; it is an issue of strategic importance for our economy and our country.

There is only one meaningful solution: to upgrade this section of the A1 to a three-lane motorway standard. Over the Christmas gooch, I was looking at how that would benefit the Government and our country. Forecasts by Midlands Connect found that improvements to the corridor would deliver over £138 million in benefits to the region and the wider economy. The A1 is vital for moving freight across the whole UK. It connects businesses with major ports on the east coast such as Felixstowe, Grimsby, Immingham and—via the M25—Dover, and it unites us as a country, from London to Edinburgh.

At the northern end of the corridor lies Associated British Ports’ Humber port complex, handling £75 billion of goods per annum and forming a vital part of British and international supply chains. By investing in the functioning of the road and improving the reliability of journey times, we can grow our world-leading logistics sector and improve our supply chain resilience. The UK’s logistics sector is clustered all along the A1, and is heavily reliant on good connectivity and high road standards to operate cost-effectively. Heavy goods vehicles make up 25% of all vehicles that use the corridor. That is more than the national average of 12%, so it is more than double the typical trunk road.

I am incredibly proud, as all my colleagues will know, of the reputation of the east midlands for food, drink and agricultural products. We have the largest concentration of food manufacturing, storage and distribution in the whole of England. Positioned at the heart of a supply chain worth over £4 billion, the people of Rutland, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire grow over 15% of the UK’s food. Investing in those vital upgrades to the A1 will reduce costs to the agri-food sector, speed things up, get people moving, give businesses the confidence to grow, and encourage a greater amount of onshoring in sectors such as agriculture along the corridor. It would also allow local authorities to be more strategic in the east midlands in how they use available land.

Those upgrades are all the more necessary when we consider that the east midlands has long been stifled by under-investment in critical infrastructure. Despite our amazing potential, spending per head on transport for the last 20 years has been 60% less than the UK average. In 2020-21, the east midlands received the lowest spending per head in the entire country—the lowest for any region. If we were funded at a level equivalent to the UK average, we would have an extra £1 billion a year to spend on transport in the east midlands, which would revolutionise our entire area.

The state of the A1 is not just endangering our residents but holding back growth in the counties of Rutland and Leicestershire, and across the country. How can we deliver more goods and boost growth across the UK when this vital artery is constantly choked by delays and accidents? I ask the Minister to support Highways England to deliver a modernisation programme with urgent safety improvements within the road investment strategy 2, or RIS2, period. The closure of substandard junctions, the provision of a concrete central barrier and better active traffic management would improve road safety considerably.

As chair of the A1 MPs working group, I ask the Minister to work with all my colleagues, many of whom were unable to come today—two have valiantly turned up—to help us upgrade the A1 in the long term to a three-lane, motorway-standard road all the way from Peterborough to Blyth. My neighbours and I are united on this issue, our councils are united on this issue and this is precisely the kind of long-term infrastructure project that will generate growth as we recover from covid.

Levelling up the A1 can be a flagship programme for this Government, because it perfectly encapsulates the levelling-up agenda. It will level up our transport options, level up the safety of our communities, level up opportunity for our businesses, level up connectivity across our nation, level up opportunities to export and level up the east midlands, which, for too long, has not seen the investment it deserves.

I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for securing this debate on one of the top issues that has plagued my area for many years. Since my selection in July 2019, it has probably been one of the top three issues I hear about on doorsteps whenever I am out and about. It is important to my constituents not just because the A1 is a key arterial strategic road for my constituency, but because it is a key arterial road for our entire country. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are incredible economic benefits to seeing improvements on this road. I want to focus on two aspects that are very specific to Grantham and Stamford.

There are clearly issues, as my hon. Friend has said. Almost daily, there are news reports that there has been a bump, a scrape or a serious accident. That has a knock-on impact on our villages, causing congestion and diverting valuable Lincolnshire Police resource away from fighting crime. People just want to get around the place—they want to get to work; they want to get to school—safely and without delay.

Last June, I conducted a survey of Colsterworth village, which is right on the edge of the A1. The message from constituents was clear: all of them felt unsafe, but they were very clear about two issues that they would like fixed. First, we have some of the shortest slip roads in the country. Secondly, we have deathtrap crossovers that are an absolute nightmare when there are long vehicles trying to cross four lanes on a 70-mile-an-hour road. That is not to say that we should not be ambitious and look in the long term to create a three-lane A1(M) on my stretch of the A1, but my constituents were clear that they want action now on what are, frankly, pretty minor improvements.

Who is responsible? It is not actually Ministers—Ministers have provided significant funding to National Highways, which is the body responsible. There are two funding pots of note—RIS2 funding, which my hon. Friend mentioned, of £27 billion or thereabouts for strategic road improvements over a long period, such as those my hon. Friend mentioned; and the £936 million designated funds pot. That funding pot is critical to what we are talking about today, as it is specifically for safety and congestion measures, to tackle things like the crossovers and the length of slip roads.

Significant funding has been given to National Highways, and it is the internal bureaucracy of that organisation that is holding up the safety improvements that the people of Grantham and Stamford really want and need. I ask two things of the Minister today. It cannot be right that National Highways applies the same internal process to approve small funding amounts for minor improvements as for multibillion-pound upgrades to the A1. Different processes are needed for the different types of upgrades we are talking about, specific to the designated fund pot. It is crackers that there is a blanket process, despite massive changes and deliverable timelines for the improvements.

Secondly, could there be a threshold that Government can apply to National Highways to say that, if it is about bumps and scrapes and closing crossovers and slipovers, we can have an expedited process as part of designated funds? I urge the Minister to look at National Highways and its internal bureaucracy, because that is what is causing the most angst to my constituents.

It is my pleasure to support my hon. Friends the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) in today’s debate. I first raised this issue in a debate here in 2017, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was the Transport Secretary. It is one that has bedevilled our three counties for many years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said, the A1 is one of the most important arterial routes in the east midlands and the whole country, and has been since it was built in Roman times. In recent years, it has become heavily congested and the site of accidents and fatalities significantly above the national average.

The debate I first held on this issue, shortly after I was elected, followed a spate of fatalities, including, notably, a constituent of the former Member for Grantham, whose current MP sits beside me, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford.

I want to raise three issues. First, I support the proposition that our part of the A1 should in time become a motorway. It does not make sense that this key arterial route, through an important part of the midlands, connecting a number of cities and ports, is not a motorway. Secondly, I emphasise the point that, because of its history, a number of the slip roads on to the A1 from villages and towns that we have the pleasure of representing, are very short. That leaves them in a dangerous position, leading to constant accidents, delays and, sadly, fatalities. I strongly urge the Minister to consider instructing the Highways Agency to conduct the kind of work that has been discussed, to ensure that those slip roads are safe, and that the short-term improvements required are done as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, and most importantly for me as MP for Newark, I urge the Minister to take forward as quickly as possible the major investment in the dualling of the A46, which brings with it a major upgrade of the interchange between that road and the A1 around Newark. That will ensure that the dangerous slip roads there are made safe, making a big difference to the level of congestion. It is at that set of interchanges and slip roads that so many accidents and delays occur.

This is my specific question to the Minister. When will she be able to publish the final route of that new dualling of the A46? We have been working closely with the Highways Agency as it prepares those plans, and it has promised to do so within weeks. It would be extremely welcome for my constituents if she could do that this month, then we can analyse those plans and comment as they proceed to a public inquiry. If that major investment is made, we will see the first fruits of the campaign to improve safety on the A1.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I would like to start by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), not just for this debate but for founding and chairing the working group of MPs to improve the A1. We have heard today how important and historic the A1 is, particularly for the midlands. We have also heard eloquently described how vital the midlands are, particularly the east midlands, for the UK and its prosperity.

It is a pleasure to respond to the points raised during today’s debate, and I am grateful that the debate was secured as it gives me an opportunity to provide an update on some of the priorities in the short term. I have also heard loud and clear from Members today about the long-term aim of full motorway status. I am not the roads Minister, but I know that the roads Minister in the other place, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, is very willing to meet with Members to discuss this in more detail. She will also be keen to discuss some of the challenges that I have heard regarding National Highways, and the bureaucracy that has been referred to, the expediting request and a proportionality request for schemes to be treated in different ways. I will endeavour to make sure that meeting does happen.

The A1 is one of the country’s vital north-south links; it plays such an important part in the way that people and goods move around the country. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), through his previous role as communities Secretary, understands the importance of good infrastructure and roads for the prosperity of our communities. It was good to hear him speak on this important matter for his constituency.

Between 2020 and 2025 we are spending £24 billion on the strategic road network. The core principle in the road investment strategy is to create exactly what has been called for today: a road network that is safe, reliable and efficient for everyone, and sets a long term strategic vision. I commend the A1 working group for aligning with that aspiration, because transport connectivity is not just local and regional—it is important for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government are aware of the economic case for upgrading the road network for the entirety of the UK and its economy.

Investment in our strategic road network is focused on the network as a whole, and how various roads interact to provide a reliable network for all users. Some of the schemes we are committed to will have a positive impact on the A1 around the east midlands, and enhance the experience of road users. Those road improvements will provide better links to the A1 and improve the resilience of the network, while boosting business productivity and economic growth by providing a much more reliable road network and improved local access. I have heard much today about the right turns; I understand that that is part of the key priorities in the short to medium term. The reliability of journey times on the strategic road network is particularly important for all road users. While road users recognise that incidents happen, they also expect them to be cleared as soon as possible, and the frequency of incidents to be minimised.

National Highways regularly undertakes route safety studies across the network; the most recent study of the A1 in the midlands was conducted in September 2020. This included a review of the personal injuries, collisions and casualties recorded on this part of the network. As well as fulfilling an important monitoring purpose, the information is used to identify potential sites for safety improvement schemes. National Highways is also looking at 14 more potential safety schemes between Peterborough and Blyth.

I have remembered something that I did not include in my speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) could not be here today because he is dealing with a matter in his constituency. He wanted me to relay his concerns on this as well.

I thank my hon. Friend for relaying that. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) spoke to me earlier this week ahead of this debate. I know he would like to be here because this is a debate about the area between Peterborough and Blyth, which I know he is incredibly passionate about and works hard to improve. He and I have had that conversation, and I expect that he will want to join the meeting with Baroness Vere.

I briefly talked about the 40 more potential safety schemes between Peterborough and Blyth, which include the junctions near Colsterworth, Little Ponton, Barrowby and North Muskham, among others. I firmly believe that good transport is a catalyst for enterprise and growth. Better connectivity means greater economic opportunity and all the benefits that that brings to communities.

I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is passionate about investment in the east midlands, so I want to turn to some of our wider plans for transport in the region, in addition to the work on the A1. She referred to levelling up and to the benefit that the UK appreciates from the east midlands, mentioning the fantastic food economy that is flourishing in the area. Levelling up all parts of our United Kingdom is at the centre of the Government’s agenda and as we build back better from the pandemic, we will publish our levelling-up White Paper setting out new and bold policy interventions, giving local control to drive economic recovery. Transport is key to that, and that has been explained by Members today. The Government understand and are prioritising that.

We are investing in transport across the east midlands: in its cities, towns, villages and everywhere in between. We are investing in the key local roads that people and businesses rely on, providing £50 million towards the recently opened Lincoln eastern bypass. Through the levelling-up fund, another £50 million has been allocated for access roads to the South Derby growth zone and Infinity Garden Village. In Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, we are supporting the county councils to trial on-demand bus services, improving connections for people in rural and suburban areas. We are seeing investment from the transforming cities fund start to take shape. It includes a brilliant new e-bike hire scheme in Leicester, as well as plans for an iconic new foot and cycle bridge over the River Trent in Nottingham.

We believe, and I know Members here believe, that better transport connectivity will create new and exciting opportunities for all places, helping them realise their full potential. As we look to the future, we have taken significant steps in planning future improvements to the National Highways network. We have just finished the formal evidence-gathering phase of the third round of route strategies, which are an important input alongside strategic studies, informing decisions about investment on the strategic road network beyond 2025. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked a specific question on the timeframe, and I will endeavour to write to him with that answer.

National Highways will publish the results of the route strategies in its strategic road network initial report later this year. Shortly after that, the Department for Transport will then consult on the SRN initial report and proposals for the draft road investment strategy. I am excited by the potential of the east midlands, particularly given the ambition of MPs, as we have heard today, and bodies such as Transport for the East Midlands and Midlands Connect, working alongside national partners. The way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton consistently and effectively campaigns for her area is testament to the benefits we are going to see in the east midlands.

I will finish by reaffirming my thanks to colleagues for this insightful debate. I hope my hon. Friend is satisfied by my responses and the meeting that she will be able to have with the roads Minister to discuss the matters in more detail, and possibly with National Highways as well, as it is a critical delivery partner. I hope I have made it clear that we recognise the vital importance of not just the A1 but the entirety of the strategic road network and the wider needs of the east midlands. I thank colleagues for their enthusiasm for the east midlands and their effective campaigning for better transport connectivity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Ultrafast Broadband: Devon and Somerset

[CHRISTINA REES in the Chair]

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with current Government guidelines and those of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the roll-out of ultrafast broadband in Devon and Somerset.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Although in many ways being the MP for North Devon is an immense privilege, our broadband connectivity is not one of the constituency’s finer features. On the doorsteps during the election campaign of 2019, getting broadband done was second only to getting Brexit done.

Ever since, I have taken every opportunity to raise the plight of my constituents’ poor connectivity. I have taken on chairing the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication, where we also campaign tirelessly for better connectivity in colleagues’ not-spots, including the majority of Devon and Somerset, which is more not-spotty than not.

The sorry state of broadband across Devon and Somerset stems back many years, many contracts and, in my mind, a decision by Connecting Devon and Somerset in 2015 to reject BT’s £35 million bid to connect our counties. BT was clear then that it could not meet the 95% superfast target by 2017; here we are in 2022, with south-west England still at only 92% and my constituency at just 87% connected. That decision set off a chain of events that I suspect colleagues across Devon and Somerset will also reference today. It has sent our constituencies to the bottom of the superfast pile. My constituency, at 607, does not win the race to the bottom in Devon and Somerset, with central Devon in at number 643. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) could not be with us today, but wanted me to ensure that I mentioned his concerns, with his constituency languishing at 631.

Although CDS does its utmost to connect us, the nature of the contracting process has not attracted the big boys of broadband to our contracts. We remain a technology roll-out behind much of the country, with confusion as gigabit rolls out alongside superfast. I am not sure many residents are clear which fibre is which, or how much we may be missing out on by not even having superfast.

CDS notes that the UK’s superfast programme was predicated on an assumption that the commercial sector would deliver for two thirds of premises, leaving the programme to deliver the remaining third. In the main, across the CDS region, that ratio has been inverted, with CDS needing to deliver closer to two thirds; in more rural parts of the region, CDS has on occasion delivered more than 80% coverage.

Bizarrely, our gigabit availability, relative to the rest of the country, is nothing like so poor, reaching more than 27% of the constituency, ranking us at 399. The commercially viable parts of my constituency, like so many all over the country, are being fibred—over-fibred—offering great competition to those constituents who live in conurbations. We need to find a way to connect rural Britain, as well. Why is choice only found in town or city? My concerns about being over-fibred are different from many. It happens when the CDS contracts overlap with an extended commercial build.

The complexity of the process of connecting Devon and Somerset cannot be overestimated. I know we have to look forward and cannot change the past, but the future looks as though it will go the same way—and that we can influence. Delivering gigabit-capable broadband to the depths of Devon and Somerset is a monumental engineering task. It is clearly not commercially viable, and reaching the ultimate target of 100% gigabit capability is not happening any time soon.

Pondering today’s debate, I was keen not to repeat the anecdotes about persuading Openreach to connect schools, charities and all of Lynton and Lynmouth, using the funicular railway as home for the fibre, but it would be remiss not to mention how the voucher scheme does work, as Lynton and Lynmouth have shown and Chulmleigh will show.

However, Lynton and Lynmouth were the subject of a special Openreach project. Together, they form the fourth biggest town in my constituency, yet they were an Openreach special rural build. Accessing the vouchers has worked well, but when a constituency has 93 villages, as mine does, it is difficult to know how many of them will access the voucher scheme and make it work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that local councils have an important role to play in promoting community fibre partnerships? West Devon Borough Council has recruited a community broadband officer, who is now recruiting broadband champions throughout the small villages of west Devon. Cannot local councils play an important role in promoting community fibre partnerships?

I agree entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend, who is my constituency neighbour. There is much that our local councils can do, and are already doing, to support the work of Connecting Devon and Somerset, and Openreach. Where it works, as it is now in Chulmleigh, in my constituency, it works incredibly well. My right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency shares many features with mine: we have lots of very small villages. I am concerned about these hard-to-reach areas, which I will come to.

I and many colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who could not attend the debate, are keen to pass on our grateful thanks to Openreach for its help with these partnerships and for extending its commercial build. We hope that Openreach will be able to extend further into the fields and moors of our beautiful constituencies.

The target of 85% gigabit-capable broadband coverage by 2025 leaves me fearful that Devon and Somerset could be the missing 15%. Our rural constituencies are not suddenly going to become commercially viable. The £5 billion funding pot is there, but the contracts, the engineers and the plan to infill is not. Project Gigabit is committed to deliver, and I know Building Digital UK and CDS are committed to delivering, but we cannot infill until we know where the commercial building will be, which is still years away. We need to find a way of looking at rural Britain to redefine commerciality for our rurality.

The very hard-to-reach premises, otherwise known as rural Devon and Somerset, are not currently served by any CDS contracts or commercial plans. They are the most remote and rural premises, and will not get any less so as time goes on. The voucher schemes and community fibre partnerships are simply not viable, as the cost per premises will far exceed the support available. Yes, there has been a consultation, but we need action and some creative solutions. I do not want to forecast that we will become the 15% that is not connected, but that increasingly seems to be the direction of travel.

CDS itself is keen to accelerate the deployment of resources from Project Gigabit, particularly relating to the very hard-to-reach premises. This piecemeal marketplace makes the entire situation more complex. CDS asks for clarity, alongside support for ever-smaller schemes and community-led solutions. My own hope is that one of the bigger players in the market will look at Devon and Somerset as an opportunity to show its understanding of the challenges we face in rural Britain, and sweep through to prevent us becoming ever more digitally divided.

When I talk about levelling up North Devon, the infrastructure I am talking about is not road or rail, but broadband. Our poor connectivity holds everything back. We are never going to get geographically less remote, but we could be far better digitally connected, making so many more things accessible. If we are to level up Britain, then levelling up rural access to ultrafast broadband is essential. I do not expect a six-lane motorway to Ilfracombe, but to unlock the potential of rural Devon and Somerset we need look no further than access to ultrafast broadband as the bedrock of our levelling-up journey.

Today, we are speaking about becoming gigabit capable, but what about the shocking fact that the south-west has almost twice the proportion of homes below the broadband universal service obligation than the national average? We have 4.2%, as opposed to 2.5% nationally. In west Devon, 12.4% are below the universal service obligation, which is the eighth worst in the country. The issue is the depth of this divide, the length of time it has prevailed and the fact there is not a clear plan to fix it. I know we have to wait for commercial builds, and I know more is being built this way than originally planned, but I have schools whose catchments are twice the size of Birmingham. The geography is immense. I would like to invite the Minister to come and see the challenges we are up against, as from Westminster it is hard to ever fully understand what rurality and a digital divide look like.

The complexity of connecting Devon and Somerset is not to be underestimated. I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who listens to me bang this drum: the suppliers such as Jurassic, Openreach, Airband, Truespeed and Wessex Internet, alongside the tireless work of CDS and BDUK. But just as a gigabit is really fast, we would like our rural roll-out to go a bit faster—100% superfast would be a great start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for introducing the debate so well and so thoroughly. Let me reassure her and other Members that there is cross-party support for the introduction of high-speed, decent, accessible and affordable broadband internet right across Devon and Somerset.

North Devon and Plymouth have very different geographies and communities, but we all need the entire south-west region to be better connected not only by transport but by internet. The pandemic has changed the context—it is important to mention that. More people are moving to the far south-west, not only because we live in a beautiful, wonderful part of the world with a generous quality of life but because the high cost of living in big cities does not need to apply when working from home is increasingly the norm.

But many people who move to the south-west find that our slow internet speed is an inhibitor to their delivering the job they were hoping to do from the west country. That sets us back as a region. It also reinforces the stereotype that the west country is somehow slow, or slower than the rest of the country. That could not be further from the truth. We want to deliver growth, more jobs and a zero carbon economy. Faster internet is a foundation stone for all those things.

I echo the calls from the hon. Lady for greater political priority for this issue. The Government’s entire majority is built out of MPs in the south-west of England. I would like that voice to speak louder and clearer to Ministers, to tell them that we deserve our fair share as a region. Levelling up is not just something that should affect the north and the midlands. The south-west needs levelling up. Rural communities need levelling up. For the past two years I have been in the fortunate position of serving in the shadow Cabinet, speaking on rural affairs. As a west country lad, it is personal to me—my sister is a farmer in north Cornwall, where we have internet problems as well, although Cornwall enjoys faster connections than Devon, thanks to a lot of European Union cash in the past.

We need to ensure that the divide between urban and rural communities is closed. Otherwise, rural communities will not be able to achieve their potential. Young people will be priced out of not only jobs but housing and opportunities. Increasingly, people who want to get online will move out of those communities, creating a drain of the talent we need to prosper. Rural Britain really does deserve better, including better internet.

There are three aspects I want to touch on: first, there is no point having high-speed internet, be it superfast or gigabit-capable, if the families living in the properties that the pipes run alongside cannot afford to access them. That is an especially acute problem in the south-west, where we have high levels of poverty and deprivation. It is often presumed that rural communities are affluent, but you cannot eat a view.

In our rural and urban communities there is a real problem with people being able to afford devices. It is estimated that 9% of families in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. In Plymouth, especially in some of our poorer communities such as around Stonehouse or parts of Devonport, access to data as well as to devices is holding people back. During the pandemic, young people were unable to access Google Classroom online because they did not have a laptop in the family. An entire family of children sharing a single laptop to learn is one problem, but the family may be unable to afford the data that goes along with it.

Data poverty is something that worries me. The cost of rolling out broadband in the south-west would be, to a certain extent, passed on to the consumer—through not only public subsidy, but the prices that we will pay in our bills. I worry that high costs and the difficulty of connecting rural economies will eventually fall on the bill payer. That will force low-income families out of the opportunities that gigabit-capable internet provides. Plymouth City Council estimated that someone without access to high-speed internet during the pandemic would achieve one grade lower than they otherwise would have. That is a stark view of the potential for our children, and we need to address it.

My next point is, I realise, not quite within the scope of the Minister’s Department, so I hope she will forgive me. Not only should we look at laying more superfast and gigabit-capable pipes for properties and businesses; we should also consider our transport network. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and myself have been pushing the Department for Transport to look at using the GSM-R masts that run alongside our trainline. The trainline in the west country is very beautiful, and there is plenty of time to enjoy the beauty, because it is very slow.

The GSM-R masts are a safety feature that accompany the entirety of the UK rail network. GSM-R is basically 1G. The proposal we have been arguing for, on a cross-party basis, is that there should be work with Network Rail and its western route to upgrade the GSM-R masts to be either 4G or 5G capable. The signal would be targeted alongside the trainline. It would not be, as with a normal mobile phone mast, providing a full 360° coverage. For many communities in the west country, the railway is their connectivity. There are many communities alongside the railway, especially on the mainline, which connects Exeter to Plymouth. The GSM-R mast upgrade would provide not only high-speed internet for people travelling on the trains, but access to the internet for communities living alongside the railway.

We were hoping that the Department for Transport would approve that project. Network Rail wanted to run a £5 million demonstrator project to show that it would work. It had chosen Dawlish, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot—a place that became famous when part of it fell into the sea during the storms of 2013—to demonstrate that the different topographies and technologies on that route would show it working.

Sadly, even though the money is within Network Rail’s budget, and even though the project was supported by Network Rail, the Department chose not to allow it to spend that money. That was disappointing. It would cost around £100 million to update all of our GSM-R masts in the west country, but we first have to demonstrate that it works. Could the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Department for Transport to understand why this project—which is non-partisan, would make a big difference and would speak to the Government’s levelling-up ambitions for the south-west—could not be explored further, especially when Network Rail and Network Rail Telecom themselves are keen to deliver it? It would be an opportunity worth exploring.

I would like to encourage the new shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), to be equally ambitious with the roll-out of rural broadband. There is always a temptation to believe that it is the norm for urban to come first and rural to come second. It should not be so. I hope that, in putting forward an ambitious manifesto at the next election, he will be as confident and bold with the connectivity ambitions for the south-west as he would be for any urban area.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be following an outside-in, rather than inside-out, approach? We are almost approaching the whole broadband issue back to front in order to get everyone connected.

The hon. Member for North Devon has made a powerful case since being elected, and I hope she remains a thorn in the side of every Minister that holds this post to ensure that we get there. We do need to start with the ambition of every home and every business being able to access high-speed internet—be it superfast or gigabit capable. If we do not have that ambition, as a region we will be accepting a poorer deal, and we must never accept that. The south-west deserves the very best in the country, and we should not be afraid to call for it.

There is an objective here that can be met. The hon. Member for North Devon made clear in her remarks that the contractual relationship, especially for our rural areas, is not delivering—nor will it deliver next year, the year after, nor, potentially, the year after that. As we get further behind those deadlines, we are further behind other economies in the UK that could be outperforming us, simply because of access to the internet. That would put south-west businesses at a disadvantage.

To conclude my remarks, there is strong support in the west country for better internet. We are an ambitious region that wants to deliver the benefits that greater connectivity can bring, not only for business but for education and innovation. We have a strong case for it, and I hope the Minister will look kindly on the remarks that have been made, but also pick up with DFT colleagues on how we can get that train-line connectivity. If our train journeys are to be slow, let us at least make them productive.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who made many important points on an issue which affects so many across the south-west, particularly in more rural areas. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this debate. In many ways, I wish we did not need to debate this issue. We have been here many times before and we need to get it well and truly sorted.

To me, this is an issue about competition. The south-west needs to compete with the rest of the country. Three-quarters of our young people leave Somerset after their education. Our businesses tell me that to stay in Somerset they need to connect not just through better roads and rail services but through the digital highway. Those businesses and the young people they employ will remain with us only if they can achieve their dreams rendered in full digital glory.

If I may digress, looking across Somerset we see dozens of little hills dotted around; mounds bulging out of the earth. I am sure Members will know that these beacon mounds gave Norman Britain a natural early warning system. When a threat was seen, they would light a fire on top of the nearest beacon and broadcast their concerns across the county in minutes. People would stop their wattling and daubing, grab a pitchfork and be battle-ready in moments. You would think that, 1,000 years later, communications would have improved, but for many homes and businesses you would be wrong. It would probably be quicker to use these ancient beacon hills to deliver a message than to try to fire up their broadband router.

With endless faults and starts, an ever-changing roll call of companies involved in rolling out ultra-fast broadband across Somerset has achieved much, but there are still many pockets of resistance. Many areas across my constituency lag far behind. A lot of work has been done. I think that 46% of premises nationally in the UK are gibabited up, but Devon and Somerset fall way behind. In my patch, only 13% of premises are fully connected. In my constituency, Cury Rivel, Sparkford and Langport fall into the worst 10% of areas for download speed and connectivity. They literally lag far behind, and I see this frustration in my inbox every day.

The pandemic has highlighted the huge productivity gap between urban and rural areas that we have heard about. With ever more people working from home, digital connectivity should be like water or electricity—an essential utility.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree with me that the border area between our constituencies—places such as Lopen and Over Stratton—are perfect examples of areas that are falling between the cracks and that there is sometimes a lack of understanding between what the universal service obligation can bring and what can be done through vouchers? Getting people on to the proper gigabit service through vouchers is what they need to be able to engage with the digital future that my hon. Friend mentioned earlier.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I think people are very confused about the voucher system. We continue to lag behind in developing these schemes. A great many small and medium-sized businesses in those areas drive the economy, and their entrepreneurial zeal needs to be fully unleashed. Connecting Devon and Somerset has achieved a great deal. Apparently, we have more premises connected than any other English programme. Coverage is now 90%, and more than 300,000 homes and businesses do have decent broadband, but there is still a great deal more to be done. Rural communities suffer from a productivity gap compared to urban areas, and the answer lies in technology and infrastructure.

The Government were elected on a promise to level up the UK, and I hugely welcome the investment we have had in physical infrastructure across the south-west; we are beginning to see the results of that. We are starting to bridge that physical divide, but it is bridging the digital divide that will really unlock our counties’ vast economic potential.

The problem is that every day that divide grows and we lag further and further behind, which makes it harder and harder to catch up. I say to the Minister that our entrepreneurial zeal needs to be fully unleashed, and digital connectivity is the fibrous ligament that binds us together and acts as a springboard to the future. Like our Norman beacon hills linking villages across the west country, those ligaments strengthen us, our businesses and our communities. They will allow us to react and respond to the needs of tomorrow, so let us grab that opportunity.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). She has been a fastidious campaigner on this issue and has made extraordinary moves to bring to the attention of the Government the digital connectivity deficit we have in Devon and Somerset.

Over the course of the past two years, digital connectivity has been more important than ever. From working at home, to speaking to loved ones, to providing at-home education, the internet and digital connectivity are not luxuries but necessities. The pandemic has highlighted the blackspots and notspots all over our respective constituencies. Thankfully—there must be something to be thankful for over the past two years—that has created a better understanding of the need and the scale of the challenge we all face.

If I can be nakedly focused on my own constituency during this debate, Totnes in South Devon has 52,500 premises, which breaks down as 19,023 residential properties and 23,608 commercial properties with superfast broadband. If my maths is correct, that leaves an estimated 9,056 premises in need of improved digital services. I always feel rather guilty mentioning those statistics because they are considerably better than my colleague’s in North Devon, but they do point to the need and lack of digital connectivity for so many of my constituents.

I understand that Connecting Devon and Somerset is looking to cover those premises through a new £38 million programme, plus the £18.7 million of Government funding. That is all very welcome, and the take-up of those services is essential, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) just mentioned. In so many instances, we have seen Openreach and other providers create the network for people to plug into, but they have yet to so do. As I understand it, in Devon there is a 70% take-up, which is considerably better than the national average of 61.4%. While that has increased, how will the Minister encourage people to take up the internet connectivity available to them and how can we close that gap of 30%?

I am delighted that Openreach has launched an ultra-reliable gigabit-capable full fibre programme for Dartmouth. Work is already under way, and I look forward to seeing the other areas around South Devon included as the programme expands. Digital connectivity is essential to modern living. Its roll-out helps businesses, attracts investment, and, perhaps most important, connects us all with those we have been so far from over the past two years. I look forward to hearing what more can be done.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked that Conservative south-west MPs speak with a loud voice. I would say that Conservative south-west MPs have spoken with an incredibly loud voice on road and rail infrastructure; on levelling up; on second homes; on fishing and farming. We will happily continue to speak with a unified, loud voice to ensure that the south-west is not overlooked, that our networks are improved, and that the opportunities that come with improving them can be delivered for all.

I, too, am delighted that we are having this debate today, because broadband and the connectivity it gives us in the west country is crucial because we are significantly underserved in just about every other infrastructure one can possibly conceive. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has articulated some of the challenges on our railway. It must not be forgotten that we have one railway line, and that is it—so the points that he makes are even more important. Communication and connectivity across all infrastructure is mission critical for us in the west country. This is not something that is just a nice-to-have; it is, almost, not a must-have, because in all of this, Devon and Somerset have become left-behind counties in so many ways. A broadband solution to this problem would significantly change the position that these two counties find themselves in.

We are left behind economically. We have some of the lowest productivity rates in the country and some of the lowest skill levels in the country. As I have said, we also have some of the most challenged transport links. Buses are lovely if you can get one; if you think you can come back the same day, dream on—it will not happen. People are therefore very isolated. It is not just those people who have chosen to retire—elderly people who have maybe lived there with their families for all of their lives—but also our working-age community. It is those such as our farmers and policemen who, without connectivity and communication, are disadvantaged, not only in terms of doing their job but in terms of their mental health, never mind their physical health. We have one of the highest rates of mental health challenges in the country.

We are the most challenged, and there is one thing that we can do nothing about: distance. We are where we are; the roads are where they are and the train line is where it is—we are the left-behind counties. The Government policy on broadband is not up to scratch, and does not address this problem. If levelling up is to mean anything at all, then that has to change.

What is it that has to change? Hon. Members have made a number of very important detailed suggestions, and all of those should be taken forward with willingness and energy. However, the priority needs to change. The priority must be the disadvantaged, not the easy-to-fix; it must be the hamlet that seems to be completely unreachable and—dare I say it—in the minds of the Government, unimportant. That is the wrong mindset. We know that these people matter, and we know that more and more people actually want to live in our beautiful countryside. Why should they not be able to achieve that? We are not going to do this in a cost-effective way without a very different approach to investment in innovation.

When we look at the problem, it is not just about fixing broadband or broadband roll-outs and all the challenges of technology associated with that; it is about asking what new technologies would better enable communication. We increasingly see a merging of what is happening in the mobile sphere and what is happening with broadband—the two are coming together. Indeed, if we really start blue sky thinking, I am sure that there will be a third piece of technology to solve this interesting but very challenging problem. I would urge the Government, whatever they choose to do, to be forward looking and look at broadband, mobile technology and everything else that is out there with a view to speed, efficiency and economy, and to look at those who are hardest to reach and most adversely affected as a priority.

In the short term, we must look at what we are going to do to meet this broadband challenge. I suggest that with the best will in the world, fixing fibre to cabinet is only the beginning of the problem, because as we all know, people’s distance from a cabinet is the real challenge. In rural communities, that distance is even further, and that issue—“Who is going to pay for it, and what are we going to do about it?”—has to be addressed. At the moment, we are looking at old-fashioned technology and how we replace copper. Those innovative, very clever scientists must have a better way of dealing with this. They must come up with that solution, and the Government must invest in it very soon.

In the end, this is about mindset, and it is more important than anything else that the mindset changes to “It can be done, and it does matter.” We must see investment in broadband as an investment for growth; for greater productivity, which benefits the country as a whole; for better education; for a higher-skilled workforce; and, most importantly, for better health outcomes. A change in direction on the Government’s part is the right thing to do. It is not an optional extra: life chances literally depend on it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and to see the Welsh so well represented in a debate on Somerset and Devon. I will start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby): I can sense her frustration, and that of many other colleagues on the Government Benches, with the scale of the challenge that is faced across rural communities in Devon and Somerset and beyond. We could talk to many Members from rural parts of the United Kingdom—whether the north of Scotland, the south coast, or the beautiful counties of Somerset and Devon—who would express the frustration of their constituents with the delays in rural broadband roll-out.

As I said to the Minister just last week, I want to be clear that as the newly appointed shadow Minister for media, data and digital infrastructure, I will do all I can to bring together Members from all parties in this place to help deliver the digital revolution our communities are crying out for. Simply put, we cannot sit idly by while other nations outflank and out-manoeuvre us in the cyberspace race. As Members may know—I will come back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised about the ambitious manifesto that we have put forward—I have long campaigned on digital safety and connectivity. Indeed, speaking as a Welsh MP with a semi-rural seat, the constituency of Ogmore, the digital disparity in Britain could not be more stark from my own casework and lived experience of living in my constituency. In Ogmore, download speeds lag behind the rest of the UK, with gigabit availability paltry at 13.3%: downloadability is further behind in my constituency than in that of the hon. Member for North Devon and many other MPs who have spoken today. I say to the hon. Lady that in a very genuine sense, I get it, and really want to make sure that when Labour forms the next Government, we improve connectivity and broadband roll-out across the United Kingdom.

As has been mentioned, the pandemic has accelerated our economy’s digital evolution in ways that we could not have foreseen, especially in rural communities such as those in Devon and Somerset. Businesses, families, schools, and a plethora of previously in-person clubs and gatherings have had to embrace the virtual realm—some to thrive, others to survive—and amid that mass migration online, all Members taking part in this debate will have first-hand experience of constituents contacting us about poor broadband connectivity. Poor rural broadband is no longer a mere frustration—a first-world problem, as such things are often badged on social media. Poor connectivity does not just impact the ability to stream entertainment or to game online: it is now a barrier to learning, healthcare or running a household. In many cases, the internet is people’s sole means of engaging with friends and loved ones, so the anger of those who have shoddy connections comes from a place of deep disappointment, now transformed into a source of real anger. After years of being promised ultrafast broadband, swathes of the country are still without. It is imperative that those promises are delivered across all nations and regions of the UK. Only when that happens can the Government talk meaningfully about having levelled up our infrastructure.

The Labour party has long embraced the white heat of technology. We know that harnessing the power of the perpetual digital revolution can unlock people’s aspirations and transform our nation’s economy for the better. Labour knows that because in Government we did not just talk a good game, we delivered on it. The last UK Labour Government established the Communications Act 2003, charting a path for the UK’s emergence into the digital world for the decade. By 2009, Labour had overseen the roll-out of first-generation broadband to around 13 million UK households at a pace that few believed possible. We did that with an unapologetic focus on growing connectivity and a clear story about why we were doing it: to create wealth and prosperity for all parts of the UK, including communities in Somerset and Devon.

Since March 2020, we have lived through a period of extraordinary change in how we interact with each other, and how we work and do business. Digital networks have enabled us to see loved ones, access school resources and book our weekly shop virtually. Words such as “Zoom” and “Teams” now act as shorthand for meetings, whether or not we enjoy them. Had this pandemic struck 30 years ago, none of this would have been achievable. In truth, if it had struck 20 years ago, we would have been similarly hamstrung. It is therefore unconscionable that some communities are still living in the 1990s when it comes to their internet connections.

A Government failure to harness the power to direct rapid roll-out of superfast broadband continues to blight our country and many rural communities. When the Conservative party came to power in 2010, it inherited a world-leading position from the UK Labour Government. What followed was a decade of shambolic mismanagement, writ large for all to see, with false promises, missed targets and shifting goalposts—goodness me, there have been many! There were dial-up solutions when high-speed decisions were sorely needed.

The much-heralded reset that was pledged in 2019 by the then incoming Prime Minster turned to dust in record time. We were promised full-fibre broadband by 2025, and the previous target of 2033 was branded “laughably unambitious” by the Prime Minister. As has become the norm with this Prime Minister and his Government, however, their target was subsequently downgraded to full gigabit broadband by 2025. Although Ministers assured the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the commitment was still there, within weeks that target was again downgraded to 85% gigabit broadband by 2025. That decision would be laughable if its impact did not seriously affect so many communities.

Rural broadband roll-out is yet another example of incompetent management by the Government. Not too long ago, the Government waxed lyrical about their fabled rural broadband scheme and gigabit voucher scheme, but as the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned, those schemes have more relaunches than users. Things that looked good on paper, such as grants of up to £3,500 for small and medium-sized enterprises and £1,500 for residents, were in reality more akin to pyramid schemes, as they were dependent on onerous administration and were available only to support group schemes where residents came together.

Isolated households in more rural communities are still being excluded from the scheme. Whether in my rural constituency or in those of other Members who have spoken, I can tell the Minister that the voucher scheme is not working for many communities—not just for isolated stand-alone properties, but for small hamlets and villages. There are just too many examples of the scheme not working, or of constituents thinking that they can be part of the scheme but being told that they cannot or that it does not work in that particular area. I say sincerely that the Government need to resolve this issue, because it is one of the biggest obstacles to communities coming together to improve the broadband roll-out.

Even more concerning are the National Audit Office reports, which suggest that when the superfast roll-out programme was launched in the UK, it enabled suppliers to prioritise easier-to-reach premises, leaving rural areas—the hardest and most expensive places to reach—as de facto second-class locations. We have heard during the debate, particularly from the hon. Member for North Devon, that we should perhaps be looking at roll-out from the outside in. In Devon, broadband is better in the two cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but outside those places, the rate drops off. Is there any correlation between the idea that rural communities are simply left behind by this Government and the idea that they are not focused on for improving broadband output?

Such an approach will only continue to increase and widen the town and city divide. Members should note that in January 2021, the Public Accounts Committee published its “Improving Broadband” report, which highlighted that more than 1.6 million households—mostly in rural communities—cannot yet access superfast speeds. There is now a genuine concern not only that rural areas will have access to gigabit broadband speeds later, but that they will have to pay more as well.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, it cannot be right to install the pipework if residents are unable even to purchase the box to have the broadband, let alone the equipment to use the services. The Government must acknowledge that if we are to improve the superfast roll-out, there must be the availability and resources for constituents who are living in poverty in rural parts of the United Kingdom such as Somerset and Devon. The resources must be made available to them to ensure they can access the improvement, if it is there.

How can it be right that small villages and towns have to pay the price for the Government’s failure? Some £5 billion was promised by the UK Government to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to the 20% of premises in the UK that are hardest to reach. We would welcome that ambition with open arms, if it was real, but, as with everything from this Government, it simply is not. It is an unholy mess of snake oil mixed with smoke and mirrors. A fraction of the promised cash—£1.2 billion—is now slated for use. Were I feeling unkind, that could be described, using the Prime Minister’s own words, as “laughably unambitious”.

Meanwhile, it grows ever clearer that legislative changes made in 2017 are holding back 5G connectivity in many communities across the country. Those who perpetuate the myth that superfast broadband can rest solely on the laying of fibre-optic cabling are as misguided as they are wrong; 5G is a crucial pillar to support any decent broadband infrastructure. I join the calls of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for the Minister to take back to the Department for Transport the idea of improving connectivity along the railway line that leads into the south-west. That sounds like a very good scheme to me, and it would be good to support it on a cross-party basis.

The Government have set their own target for the majority of the population being covered by 5G by 2027. Stop me if you have heard this before, Ms Rees: the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has warned that parts of the country may be left behind, with poorer mobile connectivity exacerbating the digital divide. How can we believe that the UK Government will get to grips with this issue when cross-party Committee after Committee points out missed targets and overhyped rhetoric? Indeed, shockingly, 8% of the UK still has no 4G coverage. The Department does not have the ambition to bring about the change that is so desperately needed. We talk about superfast broadband, with some communities having connectivity issues that go back some 20 years. When it comes to improving mobile technology, many communities do not even have 4G. It is simply unacceptable.

Digital inequality is stark not just between areas and regions, but within them. Research from Citizens Advice last summer found that 2.5 million people were behind on their broadband bills, with young people and those with children under 18 three times more likely to be behind. That statistic is particularly worrying given the central role, mentioned by nearly every Member today, that digital connectivity has played in children’s education since the onset of the pandemic. The fundamental unseriousness with which the Government approach the issue is shown by the fact that their last digital inclusion strategy was published in 2014, which was a totally different era given the speed and complexity of technological change.

Given the utter lack of ambition shown by the Conservative Government, it falls to the Labour Party to deliver the new and fresh ideas on how to fix this problem, and we stand ready. As part of the “Our Digital Future” report, we consulted with industry groups, experts and a broad range of stakeholders to ensure that our country is at the forefront of digital accessibility and the cyber-space race. Our report set out how we can reduce digital inequalities by placing greater emphasis on data research and analysis in the curriculum, and treating broadband not as a luxury, but as a right, as we do water and electricity. It is about time that broadband became part of the statutory requirement for buildings, as important as electricity, water and gas.

The tectonic shift that the world economy has faced due to the pandemic should act as the wake-up call needed for this Government. Business has changed and new opportunities have arisen. According to the annual TechNation report, our tech sector contributes £149 billion, which underlines its importance. If we truly want an innovation-led economy in a world that continues to shift online, having reliable and accessible broadband is paramount. Labour is embracing this new future and is committed to reducing digital exclusion.

Without digital literacy, our security is threatened by cyber-criminals who exploit the transition to online payments and banking. In a connected world, our prosperity is at risk when thousands of businesses and millions of consumers do not have access to the internet at ultrafast speeds.

Finally, when the Government plan to deliver less than a quarter of the money promised to roll out gigabit-capable broadband to rural areas, they do not treat those areas with sufficient respect. We also call on the Government to review the electronic communications code 2017 to assess its impact on 4G and 5G roll-out and on the sports clubs, volunteer groups and churches that host phone masts to ensure that any new legislation introduces a level playing field to speed up—not hinder—the roll-out of new telecoms infrastructure.

Ultimately, my party and I place security, prosperity and respect at the heart of everything we do, but the UK Government’s shortcomings risk our country falling short of those guiding principles. We do not need any further bluster. We do not need any more eye-popping promises that wither away by the end of the day’s news cycle. We certainly do not need any further denial of the scope and scale of the problems we face.

We hear the frustration from the Minister’s own party at the inactivity of 11 years of a tired Conservative Government, who have simply not delivered on what was inherited from the last Labour Government. They could do so much better at delivering on broadband, for not just these two counties but rural communities across the United Kingdom. It must be a national mission to fix Britain’s endemic connectivity problem and finally to harness the transformative power of superfast broadband to bring us together, secure our individual aspirations and deliver greater prosperity for every part of every nation and region of the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this debate, and for her proactive engagement with my Department on behalf of her constituents and in her role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication. She does tremendous work and I commend her for that. I am always grateful for these opportunities to speak to hon. Members because we have a shared goal of delivering fast and reliable internet to everybody in the UK. I genuinely welcome problems and challenges being highlighted along the way so that I can seek to address them with officials.

As many hon. Members have said, the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of digital connectivity in how we live and work, which, as technology advances, will only become more profound. Several hon. Members have highlighted that there is a risk of a digital divide emerging, and I agree. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about the movement of people into the region and, therefore, the additional importance of productivity gains coming from digital connectivity. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) highlighted the issue of economic competitiveness for the region, which I am very alive to. I enjoyed his beautiful analogy of the beacons on the mounds—I hope that we have moved some way beyond that in the last few hundred years, but I am happy to look into any concerns that that is not the case. Other hon. Members highlighted the importance of levelling up and the work that they are doing as a group of MPs to highlight connectivity issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made some interesting comments about needing to prioritise those who are hardest to reach, and I wish to assure her that that is what the Government are doing. I will come to some of the issues relating to her region, but one of the first procurements we are looking into, which has already launched, is for Cumbria—which, as I hope hon. Members will appreciate, is one of the hardest-to-reach areas. Learning lessons from the Cumbria procurement will help us to manage the roll-out in other similarly difficult-to-reach regions.

I wish to assure all hon. Members that the Government are not leaving the knobbly bits until last, but trying to deal with them early in the process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot says, these people really matter. We want to make sure that everybody is connected, not least because this matter now affects people’s life chances in terms of education, the economy and so on.

I want to address some of the other interesting points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot about innovation and how we need to look at all kinds of technologies, not just fixed fibre. It might interest hon. Members to know that I conducted the UK’s first ever call on Open RAN technology earlier today. Hon. Members will be aware of some of the challenges we have had in removing some of the kit from higher-risk vendors following the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which has left us with questions on the resilience of the technology we use. We are trying to increase the range of supplies in our network, and we see Open RAN as one of the solutions.

I am keen to work closely with partners such as Vodafone and small and medium-sized enterprises to roll out that technology so that our networks are not only wide reaching but resilient. That ties in with some of the work that we are doing on the shared rural network. We hope those things will tally, because the Open RAN technology is being tested in some of those rural areas first. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

The roll-out of gigabit broadband and the work we are doing on 5G is for me, as Minister for Digital Infrastructure, as much about future-proofing our economy and society as it is about delivering faster internet speeds, as important as that is. We will achieve that primarily through Project Gigabit, with several billion pounds of investment to support nationwide gigabit-capable broadband. The commercial aspect to that gigabit roll-out is the key part of the programme. We want to support commercial activity to go as far as it possibly can, and only then use taxpayers’ money to intervene where it is necessary.

We want to use as much capacity from the market as possible, and maximise that pace of delivery. Our interventions include local, regional and cross-regional procurement. We are looking at Cumbria as one of the first of those. We are looking at gigabit vouchers, which have been pretty successful, and giga-hubs, where we invest in public buildings, such as schools, and gigabit delivery via the remaining projects under the superfast broadband programme.

All suppliers have the opportunity to bid for procurements at all levels, and to get involved, working with communities to use gigabit vouchers in areas where no other delivery is currently planned. In the spirit of the cross-party working in which we all wish to engage, and the fact that this is a collective endeavour, I encourage all hon. Members to highlight the voucher programme to constituents who might not be aware of it, and to encourage suppliers to get involved in those critical procurements.

At a local level, communities from across the UK have seen massive increases in gigabit broadband coverage, spurred by commercial investment. Through listening to industry and working closely with Ofcom, we have made a made a number of policy and regulatory changes to stimulate the market, including Ofcom creating a new pro-investment, pro-competition regulatory system for telecoms in the UK that was introduced early last year. Our 130% super-deduction on qualifying plant and machinery investment means that we expect more homes to receive coverage by 2025 without a Government subsidy, which is critical if we are going to make best use of taxpayer cash.

We have also changed the law to make it easier to connect premises in blocks of flats. We are piloting innovative approaches to street works, which we think can speed up build by between 10% and 40%. We are also working with industry to set up a gigabit take-up advisory group to review how to increase consumer demand for gigabit, and incentivise further investment from the private sector in gigabit roll-out. Although many homes are able to get connected to gigabit, they do not always do so. We need to make households aware of the importance of gigabit connectivity.

On connecting buildings, does the Minister have a view on the progress made on allowing new operators—such as CityFibre, which is rolling out the fibre network in Plymouth—to use historic wayleaves, so that they do not have to negotiate afresh with landowners where there is an historic wayleave that would allow access and speed up the roll-out, especially in buildings where there is a lower speed but an established connection?

I assure the hon. Member that we have just introduced legislation that we hope will deal with some of those issues. We are in close contact with some of the operators, asking what they need to speed up the roll-out. Factors such as wayleaves, as he highlighted, are among them. I encourage him to support the legislation on Second Reading.

There has been an unfair amount of gloom about the progress we are making in this area. Although I welcome the Opposition’s commitment to cross-party work on this, I push away some of the more partisan points made by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). As a result of the measures we have taken, the UK has seen more than £30 billion of private sector investment committed, and one of the fastest gigabit broadband roll-outs on the continent. Today, more than 65% of premises can now access gigabit-capable networks, which is up from one in 10 in November 2019. I hope the hon. Member will acknowledge the good progress we are making.

On concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon about rural areas missing out again, I emphasise that it is not just towns and cities that have seen increases in coverage. Since 2018, we have provided gigabit coverage to more than 600,000 rural premises, which has made a huge difference to the work and home lives of local people. In Devon and Somerset, 66,000 further premises now have gigabit-capable coverage being delivered, as part of our superfast broadband programme, which is managed by Connecting Devon and Somerset. On the broader picture, some of the tricky areas are among our first procurements.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon stated that the south-west had 92% superfast capability and that her constituency had 87%. I am pleased to report increases in both, with the latest thinkbroadband statistics estimating a figure of 94% in both Devon and Somerset and nearly 92% in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That regional statistic will also increase to more than 96% once the current contracted delivery is completed. Even though those improvements are coming, I recognise it can be a long wait for many and that is a frustration for all of us, and some premises will still not be included in those plans.

BDUK is working in partnership with local bodies on the ground. We are working to make sure those relationships are functioning well, and we have a good amount of shared data on where coverage is happening. Nevertheless, most hon. Members are aware that delivery in Devon and Somerset has been slower than we would have liked because of the challenges faced by Connecting Devon and Somerset, which is the joint team resourced by a number of hon. Members’ councils. I do not think those challenges are typical, notwithstanding that other rural areas also share issues regarding the complexity of some builds.

I do not wish to go over old ground, but the previous contracts collapsed and that followed procurement by CDS in 2015, which failed to complete owing to an inability to agree terms with the supplier, which in that case was BT. Subsequent to the previous contracts being terminated in 2019, CDS will have had to undertake a new open market review and public review with suppliers to confirm which premises are not within any commercial plans and therefore require subsidy. That has been a lengthy process and it is important to minimise that risk of overbuild of other commercial networks, which has also been regularly highlighted by my hon. Friend and which was also a requirement under previous EU state aid rules. CDS then had to follow that with a compliant public sector procurement process, meaning that the new delivery contracts were agreed only at the end of 2020.

The same processes will also be required for contracts taken forward under our new gigabit programme, but rather than local authorities, BDUK will be in the lead for that process. BDUK brings together central resources and expertise and we hope that will mean we get a more consistent national approach to delivery while still working with councils to deal with local implementation issues. BDUK is currently part of the Department, but it will be spun out as a separate executive agency this year. That will give it greater autonomy and greater scrutiny from a new board. That is going to be an important step in focusing and giving greater priority to ensure a good gigabit roll-out from now on.

My hon. Friend talked to BDUK officials just yesterday. Other hon. Members have spoken about making the west country a priority area for connectivity and that connectivity-related issues are not just nice-to-have things to address. I assure them that I have had my own discussions with BDUK to see what more we can do for the region, because I appreciate that hon. Members have particular frustrations that need to be addressed. I want to work together to do that. We have officials in the room, so I wonder whether we can look at the GigaHubs programme as well to see if there is anything more we can do.

I also wish to address the point made by the hon. Member for Ogmore about Wales and his constituency. It is going to be important that we work closely with the devolved Administrations. I am meeting Kate Forbes MSP this week, and I will be holding similar meetings with counterparts in the Welsh Administration and will be happy to look into his constituency. The hon. Gentleman raised points about the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which includes measures on the electronic communications code that regulates agreements between landowners and telecoms operators. We are looking to try and deal with some of the problems that came after the 2017 changes, trying to move to a position where we can have more arbitration rather than litigation and getting better relationships between landowners and mobile network operators so roll-outs can happen much faster. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support that legislation.

Returning to Project Gigabit, we only want to intervene when it is necessary. The same applies to delivery under the superfast broadband programme by CDS. That is why the open market review and the public review process I referred to earlier has to be followed, even though it can take a significant amount of time. As I say, I appreciate the frustrations. CDS has followed that process and is now only intervening in premises confirmed as eligible for public subsidy. However, we recognise that commercial plans will be changing and to maximise that value for local bodies, we should take reasonable steps to make way for new commercial investments.

That is easier said than done and CDS will be mindful of the risks to some premises of descoping to make way for a commercial build if that then leaves other neighbouring premises without viable coverage. Those are tricky issues that I know my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will appreciate. I simply encourage all local bodies to be open and transparent in their dealings with commercial suppliers and to make way for new commercial builds if they can, and BDUK will continue to reinforce that point to local bodies.

Conversely, although I welcome new commercial build plans, I urge commercial providers to target investment at areas that are currently not in scope for any other coverage. BDUK is also making this point with suppliers. That will help increase the number of premises that have gigabit access from at least one operator, rather than having fewer premises with multiple providers.

Several hon. Members talked about the voucher scheme, which is one of the mechanisms that we have to incentivise and encourage suppliers to provide coverage to areas not covered by any other plans. I encourage all commercial suppliers to use that scheme as much as possible, and I encourage everybody in this Chamber to highlight the scheme to their constituents. The voucher scheme can be hard work for communities, and it runs the risk of delivering a patchwork of coverage. However, it is a relatively quick means of supporting delivery in particular communities and has been used successfully by many suppliers, including some of the largest, to provide gigabit coverage in communities across the country.

Many areas of Devon and Somerset are making good use of the voucher scheme. I am pleased to say that 5,466 premises in Devon and Somerset have gained a gigabit connection because of it, and a further 2,645 premises are awaiting connection. That is a combined total of over £12 million of investment. In the North Devon constituency, 299 premises have gained their gigabit connection as a result of that scheme, and another 208 premises are awaiting connection. That is nearly £1 million of investment by the voucher scheme in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

We have deliberately designed Project Gigabit to ensure that coverage is delivered in every area of the country, and not to leave those harder areas until last. We think that that will add to the gigabit coverage currently being delivered through superfast contracts. We want to reach as far as possible beyond 85% gigabit coverage by 2025, and every area of the country will be under contract by that stage. However, it is not the case that rural areas will be left with no coverage once that has been completed. The latest stats from thinkbroadband show that North Devon currently has 32% full-fibre coverage. That is ahead of the UK average of 30%, so when it comes to gigabit there is a good story to tell, and a good start has already been made.

I thank the Minister for her clarifications this afternoon. We have already talked about the low take-up of gigabit in some areas. Is she able to clarify whether that is because some of my constituency is served by small providers who are not wholesalers, which is not the same as having Openreach or CityFibre and is therefore further reducing take-up?

I am afraid that I do not know enough about the commercial relationships and situations in my hon. Friend’s constituency to be able to provide a detailed answer; I will have to go to BDUK and get further details.

Many people are satisfied with their superfast speeds, and question why we need gigabit. Gigabit is actually about future-proofing homes and businesses across the country. Constituents across the country should understand that, although technology is advancing quickly, it is going to be taking even greater strides in future. We may see the delivery of more healthcare requiring fast speeds and new types of factories requiring really great connectivity. We need to ensure that we are thinking not just about speed, but about capacity, resilience and connectivity. We need to ensure that, when more applications and technologies require this kind of digital infrastructure, it is there, ready and waiting to be used.

In March 2020, the Government announced that they had agreed a £1 billion deal with mobile network operators to deliver the shared rural network—this relates to my hon. Friend’s concerns about notspots. The deal will see operators collectively increase mobile phone coverage across the UK to 95% by the end of that programme. That is underpinned by legally binding coverage commitments. In the south-west, 4G coverage from all four operators will increase to 87% from the current 75%, and from one operator from 97% to 99%, thanks to the shared rural network.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport on the trainline piece of work. I believe that that may be happening in other parts of the country, but I am happy to look into this particular project for him and see whether there are any conversations that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport needs to have with the Department for Transport. I recognise that the current roll-out will still leave some premises in the region with sub-superfast speeds, and in any case we now want to increase access from superfast to gigabit.

In our quarterly Project Gigabit delivery updates, which I hope hon. Members have received, we set out a target timetable for our regional supply procurements. For Devon and Somerset, we are targeting a procurement start in February to April 2023, with contract commencement early in 2024. This procurement is currently set up to include 159,600 premises, but the number could change depending on the market’s build plans.

The timetable for procurement was drawn up after extensive consultation with industry and local bodies and reflects the need for coverage from current contracts to be clear. Unfortunately, that is where hon. Members are seeing some of the challenges that their region had previously under superfast have an impact on how quickly we can get going with the gigabit stuff, which I regret.

It also increases the chances that the suppliers in the current programme will be able to bid for projects and continue building once their current deployment ends. We must be cognisant of the fact that only a certain number of people have the expertise to deliver some of this work. If those companies are engaged in superfast work, they may not have the capacity to bid for some of those gigabit contracts, which is regrettable.

All the procurements will, of course, be open to every interested supplier and I hope for good levels of competition. Our approach keeps open the potential for using smaller local supply procurements and the larger regional and cross-regional procurements that I think we want the likes of Openreach to be bidding for. We will seek to use each of those options as effectively as possible.

While we all welcome a large single supplier volunteering to complete coverage in Devon and Somerset commercially, we will need to see what results from the competitive procurement process. We should all welcome competition. It is positive that many more broadband network providers are now able to deliver significant levels of coverage, compared with the position in the past when only one national operator was undertaking a new roll-out. That is where our efforts to get a really good commercial market going are reaping dividends.

I am confident we will be successful in ensuring coverage through these procurements. I very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others in this Chamber, all Members from Devon and Somerset and all other interested parties, so that we can get the connectivity that is not only important to speed and life chances now, but ever more so into the future.

I thank the Minister for listening to the chair of the APPG on broadband and digital communications. I thank colleagues from both sides of the House from Devon and Somerset for joining us this afternoon. I think we have all raised the same concerns. We have heard them before and it is always a pleasure to hear that so much work is going on at BDUK and CDS behind the scenes. I look forward to hearing from the Cumbrian project, which will mean significant changes for us down in the south-west. Perhaps some of those dates can be sped up before the next technology is upon us, which I think is what we all fear. If we never catch up now, everyone else will be on 6G and 7G before we are even able to use our mobile phones in the south-west.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the rollout of ultrafast broadband in Devon and Somerset.

Sitting suspended.

Beam Park Station

I beg to move,

That this House has considered plans for Beam Park Station.

This afternoon, I will make a series of points relating to the failure to proceed with the proposed station at Beam Park in my constituency. The station is essential for a number of reasons. First, it will successfully complete the Beam Park housing development and wider regeneration across South Havering, and Barking and Dagenham. It remains key to unlocking other housing schemes along the A1306 eastwards towards Rainham and westwards towards Dagenham, an area forming part of London’s largest opportunity area. The station is central to making a success of those possibilities.

Secondly, the station is essential to making good on countless promises made over many years to local residents who have bought homes there, the value of which they fear is fast depreciating. They feel that they have been deceived. Thirdly, the station is essential to following through with commitments made to people in the wider community, who have accepted new housing on the basis of promised new infrastructure. They, too, feel let down and angry.

There is also a wider national issue regarding the so-called levelling-up agenda. If the Government are serious about imposing housing targets on local authorities, they must accept and support the infrastructure and services to go with them, especially when for years they have been promised to residents in order to secure their consent for the plans. In that sense, Beam Park station is an example of how not to regenerate local communities, and how to maximise cynicism and anger in them. People feel manipulated and exploited by the planning system. It is a story of promises made and subsequently withdrawn once consent has been secured. Unless the situation is resolved, I fear that there will be long-lasting effects that will inhibit future economic development and undermine community support for future regeneration, so the stakes are pretty high locally.

By way of background, the Conservative London Borough of Havering has historically been the prime mover behind the planned Beam Park station; it then secured wider support. The detailed project came via the housing zone programme, which was devised by the Prime Minister when he served as Mayor of London. Under Mayor Johnson’s programme, London boroughs could seek housing zone status, and funding based on bids that would commit to increasing housing outputs. The funding was primarily for infrastructure projects or land remediation that would facilitate large-scale housing development. That was always the purpose of the station: to secure more housing units.

As far back as 2013, Havering worked up a bid for the Greater London Authority to bring about the development of Beam Park station. The bid was approved by Havering Council’s cabinet in August 2014, and was driven through by the then housing cabinet member Damian White, the present council leader. In June 2015, Havering secured housing zone status and funding for the Beam Park development programme—one of only four agreed at the time. It was a flagship policy for the then Mayor Johnson, who said:

“Housing Zones will provide the swift delivery of new homes for Londoners that is so desperately needed and create entirely new, highly-connected urban districts”.

In December 2015, Havering and the GLA entered into an agreement for £9.6 million of housing zone funding to cover the station design and initial construction of the site. Havering then funded the governance for railway investment projects process through a contract with Network Rail. Standard documents from Network Rail were then reviewed by the GLA’s internal and external legal advisers. In 2020, the GLA agreed to invest some £32.75 million to construct Beam Park station, stating that the GLA and Countryside Properties, the developer,

“have been working closely with Network Rail…to progress plans for the station.”

It was a done deal, or at least appeared to be. It was signed off by the Conservative Mayor, the Conservative council and developers, and had secured the backing of the Conservative Government, or so we were all led to believe—for example, by the way that Network Rail was involved in progressing the project throughout the process. Network Rail was a willing partner. The Network Rail route utilisation plan from July 2020 describes Beam Park as a “committed scheme”. Once operational, the station was to be transferred to the franchise operator c2c, who would have ongoing responsibility for the station. Once again, c2c was a willing partner. Everyone realises that without additional infrastructure, existing c2c stations will crack under the pressure of an expanding population. Over the years I have worked with c2c to alleviate congestion at Rainham station, and it literally cannot cope with thousands more commuters, and could well become unsafe at peak times.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. As a fellow Havering MP, I endorse everything he said about the benefits of having the new Beam Park railway station, and about the commitment that was given. There would be benefits for our economy and the environment, and there would be more jobs and lower crime—all things that areas such as ours, an Essex area that is part of Greater London, need. Surely we should get these benefits. To take them away would be a betrayal of the people of Rainham, South Hornchurch and the London Borough of Havering.

I completely agree. I am glad the hon. Gentleman has agreed with what I have said. I am not sure that he will agree with all the comments I will make, but I take on board the importance of cross-party support for this project. Hopefully, the problems we have been experiencing since the back end of last year can be rectified. I hope that the Government will support the GLA and the boroughs of Havering, and Barking and Dagenham, in getting this station back on the railway. I welcome the support for the commitment to my constituents and everyone across the London Borough of Havering.

Everyone realises that the pressure on the c2c line could be immense without the three stations at Beam Park, Dagenham Dock and Rainham to remove the congestion. The original c2c franchise agreement from before the pandemic, which is actually published on the Department for Transport website, states:

“The Franchisee shall provide all reasonable assistance and co-operation…to the Secretary of State and any other parties responsible for or involved with the development…of a new station at Beam Park.”

So far, so good. On the basis of these commitments, local residents accepted extraordinary amounts of housing development across south Havering and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. We are talking about tens of thousands of new units, against a backdrop of austerity and service cuts, because of the promised infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is right. People have invested a lot of money in purchasing new properties. They are buying homes in this area because they believed that there would be transport links to central London so that they could travel to their jobs and for other purposes. Taking this link away after they have committed to living there and have bought a home will really disrupt people’s lives. It simply is not fair. People thought there would be a station, but it has been taken away.

I totally agree with the hon. Member. I am glad that so far we are in agreement on the state of affairs and the need for the issue to be rectified.

The Beam Park development alone consists of 3,200 housing units for 13,000 new residents through a partnership agreement with Countryside Properties and London & Quadrant. However, the scheme was always conditional on a new station being provided. A Grampian condition means that development cannot progress past phase 3 unless the station is delivered. Under phases 1 and 2, to date 1,150 homes are under construction, have been completed or have been sold. Other local housing developments are also dependent on the station. On billboards on the A13, developers are continuing—even this afternoon—to market the properties on the back of a new station. They promise a 20 minute journey time to Fenchurch Street.

Late last year, however, everything changed. The Department for Transport issued letters to the GLA and c2c in August 2021 stating that the Department is not supportive of the development of a new station at Beam Park. In a letter to me, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said:

“It is not that the Department withdrew support or funding for the development of the station, but that support was never given in the first place.”

This announcement blindsided developers and the wider private sector, along with the GLA and the local authority. The station is an advanced and fully costed project. GLA officers had been working with Havering, Network Rail, c2c and Transport for London for years. There is a collective desire to see the station brought into service as soon as possible. Detailed designs are in place and construction was due to commence last autumn. The construction of the station will be funded by the GLA. All required funding has been secured. The GLA has also agreed to provide the DFT with an indemnity for the first 10 years to protect against any operational deficit.

In a general sense, I think we can all agree that it is critical that infrastructure is provided that allows land to be developed to its full potential. Beam Park is an excellent example of that. As well as unlocking homes for over 13,000 residents, the station will form a civic heart for Beam Park, acting as a catalyst for the regeneration of the surrounding area, which has high levels of deprivation. The new station will also bring environmental benefits by encouraging a shift away from car use and supporting reduction in parking. The housing projects unlocked by the station will invest over £1 billion in the local area, delivering two new primary schools, a 3 hectare park, community and health centres, and over 60,000 square feet of commercial space, directly creating hundreds of new jobs.

Unfortunately, all that and more is now threatened. Let me spell this out quite simply: since the DFT announcement, private sector enthusiasm for local regeneration has spun into reverse. Already, local compulsory purchase orders have been withdrawn. They were dependent on the infrastructure. The business model for the whole area has been thrown into question. Community anger is intense. New residents feel their property values are in freefall, as the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) mentioned.

In the long term, residents feel manipulated by the local authority, with false promises of an infrastructural uplift. Local anger is palpable and totally understandable. Within a few weeks, thousands have signed local petitions seeking to get the Government to change their mind. For the Government’s own housing and levelling-up agenda, the decision is a disaster; it is draining support for new housing in a key national priority area for regeneration.

I have met Countryside, which is very supportive of efforts to restore the station project. It has commissioned Grant Thornton to assess the social and economic impact and wider benefits of the project. I have written to Ministers and spoken to the GLA’s deputy Mayor for housing, Tom Copley, who shared his correspondence with Ministers calling for the station to be allowed to go ahead.

The basis of the Government’s withdrawal of support appears to centre on the indemnity that the GLA has offered to the DFT, as the DFT is not actually contributing any funding to the capital cost of the station. The GLA has offered £10 million to cover a 10-year period, whereas the DFT appears to want an unlimited figure for an unlimited period.

To be honest, my real concerns are for the local residents. New residents of Beam Park are angry and feel that they have been sold homes on a false prospectus. Many are now seeking legal redress. The Government’s decision undermines the role of the strategic authority in Havering, which at best has been shown to be negligent and poorly managed. It is an appalling state of affairs when the then Mayor and council can agree a project—

I have agreed with most of what the hon. Gentleman has said until now, and I have a good working relationship with him as a neighbouring constituency MP. I gently say to him that everyone would benefit from the station, and that what it needs is not to be politicised, but co-operation and collaboration between the Government, the Mayor of London, Transport for London and Havering Council. People’s lives are going to be disrupted if the station is not built, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to work collaboratively on a non-political basis to find a solution so that it can be built and people can live in that community and have the transport links that they need.

I generally agree on the need for cross-party collaboration. I hope that we can work with the Department for Transport to resolve this matter, in collaboration with the local authorities in Havering and in Barking and Dagenham, and the GLA. However, we also have to understand why we got to the present situation. How could the then Mayor and council agree the project and assume that their own Government and Network Rail backed them, only for us to discover years later, due to a lack of due diligence, that they do not and they claim not to have done so, with terrible collateral consequences for local residents?

I do not want to twist the knife and make party political points—I agree with the hon. Member for Romford—but the reality is that this dreadful situation has consequences for thousands of my constituents and will likely derail hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in my area. I am angry and frustrated at the reckless decision making at the heart of this project. It is an appalling state of affairs, yet it is not too late to resolve the situation.

I am sure that there are inter-Government tensions around the decision, not least given the Government’s stated housing objectives. Should the Government not change their mind and allow the station to proceed, the future phases of Beam Park and other housing schemes in the area will be in doubt, as planning consents are dependent on there being a station. There will probably be a need for new planning applications to both Havering and Barking and Dagenham Councils. There will be escalating anger and opposition to new housing development. Both new and long-term residents feel that they have been played and betrayed.

Meanwhile, Government policy appears slightly out of sync. We see the Government mounting pressure on local authorities to increase housing targets, yet simultaneously pulling the plug on the infrastructure needed to support both new and existing communities in their priority areas. I am told that Havering Council has instructed lawyers to consider a judicial review against the Department for Transport decision, legally challenging its own Government, which is quite a state of affairs. Meanwhile, it is trying to blame everyone apart from itself for the debacle.

I urge the Government to sit down with the GLA to resolve the indemnity issue and fast-track the station; it is not too late. The Tory levelling-up agenda is all well and good as a soundbite, but actions speak louder than words. Through either negligence or indifference, those in power have reneged on promises of meaningful investment. Their failure to deliver Beam Park risks growth grinding to a halt across the south of my constituency. Therefore, I urge the Government urgently to rethink their plans for Beam Park station.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his contribution.

The provision of a station at Beam Park is a project that has been developed by the Greater London Authority. I understand that the provision of the station is a planning condition set by the local planning authority, and the delivery of additional housing in excess of 3,000 homes is dependent on the station. We do, of course, support the development of housing near the railway in the borough and more widely across the country. In past years, we have released public railway land that is no longer needed for operational use, thereby enabling the delivery of thousands of new homes.

We are working closely with local authorities and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to deliver new stations and railway improvements, enabling new homes to come forward that are served by excellent and sustainable public transport connections. Through the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, we have set out how we will use the establishment of Great British Railways to further support development near stations and deliver local economic growth.

However, we must not lose sight of the need to appropriately scrutinise proposals for works on the railway, ensuring that we deliver schemes with the greatest benefits that protect taxpayers now and in future. The value for money of schemes should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Developers cannot assume to look to the rail operating budget to subsidise housing development.

Where a new station is required to support development, Network Rail’s guidance “Investment in Stations” makes clear to promoters of new stations the importance of the Department’s authorisation for a new station if a train operator is anticipated to serve it, which is the case with Beam Park. That need for the Department’s authorisation and the value of getting it at an early stage, before proceeding to the more detailed and costly business case stage, was underlined to the GLA in a meeting in December 2017, when the GLA first consulted the Department, as proposals to develop a new station at Beam Park had been in place since 2014. At that meeting, early on, the Department’s officials voiced concerns about the business case in a number of rail areas, which I will address.

The full operational costs of incorporating an additional station in the network, which in this case would involve the provision of an additional train and associated crew, had not been considered in the business case. That significantly adds to the cost of providing the station. In addition, the proposals had not acknowledged that the station would be abstracting from the two stations either side of it on the same line—Rainham and Dagenham Dock, which are both approximately a mile away from the proposed new station. Those concerns were raised and identified not only by the Department but by the train operator, Trenitalia c2c Ltd, and were explained to the GLA in writing in March 2018 before it committed to fund Beam Park station.

Adding the extra call at Beam Park would lengthen the journey time for Essex commuters and reduce the attractiveness of the railway to help stimulate new housing developments in Essex. Those housing developments serve and stimulate London’s economy but are outside the GLA’s area of housing responsibility. The Department’s concern is to understand how the GLA takes account of that loss of potential when considering new stations in the GLA area to stimulate housing growth. The analysis of the proposed station at Beam Park that we have seen to date does not seem to consider that strategic issue.

The GLA’s response to our March 2018 letter made it clear that it had no intention of reviewing the business case, despite the concerns I have listed, but that it intended instead to progress with the scope and programme for opening. The next time the Department for Transport was contacted by the GLA on this matter was in mid-2020, by which point the GLA had, in March 2020, approved the expenditure to deliver a new station at Beam Park. Fundamentally, there was no further consultation with the Department and no response to the concerns raised.

In a further letter to the GLA in September 2020, following the contact made by the GLA in mid-2020, the Department restated its concerns about the development of the station in the light of the significant funding risks related to the station’s operational costs, and the performance impact that would have on the network. The letter made it clear to the GLA that the Department could take no financial risks associated with the station.

The Department’s concern throughout the process has been to ensure that we are held immune from all financial risk caused by a new station at Beam Park. The GLA’s offer of a £10 million capped amount limited to a 10-year period is not acceptable to the Department. The GLA’s offer does not cover the full cost risk we believe Beam Park station imports; it would need to be unlimited in both time and cost. In addition, the GLA business case was prepared and approved prior to the covid pandemic; passenger volumes are now significantly lower than previously forecast. Ticket revenue from Beam Park is unlikely to cover the additional costs in the short term, and it may not do so even in the long term.

Let me take the opportunity to clarify that the Department has not withdrawn support for the development of the station; support was never given in the first instance. If the GLA is satisfied that the new station presents value for money and is an acceptable use of public funds, the Department’s position is to look for a commitment to hold the Department immune from any financial risk we believe the new station presents. The Department fully supports the housing development in Beam Park and the wider Dagenham and Rainham area, and continues to work alongside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to assist with strategy and planning. We will provide support to develop and enhance the existing stations, and we encourage local stakeholders and the GLA to focus their attention on opportunities to improve access to those stations by improving street access where the former industrial land use made station access difficult from parts of the surrounding area.

I thank the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham for securing this debate and shining a spotlight on issues related to Beam Park station.

I thank the Minister for all her comments. I fully understand the arguments—the viability of the station has to be paramount; it has to be part of the discussion—but will she please at least pledge to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham, to me and to all the people of the London Borough of Havering and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham who could benefit from the station that she will go back and look at it afresh, and look at ways we can progress it? Will she also commit—I know it is sometimes difficult—to work with the Mayor of London to see if he and TfL will co-operate with us?

Havering is a forgotten borough. We get very little from the GLA. We pay a lot of money in, but we get very little back. We are Essex; we are not really London, but we get lumped in with London. This is one thing that would actually benefit our borough. If it is taken away from us, there will be huge disillusionment not just down in Rainham, South Hornchurch and Beam Park but across our borough. We feel neglected. We do not feel we are getting our fair slice of the cake in the Greater London area, and I hope that the Government will take the chance to level up areas such as ours. I gently ask the Minister to take this issue back and see what she can do. This is a cross-party thing. We want the station to go ahead and succeed, and I ask her to do her utmost to ensure that it does.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He speaks with such passion for his constituents, which I absolutely understand and would expect him to do. What I can say is that the Department has not withdrawn any funding. This is a scheme led entirely by the GLA. We are committed to providing better connectivity, while demonstrating that investments provide appropriate value for money. The Department remains absolutely open to engagement with stakeholders. I hope that gives some reassurance to hon. Members.

Will the Minister commit to a meeting with me and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham, together with Darren Rodwell, the leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, and Damian White, the leader of Havering Council, to see if we can iron out some of these issues and work together to make the project succeed?

As I said, the Department remains absolutely open to engagement with stakeholders. Let me take that point away and see. I can certainly meet my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham.

In conclusion—I have my eye on the clock—it is important that all parties recognise that much of the work on the current business case was based on the railway pre-covid, and early indications are that the post-covid situation worsens the case for Beam Park, as commuter demand has declined. Despite that, the costs associated with a new station have not reduced. While we will work with the GLA should it be able to provide funding to cover all the costs of Beam Park, we recognise that it may not be able to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Careers Guidance in Schools

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. We are expecting a vote and I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes when that occurs. I call Esther McVey to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered careers guidance in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the Speaker for granting the debate. I should start by saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, wanted to be here today, but unfortunately he has tested positive for covid and cannot join us. I know that careers guidance is a matter close to his heart, and I thank him for all the work that he has done on it.

One of my very first speeches in this House was on career guidance and extending opportunities to all. That was over a decade ago. It included reaching out to young girls and supporting them to climb the career ladder. It was about smashing glass ceilings, stopping stereotyping people, and knocking down the barriers that prevent people from achieving, succeeding and fulfilling their potential. I have written academic papers on this issue, worked on reports such as the “Genda Agenda” report and the Ideopolis report, and worked on the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission, which looked at the reasons why pupils from deprived areas were often half as likely to set up in business and twice as likely to claim benefit as people from more advantaged areas.

We looked at how to go about breaking those cycles, and the answer kept coming back to good-quality, consistent, regular careers advice and meeting inspirational role models—people young girls could learn from and, where possible, people from similar backgrounds who had managed to succeed, often against the odds, as well as people who young girls could really relate to and who would have an influence on what they were going to do as they got older.

Most advice, for most people, comes from people they know—from parents and friends. How big that pool is will determine how much those people come into a huge and different array of careers, so that pool needs to be widened if we want to widen opportunities for as many people as possible. How can children know what they want to do when they leave school if they are not told about the career opportunities available to them, the qualifications they will need and the different educational paths they can take to get there?

I hope Members can tell that I am as fired up by these issues today as I was more than a decade ago. I will declare an interest because, caught by the bug of supporting young people, I set up my own charity to do just that in 2013. It is called If Chloe Can and it provides careers advice to pupils up and down the country, particularly in years 8 and 9, and predominantly to disadvantaged pupils. It is supported by 200 role models who are successful individuals: Debbie Moore, the first woman to run a public limited company; Jo Salter, the first woman in the UK to fly a fighter plane; Professor Sarah Gilbert, who developed the AstraZeneca vaccine; and people such as Nick Knowles and James Dyson. The list goes on.

The charity provides careers advice, role models and confidence. It is about goal-setting, planning, communication, resilience and assertiveness. The charity used to go into schools and hold performances and plays, but all of that changed because of covid and lockdown, and so too must careers guidance.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about familiar networks providing advice and about the way that that disadvantages those who do not have good access to such support. That is why, when I was the Minister responsible for these things, I introduced a statutory obligation on schools to provide independent advice and guidance. The problem is that that needs to be face to face—it needs to be direct. It is not enough for it to be via a website, or a remote connection. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key thing for the Minister to assure us of—I know that the Minister is very keen on this matter—is that that degree of face-to-face guidance will be available to all children in sufficient quantity and quality to make up the difference for those who suffer from disadvantages?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work he has done. To go back to covid and lockdown, many of us wanted to make sure that schools were not locked down, and he is right that pupils need face-to-face connections, inspiration and support. But when that was not possible, the work that I did with Zoom to engage directly with pupils, play videos and allow pupils to meet inspirational role models online was important too. As my right hon. Friend says, it is the number of times that a pupil connects with people that is important; it cannot just be once, and then they forget it in the years to come. If the pupil can do that consistently, week on week in the summer holidays or in the school term, wherever they are—in school or not; with covid or not—then they can engage. That is the programme I have been working with Zoom on.

We have done some great initiatives, and lots of good things have been done over the last 10 years. I congratulate all the groups, businesses, local enterprise partnerships and charities that are doing so much. Before Christmas in my area of Cheshire, AstraZeneca showed 480 pupils how artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, 3D printing and drones could be used remotely to diagnose problems in the manufacturing process. There are companies doing it, and across Cheshire and Warrington, the local enterprise partnership has been co-ordinating online work experiences too. In two months last year, 1,750 young pupils were given a workplace challenge with 43 local employers; those employers worked with the pupils to open their eyes to what was right on their doorstep. Equally, that allowed the businesses to influence what subjects the pupils might like to—and could—do.

I welcome all that is going on, but it is a bit piecemeal; it depends on where someone lives and what school they go to. We need to broaden that. That is why I welcome the Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, because it will allow local school skills improvement plans to be created by employer representative bodies, to make sure that schools are working locally with businesses in their area to develop programmes for pupils. Embedding employers in the heart of the education system is key. The Bill also looks to transform the current student loan system, which many of us have called for quite some time. It will give every adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education and training at university and college, and it will be usable at any point in their lives.

All of these great things are happening, but more still needs to be done in schools to provide better guidance. The latest report from the Centre for Social Justice says that there is a growing need for tailored, innovative and inspiring career guidance with links to role models and employers. Some good work has been done, but lots more needs to be done.

Why is that so important? A young person who has four or more interactions with an employer is 86% less likely to not be in education, employment or training—to not be a NEET—and they can earn 22% more during their career compared with a young person who has had no interaction with an employer. Sadly, the Centre for Social Justice points out that there seems to be no single place where a young person can go to get comprehensive Government-backed careers information. It has also found that schools are not consistently delivering good-quality careers advice. About one in five schools does not meet any of the eight Gatsby benchmarks—a series of internationally respected benchmarks that help Government to quality-assure careers advice in schools.

The Centre for Social Justice also drew attention to the fact that careers advice in school often leads strongly towards academic routes. According to one study, only 41% of 11 to 16-year-olds said that a teacher had discussed the idea of an apprenticeship with them at school, and just 21% of teachers always or usually advised high-performing students to opt for an apprenticeship over university. We are not really looking at the pupil’s needs and what would be best for the pupil; we are still focusing on the institution. We need to ensure that it is pupil-centric advice and support.

I want to acknowledge the work done in this area by Lord Baker. He secured the amendment to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 that allowed further education colleges, university technical colleges and apprenticeship providers into secondary schools to explain to students the various alternative pathways for their education and training. That will be strengthened by the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, and that is key. Knowing the options, knowing the benefit of an option, having sample days in colleges and workplaces and meeting people who actually do the job is really important, because it is usually when a young person meets the person doing the job that the job is brought to life.

Also important is starting careers guidance at a very young age. Teach First is really pushing for it to go into primary schools, and I agree with that too. Sometimes I meet pupils and they do not necessarily really know what school is for; they do not realise that it is a journey to get them into work. They feel that it is for killing time for a number of years and perhaps getting exams. In fact, this is a journey to help them to do whatever they want to do for the rest of their life, so I would agree with going into primary schools.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) on his private Member’s Bill, the Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill, to give careers guidance to those in year 7. It should complete its passage through the House on Friday. I welcome the advice going to younger pupils. I know that the Government will be supporting that but, again, can the advice go to even younger pupils? We know that we have the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company, but this feels a bit piecemeal. I am wondering whether they can merge, so that we can really get value for money with those two organisations.

I appreciate that the Minister who will answer this debate is standing in for one of her colleagues, who also has covid, so if she cannot answer today all the points that I am about to ask, it would be most appreciated if she could perhaps arrange a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who is the Minister for skills. The questions I am asking are these. How do the Government plan to ensure that careers guidance is of a high quality for all pupils, irrespective of where they come from? How do they plan to link pupils to the local businesses in their area? How do they aim to support schools to bring in role models, whether that is in person or in the new, innovative way I am doing this—with Zoom, online? How do we stop piecemeal careers guidance? Pupils need to know, in this fast-paced, ever-changing world, what works for them—where they can get the education and the support that they need.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Good timing, superb. We now move on to Back-Bench speakers. If you can confine yourselves to five minutes or less, we should get everyone in.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Rees, and to follow my parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). We share the second runway of Manchester airport; I could run from my end of it to her end of it, crossing the River Bollin quite smoothly, if they would let me through the security barrier. We should attempt it one day.

I do not want to make too much of a party political point, but I want to say, particularly with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) in his place, how much Labour Members are beginning to take careers really seriously. At our party conference this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) pledged to reintroduce two weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience and give every child access to quality careers advice in school. When was the last time a leader of a political party of any colour used their flagship conference speech to talk about the importance of careers education? Indeed, I cannot remember a time when careers education was at the forefront of any keynote speech. It is clearly not a regular occurrence—perhaps once in a blue moon, but I would say that as a Manchester City fan.

Careers education is important to us, particularly for the Opposition, because it is vital for the future of this country, and vital for securing a socially just society. Social justice can be achieved only when we do everything in our power to ensure that our young people can find where their best talents lie and to empower them with the knowledge, skills and understanding to find the route that will help them to realise their potential and aspirations. Evidence shows that high-quality careers education is linked to improved academic attainment, both in academic motivation and in exam results; increased wages; and, after entering the workplace, reduced chances of dropping out and becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training. It creates a better alignment of careers aspirations with the jobs market.

A step change in delivering the best possible careers education for our young people would be ensuring that we do more to inform all our young people about apprenticeships and technical education, which is something about which I am passionate in my constituency. That is why I am encouraged to see the latest report from the Careers & Enterprise Company on trends in careers education, which says that progress is being made in the area. However, clearly, as the report points out, there is more work to be done.

I was shadow Schools Minister for over three years. I had the privilege of visiting many schools all over the country, but I am sure that hon. Members will agree that there is no feeling quite like going back to the school that you attended as a child. I was particularly pleased to visit Saint Paul’s Catholic High School, in my constituency, where I went to school, to see how it was using careers education to drive whole-school improvement. The school comes out as the poorest in England year on year, as it did when I attended it in the 1980s. I was inspired by how the school had embraced and embedded the role of a careers leader to drive forward its careers programme, and by how its career strategy was being supported by a senior volunteer from the world of business—at that time it was Jaguar Land Rover. It was making a real difference. This year, the school has also joined its local careers hub, which has been accelerating the quality of careers education across Greater Manchester, which includes my constituency.

During the visit, I had a chance to talk to year 8 pupils about my career, which ranges from digging roads as a labourer to selling tickets on a zero-hours contract at Maine Road—as a Manchester City fan, it was the lowest-paid, highest-status job I have ever had. I now have a quite well-paid job, but I will let Members in the room decide what they think its status is. The point that I wanted to drive home, however, was the number of options they have available right on their doorstep. As the right hon. Member for Tatton knows, we are fortunate that we have Manchester airport in our constituencies. I was able to unpack all the types of roles one could do at the airport alone. I was also able to name-check opportunities at local employers such as Chiesi, a pharmaceutical group; The Hut Group; Cardinal Maritime, a logistics company; and Broderick’s, a huge vending business, with lads I went to school with. The point is that there are many options.

It is vital that we link local employers to schools and colleges, and ensure that young people have the best chance of finding the best route possible for them. Every year, I host an International Women’s Day event where I invite young women to meet female business professionals in Wythenshawe and Sale East, so that they can meet people just like them, and find out how to get a foot on the ladder. They also make valuable links to those businesses, so when work experience or apprenticeship time arrives, they are confident in applying. It is one of the most rewarding parts of my role as a constituency MP.

I want kids in Wythenshawe and Sale East to know that behind the warehouse doors on the industrial estates in my constituency we have tech jobs, marketing jobs, legal and financial roles, research and development, engineering—the list is endless. I want those kids to have aspirations to take on those roles, and not just become a Member of Parliament. Owing to the work that has been done in my constituency in recent years, we are in a better position to deliver those aspirations for our young people than we have been for a long time. There is a long way to go, but I am pleased that my party, particularly, is stepping up locally and nationally at the moment on this vital agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for securing this important debate. I know that this topic is particularly important to her, as we welcomed her to my constituency, to Carlton Keighley, where she gave a fantastic presentation to many of the children going to school there and really instilled in them her energy and enthusiasm about the careers service. It was great to have my right hon. Friend there, because her charity, If Chloe Can, is a fantastic, dedicated careers programme charity. The work goes on to empower many young people to follow their dreams: talent is spread across our country, but opportunity is not. It is vital that through providing a great careers service, we make accessible the journey towards fulfilling that opportunity in life, and instil knowledge of how to get there in our young people. That is why careers guidance matters.

It is crucial to ensure that no type of education is prioritised over another, which in turn will help to fill the skills gap that exists across this country. In my opinion, the education system is slightly unbalanced in how different institutions are viewed, whether they are schools, colleges or universities. We still need to get over the stigma that is attached to going to a further education college, because going to university is not for everyone, and—as has been picked up in this debate—too often careers guidance, particularly in the school environment, is focused on providing guidance specifically on the academic route. Representing a fantastic constituency such as Keighley, where we have many manufacturing, engineering and tech-based businesses, I know we must ensure that those skills opportunities can be filled by the many young people who are growing up there and further afield by making sure that those young people know how to secure those opportunities. There is nothing wrong with people choosing any route in life.

As I have said, that feeling that everyone must go down an academic route is helping to fuel the skills shortage in this country, where certain industries are not getting the talent they need. I have some fantastic businesses in my constituency such as Byworth Boilers, which has its own agenda on getting people into the apprenticeship route. It openly goes out to schools to provide direct communication to students who are going through their educational journey, to let them know about the range of opportunities that exist, because too many people are still not grasping the opportunities that are available to them, particularly with regards to the technical courses at further education institutions.

Career guidance can help with that: it is how young people can find out about not just the opportunities that are made available through universities, but the great opportunities that are made available through Keighley College, which is a fantastic further education institution in Keighley. It is pleasing to hear that the Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), is slowly working its way through the House and becoming law. That Bill will help to achieve exactly that aim, and it was a pleasure to be able to speak on Second Reading and support its passage through Parliament, because there is so much to support in it. The measure will help to establish greater consistency across the education system by bringing schools and academies in line with one another when it comes to providing careers guidance. The Bill will also help to fulfil the commitments laid out in the Government’s “Skills for Jobs” White Paper by extending the duty of careers guidance to all students throughout their time at secondary school. Of course, it is absolutely vital that we provide that opportunity through secondary schools and, earlier on, through primary schools—instilling that enthusiasm, and giving young people the chance, opportunities and willpower they need at an early age to explore and achieve anything in life if they wish. It will also achieve greater parity between different types of education institutions.

By extending career guidance to those in year 7, young people will be able to make much more informed decisions about what to do post-16, whether that is attending a further education college or going to university, or anything else, such as exploring the fantastic manufacturing, engineering and tech-based businesses in my constituency. I am delighted that the Government are supporting the Bill and I wholeheartedly hope that it passes through the House in good time.

Before I call the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we have worked the intricate maths. The debate will finish at 5.41 pm. I will call the Opposition spokesperson at 5.23 pm, allowing the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) a couple of minutes to wind up the debate. Is everyone happy? Great.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Rees, renewing the relationship with you in charge and myself making a small contribution, as often happens in this Chamber. I thank the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for setting the scene so well for each and every one of us. I know that the Minister has no responsibility for Northern Ireland; however, I will give a Northern Irish perspective, as I often do, to replicate and support what the right hon. Member for Tatton has said on the importance of careers choice and guidance in schools, and where we want to be on that matter.

It is a pleasure to be here and to participate in this debate. I have stated all too often that children are the future, and I believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that they have the platform and the opportunities to make the most of their lives in terms of employment. I think I recall intervening on the right hon. Lady when she spoke in a Friday debate—while I was in Parliament for my Automated External Defibrillators (Public Access) Bill—to support her as she once again pursued careers guidance for young people.

It is a great reassurance to know that the correct strategies are in place for schools. As the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members have said, it is very important for where we are with our schools and the guidance that they give. The preparing for success strategy, set out by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, aims to develop more effective career decision makers, leading to increased and appropriate participation in education, training and employment. Schoolchildren in Northern Ireland choose their GCSEs in year 10, when they are 14 or 15 years old. It is fair to say that children are forced—albeit gently—to think about their futures at a young age, so it is essential that the support is in place to enable them to start doing that.

I have served on the board of governors of Glastry College, one of the schools in my constituency for—my goodness; I am just trying to think—more than 30 years. Although I did not attend that school, my boys did. What I have learned from being on the board of governors was that there is a chance to guide young people to where they want to be. Not everybody will be educationally inclined; some are more physically focused and want to work on farms or in factories, and there is plenty of choice for that in my constituency. The main thing is that young people understand the opportunities they have.

There are many schools in my constituency of Strangford that offer sixth-form education. In particular, I would like to mention the South Eastern Regional College in Newtownards, which has countless specialities for teens to take an interest in, whether in mechanics, beauty treatment, working in shops or managing a business—those courses are all there.

Recent statistics have shown that a massive 65% of those studying for a degree admit to having regrets about their academic choice. Further statistics show that two out of five schoolchildren in their final year of school would feel like a failure if they did not progress to university. Not everybody can, should or needs to go to university, but it is good to know that they will have that opportunity if they have the ability to do so. I must say that better careers guidance in schools has the potential to reduce those figures, which I find quite shocking. I have spoken to younger constituents who have said that their schools allocate each of them a careers adviser, with whom they have one-to-one chats throughout the years they are at school. I strongly encourage that not only in schools but in universities and colleges. Some children have little or no idea what they want to do in life, and that is just the way it is, but they do focus. I certainly ended up doing something that I never expected—I always had an interest in politics, but I never thought I would be here—and it is the same for many people.

The lack of careers guidance and support can factor into this. The JobReaders Academy has revealed that the second biggest factor in why six in every 100 pupils drop out of university is poor secondary school preparation. If that is where it starts, that is where things need to start improving. We must remember it is not solely down to secondary schools to teach our young people; the correct careers advice must be readily available in universities, too.

We must ensure that our schoolchildren are encouraged to start thinking about their futures. Yes, it is scary, and I cannot stand here today and say that when I was a wee boy, I was 100% sure what I wanted to be—apart from wanting to be a Royal Marines soldier, a train driver, a shopkeeper, a salesman and ultimately to have my own business. All those sorts of things go through someone’s mind when they are aged nought to 10, or nought to 16, and they may end up somewhere they did not expect to be.

Ofsted has revealed that schoolchildren want to see more information on the full range of courses run by FE colleges and other providers, since not everyone wants to do A-levels and go to university. It is essential that there is the opportunity to do that through careers guidance. We want all young people to have the same opportunities, if possible, but they will go their own ways.

I urge the Minister and the Department to work with their education counterparts in the devolved nations to ensure that children have access to all sorts of careers advice, and so that we can exchange ideas. I am sure that she does so regularly with her counterparts in the other regional Administrations. I believe that careers guidance should start in schools and not stop at university. Many young people from Northern Ireland end up at universities here in the mainland. Guidance should be available inside and outside education settings, and we must not let our youngest be hindered from reaching their full potential because they did not have the means to get there in the first place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this important debate. Evidence shows that the best careers education in schools has the potential to promote social equity and enable greater social mobility. That is why preparing all students for the world of work must be a key element of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.

I am pleased that Stoke-on-Trent is leading the way as one of the 20 areas taking part in the Government’s careers hubs programme. It is fantastic to see the cluster of 20 secondary schools and colleges working together with partners in the business, public, education and voluntary sectors to deliver and implement the Gatsby benchmarks and improve careers outcomes for young people.

St Joseph’s College in my constituency is one of the schools taking part in the programme. The school provides a shining example of a rounded careers education programme, including lessons on skills and aspirations, financial decision making and goal setting from year 7 onwards. We must ensure that every student in this country has the tools to achieve their full potential.

The world of work is ever changing, and the options for careers today do not resemble those of even a decade ago. We also need to recognise that the values of this generation are different from those of their parents and grandparents. For many young people, the social value of work is more important than earning the highest salary, for example. Indeed, careers advice as a term is rather dated. The knowledge and skills that young people acquire during their education are often transferrable, and the range of work available in a digital age is incredibly broad.

We should not underestimate the longer-term impact of the global pandemic on career choices for the next generation either, because jobs that were considered secure a few years ago may not look so risk-free now. The travel and leisure industries, retail and hospitality all faced enormous challenges during the pandemic. I have been told by several engineering companies that the status of jobs in their sector is poor, and that young people are not encouraged to consider work in an industrial setting as a good career option. The attitude that it is a career of last resort is typified by one managing director’s comment that parents and teachers are still likely to say, “You’d better work hard at school or you will end up in a factory.”

I recently visited the LiDR contract furniture company in my constituency and saw the state-of-the-art design systems and complex high-tech equipment that bespoke contract furniture manufacturers need. The director said that he preferred to train up an apprentice with the right attitude than to employ a graduate with all the technical skills but not the wider understanding of the whole operation, which relied more on knowledge of the whole than simply on a knowledge of computer-aided design systems. Attitude and aptitude are the key qualities employers look for. Time and again, I hear the comment that too many young people do not stay the course or simply do not show up after a few days or weeks in the job.

In summary, it is essential that careers guidance is integrated into the personal development journey of all young people to instil aspiration, self-belief and an understanding of the opportunities available to them. It is a core function of education to prepare young people for the best possible future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), who has been an extraordinary champion in this area; the fact that so many of us are here today pays testament to that. I also wish to put on the record my support for the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) on education and careers guidance, which will be debated on Friday. I am particularly pleased that the Government’s “Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth” White Paper has seen a commitment to a national rolling-out of careers hubs, digital support, careers leader training and the enterprise adviser network, all of which complement the Gatsby benchmarks. I understand that Sir John Holman has been tasked with delivery. Can the Minister tell us where we are with progress on that?

As ever, there is much to be done and there is great regional disparity, not least within the south-west, and I am working to close that gap in south Devon. On my patch, a post-18 career fair will be held to invite year 12 and 13 students to meet local employers, working with Kingsbridge Academy, King Edward VI Community College, or KEVICC, Brixham College, Churston Ferrers and South Devon College, to name but a few. Those career hub events seek to promote the opportunities available in south Devon and to highlight the extraordinary variety of businesses, but most importantly to provide our students with an understanding of what is available to them. All too often, there is a perception that we have to move away from home to find the work we want to do. I want to be able to try and disprove that perception.

I want to make three quick points—I will sit down at three minutes. First, we need to start early, as my right hon. Friend said. Secondly, we need hands-on experience; people need to try and test different jobs. I started off my life as a waiter in Royal Hospital, as well as in The Queen’s Gallery, and then I went on to be a shepherd on the Isle of Mull. I went on to be a ship broker and then to work behind a bar. Now I have sadly failed and become a Member of Parliament. Such hands-on experience allows people to see what can be achieved. I am hoping to get money for the fisheries and seafood scheme to build such a school in Dartmouth at Noss on Dart to make sure people can get into the fishing sector.

Thirdly, we need to promote the local opportunities across the country, and part of the levelling-up agenda has to be about providing those jobs and those interests for people.

I want to make a quick point about parents and their importance in influencing their children’s career choices. What does my hon. Friend say about that?

That is very timely; I know how much of a champion my hon. Friend is for local schools, working with educators, parents and employers alike to make sure we can find the right opportunities. We have to engage all our communities together to make sure that those opportunities can be found.

In summary, we have to ensure that our children’s horizons are broadened, that the opportunities are made available and that they are made aware that we can provide the support and insight for them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and also to point out to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) that I was born on the council estate in Wythenshawe and made it to be an MP. So there we are: there is one already—more to follow.

We have a difficulty in Leicestershire in that all too often people get their first job, which is low paid and low skilled, and then remain in it. That is fine when people are living at home with their parents and single, but when they move on to have a family or want to move to another place, then it is more difficult. I have been working on a life skills project for a couple of years, alongside Barclays, Communities that Work and East Midlands Housing, to try and promote ways of being able to pay rent and move on in life by getting additional skills. Really, I am just following on from my predecessor, the wonderful Baroness Morgan of Cotes, who worked on a project with Loughborough College called Bridge to Work and is now on the board of the Careers & Enterprise Company, working along the same lines as Bridge to Work when it started out.

Since setting up the Careers & Enterprise Company and the careers hubs in the area, we have retrieved all sorts of good statistics that meet the Gatsby model. For example, more than six in 10 schools nationally are taught maths and English in a way that links lessons to jobs and careers—a 44% increase on 2019. Nine in 10 colleges also taught the curriculum in a way that highlighted the relevance of a subject to future career paths, and 84% of schools provided information about apprenticeships to their students. Those are some of the achievements that the Careers and Enterprise Company has highlighted.

I want to highlight three excellent examples in Loughborough. Limehurst Academy’s work is spearheaded by the proactivity of its wonderful head, Jonathan Mellor. It has embedded careers education across the academy’s curriculum, from subject areas right through to personal development, citizenship and targeted interventions, as has Rawlins Academy, which is also leading the way. It has rewritten its careers education programme from start to finish to build careers conversations into every subject area. Finally, there is the Careers and Enterprise Hub that is funded by the town deal fund in Loughborough. It is central to the town, providing careers advice and a way to access jobs and to meet with employers; there are interviews and seminars within the building, and it really works.

One of the points I want to raise with the Minister is access to careers advice from a younger age. I believe that the Careers and Enterprise Company focuses on years 8 to 13, but we should look at year 7 or even younger. After I passed my 11-plus, I went to a state grammar school in Congleton in Cheshire, and I had only been there a matter of weeks, when, at 11 years old, Mrs Hall said to me, “Which university have you thought about going to?” I had never even thought about going to university—I was the first in my family to do so—but these points need to be considered.

Thank you, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) gave a storming speech. The quickest way to summarise my speech would be to say I agree with everything she said—I thought it was marvellous. I declare my interest as a governor at two schools in my constituency.

When it comes to the challenge of levelling up, careers guidance is absolutely central to what we are trying to do. Effectively, levelling up is correcting market failure in one of four areas—housing, infrastructure, skilled jobs or having a skilled and educated workforce. As an MP who represents an ex-mining area as I do in Bolsover, the problem is very specifically about looking at having a skilled workforce and skilled jobs in the area. We do not have a history of that.

We have a history of mining, and that creates a cultural challenge, and a gap in aspirations that needs to be corrected. Whether that comes from parents, schools, the community, or—even better—from all three together, we need to be able to change the culture of an area over time, and careers guidance is absolutely central to that. I am not going to look the Chair in the eye because it is very off-putting—I do not know when I have to sit down—so I will carry on regardless.

There are three incredibly important points to make. The first is about pathways. My right hon. Friend outlined quite beautifully that young people need to be able to understand what careers are available to them, which can be incredibly difficult unless they come into contact with those careers. We need clear role models—identifiable, local role models—and to work with employers in the local area to be able to say, “This is what you can do.”

The second point is about aspiration, and the mindset—encouraging young people, wherever they are from, that they can achieve things and making that clear. The third point is reinforcement—saying over and over again that someone can achieve what they need to achieve.

I could not agree more with the need to start young, and to continue with careers guidance. That is such a crucial point—I ruined my notes by scribbling it down. It is unbelievably important. The point on supporting not just academic pathways, but technical ones, and the importance of having provision—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) for bringing forward this timely and helpful debate, on an issue that is vital to the future of young people and to our country. I know all Members will watch the progress of the private Member’s Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson) with interest. It has Labour’s support.

We have heard from a number of speakers on a range of important issues, including access, quality, frequency, variety, consistency, and how fruitful partnerships are between businesses and schools. They make a real difference to the outcomes for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) reminded us how seriously our party takes the issue; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) made it a centrepiece of his speech at party conference. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about how early young people can make decisions that affect their lives, and how those should be backed up by good advice. A number of Members raised how good-quality careers advice helps social mobility, the impact of the pandemic on the jobs market, and the importance of getting advice early.

At the heart of the debate is a desire to ensure that young people are ready for work and for life. There has been a noticeable surge in that sentiment since the pandemic. While parents will always want to see their children succeed academically, with high attainment in subject-based learning, many are increasingly concerned that their children should leave school as well rounded individuals with the skills to succeed in the wider world; yet the availability and quality of careers advice remains patchy, and the Government must move further and faster to outfit children with the skills that they need.

Teachers, parents, children and business communities agree. According to Parentkind’s 2021 “Parent Voice” report, just half of parents say that their school offers good careers advice. The Centre for Education and Youth’s “Enriching Education Recovery” report makes it clear that the vast majority of teachers, parents and children agree that there should be improvements to access. That is echoed by the business community. In 2019, a CBI survey said that 44% of employers felt that young people leaving education were not work ready. It also highlighted the geographic variation in engagement with employers in education settings. I visited St Edmund’s Catholic School in my constituency last week, which has a very good offer, but more broadly students in rural and coastal communities face a postcode lottery in access to joined-up support.

The Sutton Trust has concluded:

“All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice”;

yet a recent Careers England survey tells us that three quarters of schools have insufficient, limited or no funding with which to deliver what is needed. About a third of secondary schools say that they receive the equivalent of £5 per student, with 5% receiving just £2. The inclusion of the Gatsby benchmarks as part of the DFE’s statutory guidance on careers education represents welcome and modest progress, but ultimately, despite a northern powerhouse strategy in 2016, a careers strategy in 2017, the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper in January 2021 and the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, little action has been taken to address the postcode lottery that our children face in accessing the skills and opportunities that they need in school to navigate the world of work.

Labour is backing pupils, parents, businesses and educators with its pledge to give every child access to quality careers advice in their school. Our plan would allow children to access a professional careers adviser one day a week. That would be achieved by increasing the Careers and Enterprise Company’s grant funding, allowing it to employ more advisers in every school. That would enhance the ability to strengthen links between schools and local employers across the board, guaranteeing standards and eliminating the current postcode lottery.

Practical careers advice is closely linked to the invaluable hands-on experience that children get during periods of work experience. Here again, we find a record of failure from successive Conservative-led Governments. The next Labour Government would introduce six weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience, reversing its removal from the curriculum by the coalition Government and equipping young people with the skills that they need. In addition to support for schools, we will work with businesses, communities and others to ensure that they offer the placements needed. Once again, Labour is restoring a skills-led agenda for our children, while successive Conservative Governments have mortgaged their future.

The hon. Member makes an interesting point about the need for careers advice. We would all love for young people to spend more time with business, engaging with different kinds of work and getting to grips with what they want to do in life. He says that the Labour party is committed to a statutory six weeks of work experience per child. How does he envisage that he will find all those placements in his communities, and where will the capacity come from to deliver that level of experience?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We have already heard a number of examples of how businesses are working closely with schools across the country, and we want to amplify that message even further.

Improved careers advice in schools must be a key building block in our children’s lives, and I therefore have a number of questions to ask the Minister. Alongside academic attainment, enhanced vocational and technical qualifications, and university, does the Minister agree that careers advice must play a much larger role in getting young people ready for work? Will she adopt Labour’s pledges to ensure that schools have the funding and structures in place that are needed to deliver this? I would also be keen to hear her reflections on the availability and quality of careers guidance in schools, and particularly on the disparity in access that exists for students at maintained schools.

We owe it to the next generation to get this right. From an economic perspective, we cannot afford not to.

I want to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing this really important debate, and on building on her years of pioneering work in this space by setting up the charity If Chloe Can, which is empowering thousands of young girls and women in Cheshire and beyond. Like her, I know from personal experience that role models can inspire and change lives. I am sure that many of us would not be sitting in this room had it not been for role models in our lives, but not everybody has that luxury. The value of having people whom we look up to and turn to for guidance and support at a young age is something that I see every day in the Department for Education, so I am delighted that If Chloe Can is helping to connect schools to leaders and mentors from many different industries and sectors.

Having spoken in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber a number of times over the last two years about the exciting skills and careers revolution that is taking place in education, I must say that I am pleased to be here today to talk specifically about what we are doing to improve careers guidance across all our schools and colleges. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) highlighted, all the evidence shows that improving careers guidance fuels ambition, lifts aspiration and encourages young people to reflect on their strengths and interests, to find careers that they are interested in pursuing, and to develop the skills and attributes that they need to succeed in those careers. The foundation of making that a reality is careers guidance in our secondary schools.

As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members agree, every secondary school pupil, regardless of background or geography, should have inspiring careers resources available to them, just as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) outlined. Clear, universal careers guidance from an early age not only ensures that everyone has a fair opportunity to get on in life; it also levels up the playing field. That is why we are strengthening the legal framework so that every secondary pupil is guaranteed access to high-quality, independent careers guidance. Careers guidance, in itself, is not the panacea; the quality is absolutely crucial.

My hon. Friend is right to say that high-quality careers advice should be available to everybody throughout their time at secondary school. I once asked a former Secretary of State for Education what happens if the Baker clause is not enacted by the school and it is not delivering such education or allowing outside bodies to come in and deliver careers advice. He replied that the Department would write a strongly worded letter to the school in order to insist that they should, but that did not really have a great deal of leverage. Can the Minister confirm that the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill strengthens the ability of the Government to direct that and ensures that it is much more likely that children will have access to external education providers?

I can confirm that. Ofsted is now playing a much more active role in looking at the careers support and guidance that is available to schools, including their utilisation of the Baker clause, so that we do not have the postcode lottery to which the hon. Member for Portsmouth South referred. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton spoke in support of the Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Bill, which is sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson). The Government wholeheartedly support that important Bill, which will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) outlined, extend careers provision to all pupils in state education, bringing year 7 and upwards into scope for the first time—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) called for in the debate. The Bill will also place a duty on all academy schools and alternative provision academies.

Through the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, we are also improving access to colleges and opportunities so that young people can hear directly from providers of approved technical education qualifications and apprenticeships about the wide range of opportunities that are open to them beyond school. A recent report by The Careers & Enterprise Company shows why that is so important. Uptake of apprenticeships was 16% higher in the schools that provided information on apprenticeships to most or all of their students, compared with the schools that provided information to a small minority.

It is for that very reason that we have taken such committed action in this area. First, we have put in place support to help schools to develop their careers offer so that pupils have much more comprehensive support, something that was stressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). That support helps them to plan for the next stages in their lives.

The Gatsby benchmarks, for example, are eight clear benchmarks recommended in the “Good Career Guidance” report produced by Gatsby, a leading education charity. Data from schools in England has shown that when all eight Gatsby benchmarks are met, the proportion of students in sustained post-16 education, employment or training rises by nearly 10%. In disadvantaged areas, that same figure rises by a staggering 20%. We have adopted the Gatsby benchmarks as our career framework for secondary schools and colleges. They are based on robust international evidence and they provide a clear definition of what world-class careers guidance really looks like.

In fact, we are investing £28 million this year for the CEC to support schools and colleges to implement the Gatsby benchmarks. That is part of a total £100 million investment in careers guidance for the financial year 2021-22. New careers hubs allow schools and colleges to form strong local partnerships with businesses, providers and the voluntary sector so that they can collaborate and improve careers guidance. By September 2021, two thirds of schools and colleges in England were already part of the careers hub. Additionally, careers leaders are a brand-new workforce of specially trained staff who will drive forward careers programmes in schools and colleges. Since the launch of the training in September 2018, more than 2,200 careers leaders have engaged in the funded training. In addition, around 4,000 senior business volunteers are now working as enterprise advisers to schools and colleges.

Already 21 secondary schools and colleges in the Cheshire and Warrington LEP are in a careers hub, and enterprise advisers are already matched with 90% of schools and colleges across the area. Of those enterprise advisers, 64% are sourced from small and medium enterprises, and I am pleased to say that 52% are female.

To return to the importance of role models, our funding is helping to increase young people’s exposure to employers and the world of work. That includes schools and colleges linking up with providers and employers that offer mentoring opportunities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton also raised important points about the work of the CEC in relation to the National Careers Service. Sir John Holman has been tasked with making recommendations to drive greater alignment and collaboration between the CEC and the service. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) that those findings will be published in the summer. I am sure that hon. Members will be updated as and when those responses are forthcoming. It is a brilliant achievement that, through the CEC, we are now working with 300 cornerstone employers to challenge those negative stereotypes identified by Members to—as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) put it—instil aspiration and understanding of the opportunities available. Those employers are working closely with local partnerships at schools and colleges to support employer encounters and ensure that young people are exposed to the world of work and the broad possibilities of potential career paths lying ahead.

Employers such as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Gatwick airport and Hilton hotels have seen benefits from their roles as cornerstone employers in developing their pipeline of skilled employees. As a cornerstone employer, Pinewood Studios has recently co-designed immersive maths lessons for pupils at 21 different secondary schools. Thanks to that partnership, 14,000 young people are now learning about careers in new ways, and the ambition is to showcase those lessons to hundreds more schools in the coming years.

With those achievements in mind, I want to conclude with a look ahead to the future. Our skills revolution, combined with an innovative new careers guidance system, will help to lead millions of young people into the careers that suit them. Initiatives like If Chloe Can are helping to drive us forward. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton is due to meet the Secretary of State for Education to explore how we can collaborate and build on that excellent work. I am sure that the skills Minister will be only too happy to join that meeting.

In one minute, I want to thank everyone who has spoken today. It has been a positive, uniting and uplifting debate, showing that we all understand the importance of good-quality and consistent career advice, work placements and educational pathways. I am confident that the Government also understand the importance of those, and are taking steps to make them better.

This is not to put extra work on teachers’ shoulders; they have a lot to be getting on with. This should be making life easier for them and their pupils. If any pupils or teachers have been watching today, I want them to know that we are not all fusty old Members of Parliament. We actually have their best interests at heart and are fighting to bring opportunities to the next generation.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered the matter of careers guidance in schools.

Sitting adjourned.