Tuesday 8 March 2022
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
Metropolitan Police: Misogyny and Sexual Harassment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate, especially today, on International Women’s Day. The last time I made a speech in Parliament to mark International Women’s Day, I was the only female Liberal Democrat MP. Five years later, I find myself a proud member of a party that is, as of December 2021, 70% female. It is my profound belief that stronger female representation in all of our organisations and institutions can improve the lives of women and girls everywhere, and it is that belief, above all else, that propelled me along the path that led to Parliament.
When I was re-elected as the Member for Richmond Park in December 2019, it was a particular pleasure to find that women were in positions of responsibility at every level in the police force. My local borough inspectors in both Kingston and Richmond have at various times been women. The commander of the local basic command unit and her predecessor are women. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan police was a woman. The Home Secretary is a woman. How could my part of London not be a utopia of safety and justice for women? There have, however, been several events over the last year that have caused many of my constituents to be concerned about police officers’ attitudes towards women, and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about that.
Our debate today will be haunted by the memory of Sarah Everard, who was killed by PC Wayne Couzens of the Metropolitan police just over a year ago, on 3 March 2021. Women across London and beyond experienced the news of her disappearance and the discovery of her body with a sense of real dread and fear. I felt it very personally, because the address where Sarah said her final goodbye to her friends was only a few streets away from where I used to live, and I would have pushed my baby daughter’s pram along the route where my namesake walked her last walk. Like many other women on that night and many others, she was just walking home. Thousands of women who did not know Sarah felt real grief at the news that her body had been found. Everything that we had heard about the case seemed to speak to our very deepest fears.
But then something even worse happened. Even now, 12 months later, I can still recall how terrifying it was to discover that the man who had been arrested in connection with her murder was a serving Metropolitan police officer. A person who was employed to keep us safe and enforce the law, and whom we ought to be able to trust, had betrayed that trust in the worst possible way and committed an act of violence against a defenceless woman.
A few days after the arrest, Reclaim These Streets wanted to organise a vigil for Sarah Everard. They approached Lambeth police but were refused permission. A gathering took place anyway; it was attended by police, and it proceeded in an orderly fashion until the early evening, when speeches started to be made from the bandstand and crowds grew denser. A number of arrests were made, and pictures of women being handcuffed while being held down by police spread on social media. For many women, myself included, it looked like an appallingly heavy-handed response to a peaceful vigil. It felt like an insult, on top of an already grievous injury, that the colleagues of the man arrested for murdering a woman were now using force to prevent other women from gathering together to pay tribute to her.
The subsequent report into the police’s conduct by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services exonerated the police while criticising politicians and others for expressing their opinions on what had happened. The 60-page report made only the most passing reference to the fact that the man arrested for the incident that sparked the vigil was a police officer; its analysis of the factors that contributed to the event does not include that fact. The report states that public confidence in the police will have been undermined not by the violent actions of a police officer but by “media coverage” and “uninformed commentary” on social media. I remember being furious at the report, not just at its complete failure to reflect the full context of the vigil, but at its implication that those critical of the police response—and I was certainly one of them—were more responsible for undermining trust in the police than was the fact that one of their number had been arrested for murder.
The sense that the police were not acknowledging the implications of the fact that Sarah’s murderer was a police officer was compounded by messaging from the Met police about women’s safety, following the conviction and sentencing of Wayne Couzens in September 2021. It advised women who were unsure whether a police officer intended to harm them that they could flag down a bus or shout to a passer-by for assistance. It felt not only as though the Met was accepting that it was the norm for women to fear the police, but as though it was not going to take any responsibility for resolving that.
That episode has damaged public confidence in the Met, but we also know that Wayne Couzens is not the only police officer to have committed violence against women. Freedom of information data shows that 2,000 accusations of sexual misconduct, including rape, have been made against Met police officers over the past four years. Only a third of officers who were found guilty have been dismissed. We also know that Couzens was previously convicted of indecent exposure and regularly shared grossly offensive messages over WhatsApp with other police officers. That did not trigger concerns about his conduct.
However, PC Couzens is not the only officer guilty of sharing disturbing messages on social media platforms. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, sisters from north London, went missing in June 2020. Their bodies were eventually found by family members in a nearby park after police showed little interest in investigating. Two police officers were subsequently jailed for photographing the women’s bodies and sharing the photos on WhatsApp, including in a group of 41 police officers. The court released details of how the images had been altered and the accompanying messages, but I will not repeat them here.
A recent Independent Office for Police Conduct report on behaviour at Charing Cross police station revealed
“a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’, sexual harassment and misogyny.”
One officer had sent a WhatsApp message to a female colleague, saying:
“I would happily rape you”.
Another bragged about how he had hit his girlfriend, saying:
“It makes them love you more.”
Women officers were belittled and ostracised if they spoke out about this behaviour.
Women fear that an internal culture of misogyny might also affect how police treat members of the public. I have had women get in touch with me to share their experiences of having complaints of stalking and harassment dismissed—even laughed at—by Metropolitan police officers, leaving them feeling powerless and abandoned, and as though the behaviour of their perpetrators had been normalised.
I am grateful to the superintendent of our local basic command unit for taking time to give me her perspective on the issue. She reports a great deal of frustration among police officers that there is so much public attention on and criticism of the police in relation to those events, when the majority of police officers are dedicated, law-abiding and committed to helping their communities. Politicians, particularly Members of Parliament, can relate strongly to the feeling that the damaging actions of a small minority can lead to a disproportionate erosion of public trust in a collection of people, but there is a special responsibility on both law makers and law enforcers to ensure that they uphold the law, in public and in private, and that when there is a visible breach, adequate action is taken swiftly and effectively to denounce the polluting behaviour and to restore public trust.
Public trust is earned; it is not a given. To have it, we must constantly work to uphold the values that are expected of us—both police officers and politicians. Events as horrifying and disturbing as the instances of misogyny described in this speech will, rightly, lead to a large public response. The events of the last year are, after all, not just minor misdemeanours, and I believe that the public’s questioning of the police is valid, even if the perceived scale of damaging attitudes among officers is disproportionate.
That is not to say that public trust has been damaged beyond repair. Baroness Louise Casey is leading an independent review of culture and standards in the Met, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard. The review offers the Met an opportunity to identify areas in which there is a need for cultural change and to inform a dedicated strategy to tackle misogyny. To ensure that damaging attitudes are given appropriate recognition, I urge that the review’s terms of reference be expanded to make specific reference to misogyny, alongside racism and homophobia.
Our police officers need our trust, and the vast majority deserve it. They have a unique job to do, which requires them to put themselves in harm’s way without a second thought. I am grateful for the excellent job that so many of them do without recognition or appreciation. They have been badly let down by their colleagues, and I recognise that many of them feel as horrified as I do about what has been revealed over the past year.
The recent IOPC report on Charing Cross revealed a number of factors that contributed to the toxic culture it identified. Those included the fact that officers were often isolated and lacked supervision, and that there was widespread acting up, with officers taking on unofficial promotions. That meant that inappropriate behaviours or attitudes were not properly challenged at the right time, and so they became normalised. That strongly suggests that the lack of appropriately experienced or trained police officers has been a contributory factor in allowing negative behaviours to flourish unchecked, which leads back to the dramatic cuts to policing in the capital over the past decade. We know that the Met has been promised more officers, but reports suggest that recruitment is slow and new, inexperienced officers will not change the picture overnight.
The most high-profile new recruit will be the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I look forward to a speedy appointment. If I could end this speech with one ask, it would be that they pay attention to the findings of the IOPC report and to the review by Baroness Casey, and think hard about how to create a culture that reinforces respectful behaviour at all levels, deals robustly with evidence of misogynistic, racist and homophobic attitudes, and, above all, understands the impact that violent or disrespectful behaviour by police officers, even when it is by only a very small proportion, has on their relationship with the public.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and to take part in this debate, which is the first debate in the House of Commons on International Women’s Day. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing such an important and relevant debate on this day, about an issue that touches the hearts of many of our constituents and of every single Member of Parliament—if it does not, it should.
It is International Women’s Day, Mrs Cummins, so I hope you can forgive me for referring to some of the policewomen in my own constituency. In Hampshire, we are blessed with a wide range of talented police officers who are women, who play an enormous part in tackling the issue that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has brought before us today. They include Olivia Pinkney, who is now chief constable; Karen McManus, who is another very senior officer; Maggie Blyth, who we were fortunate to have in Hampshire and who I believe is now at the Met; and the astonishingly energetic Donna Jones, who is our police and crime commissioner. In Hampshire we are fortunate to have some formidable women helping to lead on these issues, along with a lot of female Members of Parliament. That is important, as I will come to later, because diversity in the police force is crucial.
As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, we are 12 months on from the murder of Sarah Everard, but over that time we have seen a series of enormously worrying and public allegations of systemic misogyny in the Met police area, and not only in relation to the murder of Sarah Everard. I echo the hon. Lady’s comment that the police officers involved in such behaviour and thinking are in the minority, but even so they erode public trust, which is crucial to UK policing. That is why she is right to bring this debate before the House today, and it is right that the Government are taking the matter so seriously.
This is not just about the murder of Sarah Everard, but the policing of the vigil on Clapham common. I echo the hon. Lady’s comments; to me, that policing felt heavy handed. People were there out of frustration and devastation at such a horrific murder, and they wanted to be able to express that publicly. The Met police did not seem to get their response right, and that was worrying. There have also been the murders of Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Sabina Nessa, and, most recently, the IOPC report into the behaviour of officers at Charing Cross police station. One of those elements might have been an aberration, but the series of them shows that there is a systemic problem. I was pleased to see the Government recognise that in establishing the inquiry. We should not forget the reports of more than 600 allegations of sexual misconduct by Met police officers. That systemic problem seems to run deep.
In trying to ensure we understand how we can re-establish trust in the police, the Government’s response has been important. The Home Secretary is right to commission a report into the failings of policing in the Met, but the Government’s response has to go wider than that if we are to tackle the problem at its root cause. I was pleased to see the relaunch of the violence against women and girls strategy in the summer. That will have an impact on the way in which violence against women and girls is dealt with throughout Government policy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, can update the House on how she will ensure that the VAWG strategy really does directly tackle the issues that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has brought up in the debate. If we cannot have faith and trust in enforcement of the law as it stands, the issues that we face here as legislators are all the greater.
I hope that the Minister, when she responds to the debate, can also cover where we are on trying to deal with some of the root causes of the problem that necessitates this debate. I am thinking particularly of the roll-out of mandatory relationships and sex education in our schools. That has been woefully delayed as a result of many issues, including the need to ensure that schools are ready, but also the delays caused by the pandemic. If we are truly to tackle the horrific issues and behaviour under discussion and the normalisation of misogynistic behaviour, we have to get sex and relationships education ingrained in our schools and ingrained in the teaching of every single school-age child.
I hope that the Minister can also address a couple of other issues, because if we are to be able to tackle the issues that have been outlined in the Met, we have to tackle the issues for police forces UK-wide. I have no reason not to believe—in fact, there is a great deal of evidence, including in my own local police force in Hampshire, to suggest—that misogyny is prevalent. Tribunal cases are regularly brought against officers. Indeed, sexual misconduct and the abusing of power are also prevalent, not only in the Met police but on a much wider level.
I therefore hope that the Minister can touch on what is being done in police forces throughout the country to address this cultural problem, which perhaps reflects society more widely; how this issue is being addressed, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have with the recruitment of 20,000 new officers into our police forces in the UK; how we are ensuring that the diversity of those officers can drive the change that hon. Members here today are looking for; and the fact that, through disciplinary proceedings—I have to say that my local newspaper, the Basingstoke Gazette, has been formidable in its pursuance of transparency in disciplinary proceedings—we are ensuring that there is nowhere to hide for the perpetrators of misogynistic behaviour in any of our police forces around the country. Transparency matters, because sunlight is the greatest form of disinfectant. We have to ensure that, if that minority of officers do transgress, they know not only that disciplinary proceedings will be undertaken but that they will be held to account publicly as members of a public service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mrs Cummins. Happy International Women’s Day.
I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for calling this hugely important debate. I said in the Chamber only last week that it is deeply troubling that we are here discussing yet again our inability as a society to protect 50% of our population from harassment and sexual assault, from rape and from murder. I went on to say that we should be talking about closing the gender pay gap, delivering for working-class women in low-paid sectors such as social care, bettering access to affordable childcare for young mothers, and much more. Now, we are even in Westminster Hall this morning talking about protecting women from those whose job it is to keep us safe. Let that sink in—from those whose job it is to keep us safe.
The retort of the Metropolitan police about a few rotten apples demonstrates that the rot is far more widespread, so let us say it here today clearly: there exists a culture of misogyny in the Metropolitan police. That statement is reinforced in great detail by the Operation Hotton learning report, which states:
“The team at Charing Cross where we identified these problems has now been disbanded, yet we have seen evidence of this behaviour in subsequent investigations. We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”
It is imperative that the Metropolitan Police Service sheds its natural instinct immediately to deflect, play down or dismiss the problems that have besieged it, which, among other organisational problems, hastened the resignation of the former commissioner. That is undoubtedly a wider problem that seems to be prevalent across the police force, with a culture of fear in “reporting your own”. The learning report touches on that:
“A reason for not reporting such behaviour was a lack of confidence that it would be dealt with effectively and fear of repercussions.”
Yesterday, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), I met the families of murder victims of domestic abuse. What was clear from meeting those family members is that we have such a long way to go to ensure that women are treated fairly and that their voices are heard. Yesterday, I mentioned recent documentaries about the victims of the Yorkshire ripper and how the police at the time reported on victims in terms of innocent versus guilty, as if any woman could be guilty and should be murdered by a random stranger. That is absolutely appalling.
When a serving police officer can claim to smack his partner, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park mentioned, and then joke with a colleague that such a grotesque act
“makes them love you more”,
we have real problems. Police officers deal with domestic abuse and violence against women and girls almost daily. Given that in this country we are meant to police by consent, how on earth can women have faith in those with the power to protect them if they hold views such as those exposed by Operation Hotton as widespread and if, even worse, those views are not taken seriously by the leadership of the Metropolitan police? What a sorry state of affairs.
On International Women’s Day, I sincerely hope the Minister will wholeheartedly commit without delay to hold the Metropolitan police accountable for getting rid of the stain of misogyny that is ingrained in its fabric. Today and every day we owe that to women everywhere.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mrs Cummins, and I associate myself with hon. Members who are present to support the debate on International Women’s Day. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was right that such behaviour is, unfortunately, not specific to the Met but is found across the United Kingdom. As I often do, I will give a wee flavour of an aspect of it from back home in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on introducing the debate. I also thank her for the opportunity to make a contribution. I support all the right hon. and hon. Members, colleagues and friends who are here.
At the outset, it is important to give context to the debate’s title. My thoughts are with the family of Sarah Everard, who still mourn her terrible loss and all the things that happened at that time. Nobody was unmoved by the awfulness of it, by how it happened and that it should be a police officer who carried out that most horrific and terrible crime. My lasting memory is of the photograph where she was stopped in the street by him and had no reason to believe there was any threat, as he was a police officer. Unfortunately, the circumstances proved that wrong. Today’s debate is about trying to stop that.
As a father and grandfather, I pause to question whether I have instilled in my sons respect for women as equals, and whether I have set a good example. The answer is that I truly hope I have. I am particularly proud of my boys. My wife deserves full gratitude for that because she reared them and instilled in them a respect for others.
The second question is not so easy. Can the society that we live in and in which my granddaughters are growing up treat them appropriately and give them adequate opportunity and protection? While I hope that that is the case, I am not so sure that it is. The contributions from the hon. Member for Richmond Park, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), along with those who will contribute, illustrate that very well.
It is my hope that the debate will continue to initiate a change of mindset in individuals, in society and in how we respond. Undoubtedly, there is work to be done across every spectrum of society and we must all ask ourselves, are we are doing enough? Is society doing enough? I ask the Minister, kindly and respectfully, are Government doing enough? Are we making the changes? Are we instilling the right mindset in our young men and women? Without doubt, this is a mammoth step and we have no option but to start the journey for my granddaughters, for the loved ones of those who are here today and for those watching the debate online, who have the same mindset as we have to make society a better place.
I am unable to comment specifically on the Met. Others have done so with much more knowledge and insight, have done so incredibly well and have illustrated the need for change. I can say, however, that that police service is not alone, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned earlier. I was somewhat disheartened—indeed, I was incredibly annoyed—to read an article in the Belfast Telegraph back home, which indicates that the problem is not limited to the Met. Indeed, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is taking active steps to address it as well.
There is, at last, an understanding or a realisation of what is taking place, how we change that and how society can do better. It was reported in the Belfast Telegraph that:
“During a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, it emerged that 19 officers are suspended from duties over sexual misconduct claims. A total of 25 incidents are being investigated, including some that happened while officers were on duty.”
I would suggest that when someone is called to the high office of being a police officer, there is an expectation that standards will be of the highest quality. Quite clearly, for some, that was not the case:
“The BBC reported that Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton has called the situation ‘very uncomfortable’.”
That is a gross understatement.
“A total of 15 suspensions have taken place in the last 12 month, which is three times that of the year before.”
If that is not difficult reading, it should be. If numbers are up three times what they were the year before, we need to do something drastic about the attitude and the response.
I commend the PSNI for its decision to undertake the work to eradicate inappropriate behaviour before it becomes the norm. I understand that that is an uncomfortable process for some; not only for the men in the force, but for the women. It is clear, however, that what should not need to be spoken to grown adults about how they treat people must be spoken, because some do not seem to have grasped their inappropriate and sometimes criminal behaviour. It is a reminder that although we might think that things are common sense, as they are for me, for everyone in this room and for 99.9% of those outside this room, and although we might think that a sense of humour means that anything can be said, but it cannot, it should not and it never should be. Some people need to think about that and be aware of the spoken word.
There is work to be done in every aspect of society, from training our children in the home and in school right through to working life. The case of Sarah Everard has shocked us to the core. It has numbed us, but I believe it has reinforced our realisation that something clearly must be done. The raft of complaints that followed show that it is not isolated. Indeed, some might say misogyny is endemic, which greatly worries me. As the PSNI has said, uncomfortable work must take place, and I believe that now is the time to put the money where the mouth is and to undertake that work urgently in every police force in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need to change the unhealthy conduct of a small group of people in the Met and other police forces across the country.
I am pleased to play a small part with my contribution, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park on securing the debate. I very much look forward to what others have to say, and I particularly look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I know grasps the issue with a strong hand. She will be able to give us the encouragement that we need and tell us that things will change for the better, which is what I want to see. I think it is what we all want, and our constituents out there want the same thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important and timely debate. I am proud, like her, to have been elected as one of the strong and formidable, but small, team of the 2019 Labour intake. Out of 26 Members, 20 of us are female. It is good that our two newest Members, taking our number to 28, are also female: my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and our newest colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton). That shows that Labour is committed to ensuring that women’s representation stays at the forefront, so that we can address the issues that we know women continue to face.
Last Thursday, I attended a service of prayer and reflection for the memory of Sarah Everard at Holy Trinity Clapham in my constituency. The 3rd of March marked a year since Sarah was horrifically kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan police officer. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park highlighted, Sarah was just walking home to Brixton Hill from her friend’s house near Clapham Common when she was kidnapped by the officer. As the MP for nearby Vauxhall, which includes part of Clapham Common, as the ex-councillor for Brixton Hill ward, and as a lifelong Brixton resident, the streets that Sarah walked are familiar to me and many of my constituents. I know the horrific feeling of insecurity that so many women still feel to this day. Since being elected to the House, I have walked those streets with my key in my hand because of that feeling of unsafety. It is sad that as I referred to my fantastic group of female MPs who were elected with me, I know that they have faced many threats of misogyny and violence directed at them—violence that is directed at women and girls up and down this country.
Sarah’s murder was certainly not the only incident of misogyny in the police. In June 2020, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death in Fryent country park, and the police officers responded by taking pictures and sharing them on WhatsApp. How could they even think that was an acceptable response? What would make someone bring out their phone, open WhatsApp and take pictures?
We have also heard of horrific messages between officers at Charing Cross police station, who casually joked about rape and domestic abuse. Too often we hear of misogynistic incidents, with police officers’ behaviour leading them to be described as “bad apples”, but we continue to see the flagrant disregard for women who have been murdered and the betrayal of women’s rights, and we see officers at entire police stations engaging in the most distressful and distasteful messages. Despite the evidence of rampant misogyny, we see an officer continue to be deployed, even to this House. We cannot conclude anything other than there is a deep cultural problem of misogyny in the Met police. Sadly, rather than stepping up to the challenge and looking at how to address and tackle it, the Met police’s response to such incidents has been to deepen the problem and say that the scale of the issue is small.
In response to the anger following Sarah Everard’s death, including the anger felt by so many of my constituents in Vauxhall who wanted to go out and support that vigil, we saw the police take a different approach. We saw the police be heavy-handed with those who came out for the vigil. In response to women rightly demanding safety on the street, the Met police responded by saying that they should flag down a bus, or call 999 if confronted by an officer they did not trust. A number of those women have confronted the police, and that is where the issue lies. Sadly, many of my Vauxhall constituents have raised problems, including the initial lack of response by the police in my borough when they raise issues of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Thankfully, my local borough commander and the BCU are responding to that.
The London rape review published in December 2021 found that 65% of rape victims dropped out of the process, because they do not trust it and are fed up—that is 65% of those who actually came forward to report the rape in the first instance. The Met police must stop the culture of expecting potential victims to pick up the slack of behavioural changes in response to that horrific incident of misogyny. We continue to raise the bar for women to engage in a society where safety seems so little and the efforts to tackle it seem low priority.
Across London, we are served by fantastic female MPs from all political parties, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who has served in this House since 1987. I hope that the Minister will work with that group of female MPs across London to look at how we can address the issue in the Met police. The arrival of a new Metropolitan Police Commissioner provides us with an opportunity for a sea change in how we combat institutionalised misogyny. I hope that the Minister will work with us, with female victims and with people leading the response to ensure that someone is appointed who is up to the job.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins.
I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate, in particular on International Women’s Day. It might seem odd at first for a Nottingham MP to be speaking in a debate about a police force in another city, but the Metropolitan police’s power and impact go much further than just London. In fact, the Met’s actions have been incredibly damaging to women in my city.
In 2003, an undercover Met officer, Mark Kennedy, was sent to spy on climate activists in Nottingham. He posed as a fellow activist at the Sumac Centre in my constituency, where he deceived one woman, Kate Wilson, into a relationship that lasted almost two years. He went on to deceive other women into sexual relationships until he was exposed by activists in 2010. He was far from alone: more than 20 undercover Met officers are known to have had sexual relationships, some with the knowledge of more senior police officers. At least three fathered children with women they had met undercover. After a 10-year legal battle brought courageously by Kate Wilson, the courts ruled that the Met’s failure to prevent undercover officers entering into sexual relationships amounted to sex discrimination and breached human rights.
Such misogyny is not confined to undercover policing. In 2013, 10 years later, my constituent, Dr Koshika Duff, was arrested for trying to give legal advice to a 15-year-old who was being stop and searched. She was violently strip-searched, while police made derogatory and misogynistic comments about her. They have since been forced to apologise and to pay financial compensation, but it is not yet known whether the officers will face disciplinary action.
I have spoken here about just two examples connected to my constituency, but countless more could be raised. A total of 594 complaints against Met employees for sexual misconduct were made between 2012 and 2018. A recent IOPC report found a shocking culture of misogyny among police officers at Charing Cross station. Again, that is not confined only to the Met. Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, agreed that
“it’s not just the odd deviant…what was expressed in those messages in Charing Cross could be in any police station.”
Indeed, the IOPC concluded:
“We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I wholly agree with her.
We must never forget that it was a serving Metropolitan police officer who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard almost exactly a year ago. It was his fellow Met police officers who used appalling, disproportionate force against women who were gathering on Clapham Common to mourn her death. There were appalling acts of institutional misogyny in the case of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and there have been many others. For over a year, I have been calling for an independent statutory inquiry into misogyny in the Met police. I hope the Minister will commit to that today.
We should be limiting the powers of the police, not handing them ever wider ones to be used at their discretion, as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 has done and as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes. We need to limit the power to stop and search, particularly the ability to strip-search, which is invasive and humiliating and puts women in a vulnerable position.
We must ensure that women who are at particularly high risk of abuse and exploitation by police officers or others are not needlessly criminalised, such as those with addiction issues and those who are homeless or undocumented migrants. Where there are other services that might more appropriately support vulnerable people of all genders, such as victims of domestic and sexual violence or those experiencing mental ill health, those services should be used instead of, or alongside, the police. None of those measures is foolproof, but they aim to reduce the opportunity for police officers to abuse their power and, as the debate has clearly shown, they are badly needed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on obtaining this debate. It is appropriate that we are having it on International Women’s Day.
Sadly, concerns about the level and extent of sexism and misogyny in the Metropolitan police are not new. The culture of the Metropolitan police and how they interact with the public has been of concern for many decades. I want to stress that saying that misogyny is endemic in the Metropolitan police force—as I believe it is—is not the same as saying that every single Metropolitan police officer is a misogynist. However, misogyny is too deeply embedded in the Metropolitan police force to ignore. There are too many examples of institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia for the force to be excused, as it very often is, as just having a few bad apples.
It was interesting to read an interview with Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, who is now the national lead for violence against women and girls for the National Police Chiefs Council. She said that this idea that it is a “few bad apples” is wrong and that policing, like other jobs with access to power, could attract people who wanted to
“use their power in a corrupt and criminal way.”
“There will be some attracted into working in policing, because of the powers that it offers them, the powers to exert and coerce other people, particularly vulnerable individuals. I think we shouldn’t be naive to that”.
We saw the spectacle of the now-departed Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who seemed to have difficulty in admitting that there was any problem at all, let alone to be willing to do anything about it. In response to her resignation, Ken Marsh declared he had no confidence in the London Mayor, but presumably he has every confidence in himself and his members. That comes despite the tally of awful incidents, which other Members have touched on. That includes, but is not confined to, the terrible death of Sarah Everard, the brutal treatment of the women who attended the vigil in her honour, and the culture that was revealed among police colleagues of Wayne Couzens, who raped and murdered her.
There are, of course, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, whose deaths were not initially investigated sufficiently by the Metropolitan Police Service, as their mother would argue. To add insult to injury, two police officers tasked with guarding their bodies took photographs of themselves with the bodies and shared them online among their colleagues.
Then there is the scandal of the culture at Charing Cross police station, which colleagues have touched on, and the treatment of one of my constituents at Stoke Newington police station, although I understand that she is also a Nottingham resident. The IOPC said that the Charing Cross report illustrates an ugly truth. Much of the investigation concerned messages passed between police officers on social media. The messages include:
“You ever slapped your missus? Makes them love you more.”
“I would happily rape you.”
“Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife.”
It is worth noting that the messages were not just grossly sexist; they were often racist. They spoke about “Somalian rats” and Muslim “fanatics”; there were references to Auschwitz; and the word “gay” was used as an insult. Those findings are bad enough, but the scale of bigotry will never be known because the police officers who were being investigated deliberately deleted material relevant to the investigation.
In my constituency, the Metropolitan police had to apologise and pay compensation to a completely innocent woman, Dr Konstancja Duff, whom they arrested and strip-searched. As Members have heard, she was only trying to help a 15-year-old child with a Know Your Rights card. It is worth hearing how Dr Duff described her experience:
“I was pinned to the floor of a cell by three female officers. I had my hands cuffed behind my back and my legs tied together while they cut off my clothes with scissors. They ripped out my earrings, grabbed my breasts roughly while turning me over, and even touched me between my legs, apparently looking for genital piercings”
—remember, this is a completely innocent woman. She continued:
“During the search, I could hear them talking with male officers who were standing by the open door.”
Their derogatory comments included,
“Treat her like a terrorist, I don’t care”
“What’s that smell? Oh, it’s her knickers”.
All of that was caught on CCTV. It took Dr Duff nine years to get justice, and she is an educated and relatively confident woman. How many other women are subjected to Metropolitan police sexism who do not have the confidence to pursue a civil claim? How can a police force that seems to be saturated in sexism identify and stop the next PC Couzens?
The IOPC said about Charing Cross police station:
“A culture developed that made it difficult to challenge oppressive comments and behaviour, and an environment that was hostile and felt unsafe for those who were the direct or indirect targets of the discrimination.”
Sadly, that has been the culture of too much of the Metropolitan police for too long. Change is long overdue. The new commissioner must be a reforming one and must not attempt to conduct business as usual or bring in merely cosmetic changes. The reform must be root and branch. Women—not just in London, but all over the country—depend on it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I too congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate on International Women’s Day. I want to start with a quick reflection on our meeting yesterday with some of the families of sisters, mothers and daughters who have been murdered at the hands of men. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) brought them to Parliament. What struck me was how many different errors had been made across the system in many of those murders. There was a woman who had a history of domestic abuse, but who had had two glasses of wine, so the man was tried for manslaughter not murder because there was an assumption that she was in some way responsible for what happened to her. There was also somebody who was pushed out of a high block of flats and killed, but the man has not been charged, even though, again, there was a history of domestic abuse, because the assumption was that she may have had some drugs and it was all her own fault.
What strikes me about today’s debate is that when we talk about misogyny and sexual harassment in the police force, it affects not just those who were affected immediately by that incident, but the way we do policing across the board. There are so many cases where assumptions have been made about women because of ingrained misogyny and sexism and where that has led to them being murdered by their partners, when those partners should have been locked up years before. People are getting away with murder when they should be locked up, because of how the police are thinking about things and approaching their investigations. This is therefore an incredibly important debate.
We have seen a series of issues in the Met police over the last year, which sadly do not just touch on misogyny but go wider. Obviously, we had the events of last year and the horrific murder of Sarah, and others have spoken of what happened in the case of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. We have had the Daniel Morgan inquiry, which suggested institutional corruption in the Metropolitan police, and the Stephen Port inquiry, which, although inconclusive, certainly showed unconscious bias against people who are gay, and where assumptions were again made about their deaths. There are clearly cultural problems in the force.
Others have made the point that the problem goes beyond the Metropolitan police, and that is important because if we focus just on the Met, we miss problems across the country. There have been instances of misogyny and sexual violence in other forces, such as West Mercia and Dorset. We have seen the inappropriate use of social media in Sussex, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Police Scotland, so these issues are not confined to the Met. There is also a wider problem of violence against women and girls, which hon. Members have touched on today, including the very low level of prosecutions for rape and the number of women who just walk away from the system because they cannot cope with the delays and problems we have seen.
I want to focus on some of the solutions, and a lot of them come from Operation Hotton, which we have talked about. What is interesting is not just how it identified bullying, aggressive behaviour, discrimination, toxic masculinity and the banter used to excuse offensive behaviour, but its focus on the way the force was structured, which enabled that misogyny to occur. It focused on the nature of the work—the shift patterns, the isolation and this business of people acting up in an unofficial capacity, so that behaviours were completely unchallenged, which is key to some of the reforms we need to see.
We also heard of demeaning and intimidating actions towards police officers on probation, such as beckoning them with a bell or threatening to cut their hair or take their belongings; officers being shouted at; and women being sexually harassed or treated as the “weary female” when they raise issues. These things are all to do with leadership and management within the force, as well as the misogyny. I know we are talking about misogyny and sexual harassment, but the report also showed horrific racism and homophobia. It was the culture that enabled horrific behaviour across the board, and that is what we need to look at.
My questions for the Minister are therefore around what is going to be done about this. I think that everybody here thinks that something needs to be done. The Government have set up a couple of inquiries, which I am sure the Minister will talk about, but we need to go further and faster, and act more. With policing issues, the Home Office sometimes has a tendency to say, “This is a terrible thing and must not happen,” but it has a key role in leading a change in approach from the top, to make sure that these things do not continue.
We need to look at how we vet police officers. The 250-page document on how we vet them shows that they are vetted for their propensity to be blackmailed: do they have problems with their finances, or problems that would allow them to be blackmailed? The vetting is not good enough on who they are, what they have said on social media over the last five years, what they think and whether they should be with vulnerable people. Our vetting needs to be looked at.
Police training needs to be overhauled. Officers need ongoing training throughout their careers, including on anti-racism and on tackling violence against women and girls. When officers are first trained, they are not specifically trained on violence against women and girls, and we think they should be. We also need to end the inappropriate use of social media, which has come up time and again in all the incidents in the Met. The Government should look at taking action against those private WhatsApp messages.
We have the Dame Angiolini inquiry. The Labour party has called for it to be on a statutory footing, so that it has the powers it needs to go everywhere it needs to go. I ask the Minister to look at that.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have talked to the police about that issue and about whether misconduct proceedings, which I was about to come to, need to be improved.
Swift action needs to be taken. When there is misconduct, there are quite a lot of delays in the process. We need to make sure that there are clear management processes to stop misconduct being seen as “banter”. If someone is misogynistic—if it is clear from their social media what their views are—they have no place in the police. We hold our police to higher standards than other professions—quite rightly. That is what the police want; they want to be held to those standards, because they want policing by consent. They need the public to trust them, and that is what they would call for, too. We also need to look at whistleblowing procedures. I have spoken to police officers who say, “We have quite a good whistleblowing procedure, because some people come forward.” Actually, it is not working as it should, and we need to look at it again.
There are wider issues that would help the culture of the police, such as having specialist rape and sexual assault units in each police force, so that the force is more expert. We need to look at the number of women in policing. Only a third of Metropolitan police officers are women, and that changes the culture. As we know, and as hon. Members have said today, having more women in Parliament means that we have better debates, better policy making and better laws. In the same way, the Metropolitan police and other police forces would be better with more women.
There are many other issues we could talk about. My main point is that there are a series of practical actions that need to be taken—not just in the Met, but beyond—and it is the Government’s role to look at those. I thank all the women who have contributed, and our honourable male contributor, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am honoured to be in a room of very powerful women whom I admire hugely and who have all made, in their own ways, excellent contributions today. They reflect how the House of Commons is shifting towards more powerful women and a better conversation. We need to make sure that the Metropolitan police and the wider police force do the same.
Thank you for calling me, Mrs Cummins. For one of the first times in this Chamber, I start by putting on record my agreement with virtually everything that has been said by every Member present. We have so much more in common on the issues referred to by hon. Members from all sides. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) for her remarks; on International Women’s Day, we need a joint approach for this shocking and horrific topic. I also thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing the debate on this vital topic.
The police perform a unique and critical role in our society. A number of Members referred to the police officers in their constituencies and their local forces. I join them in paying tribute to those women senior leaders who have an incredibly difficult job to do under intense public scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) referenced Maggie Blyth and other officers. I work very closely with Maggie Blyth, who is a Hampshire officer, and many others across the force; she is responsible for working closely with her fellow officers on a number of the issues that have been referenced.
I agree with what Members said about the recruitment of female officers. Driving more officers and encouraging more women to come forward is a big step for women to join the police, because of the many issues they will be aware of not only in the Met police but forces around the country. I thank those women who have come forward.
The police uplift funding programme, delivered by the Home Office, has a record all-time high of serving female officers. However, the number is still way too low at only 34%—I think we all agree on that. Although it is at an all-time high, we need to keep doing more. Some 42% of the officers recruited since 2021 through the uplift programme are female, and I thank them all for coming forward. I think we all agree that diversity—whether of gender or race, as Members have referenced—is vital. A lot of the work on the uplift programme is to secure that diversity, and we need to keep on with that important work.
I assure all colleagues that the Home Office is determined to use every measure at its disposal to tackle the issues that have been raised and to restore public confidence in policing. Today we focused on the Met, which is the UK’s largest police force. It plays a unique role in our policing system and, for that reason, attracts a huge amount of public attention. In a sense, it informs the public discourse around policing: the cases that occur within the Met police and in our capital attract a lot of attention. That has a bearing on how British policing is viewed more widely.
I will not shrink from saying that the appalling behaviour Members mentioned has no place in our society and in our policing, let alone in an institution in which we vest so much trust to protect us as women and uphold those highest standards. Members referred to their experiences of walking through the streets in their constituencies, across London and anywhere in our country. As a woman I have those same experiences and so does my daughter. I want things to change for my three-month-old granddaughter. That is why it is a privilege to be doing this job today.
We will not shy away from taking action. I will set out some of the actions we are taking and will continue to do to tackle these appalling issues. We work closely not only with the Met police and the commissioner—whoever the new commissioner will be—but the Mayor of London, who is the police and crime commissioner for the capital. The Mayor has significant influence and powers, and tools at his disposal vested in him by the police and crime settlement.
Does the Minister agree that in the recent past it has been very challenging for women to join the police force? I was very struck by a senior female police officer who told me that when she joined, not so long ago, part of the initiation ritual for new woman police officers was to drop their skirt and have another police officer stamp on their bottom the date on which they joined the police force. That culture is not so long in the past.
We all share horror at that and the other incidents referenced by the hon. Member for Richmond Park . That is why we are taking the steps I am about to set out. We must remember that during the coronavirus pandemic in particular the police faced an unenviable task, which for the most part they approached with skill and professionalism. I know that from conversations with my local force in Redditch and I want to pay tribute to them as well. They had to help to enforce the rules the Government introduced with one crucial objective in mind: to save lives.
Members referenced the report published last month by the IOPC, which looked into the bullying and discrimination in Charing Cross police station. Those findings were shocking. The report described behaviour that is unacceptable and depicted an environment where such conduct was commonplace amid what can only be described as a toxic culture where leadership was sorely lacking. Policing and the Met must do better, and we are absolutely committed to raising the bar.
As the public would expect, when officers are found to have committed gross misconduct and are dismissed, they cannot re-join policing. We are also ensuring that initial police recruitment vetting practices carried out in each force, to which the hon. Member for Croydon Central referred, are rigorous. The assessment process addresses a candidate’s suitability for the role of police officer, including testing against core behaviours and values. When officers move force, they are re-vetted.
Members rightly pointed to problems with those processes, so I will talk about what the Government and the Met are doing. Restoring confidence is not just about how individuals are disciplined and vetted. It is also about making sure the kind of culture flagged up in the report is not allowed to take root. It is about ensuring those rotten elements in policing are rooted out and removed. We are taking action to address the issues we established the Angiolini inquiry, which started on 31 January. Obviously, Dame Elish has focused on the particular case of Sarah Everard’s killer, but she will consider whether the culture and places where he worked meant that alarm bells did not ring earlier. She will present the findings of that phase of the review to the Home Secretary later this year. In the second phase of the inquiry, we expect a light to be shone on wider issues across policing, including workplace cultures.
In October 2021, the MPS announced that it had commissioned Baroness Louise Casey of Blackstock to lead an independent and far-reaching review into standards of behaviour. She will also assess the extent to which the force’s current leadership, recruitment, vetting, training, communications and other practices effectively reinforce the standards the public so rightly expect.
Further, the Home Secretary has requested that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services—HMICFRS—inspects forces across England and Wales to judge their vetting in counter-corruption capabilities. We specifically asked the body to look at how forces identify and deal with misogyny and sexism in the workplace. We are working closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to ensure professional standards in social media use for police officers—another important issue.
That is a very important point and the work will look at that. A lot of work is also taking place on the Online Safety Bill on the wider issues of anonymity which are used against women and girls. The hon. Lady is right to point to that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned transparency and disciplinary processes. She is right to highlight that because it is another essential element. That is why this Government introduced the system whereby those disciplinary hearings are now public—a new initiative in 2015—and why the police barred list is searchable by the public. My hon. Friend the Policing Minister wrote to chiefs and hearing chairs recently to remind them that hearings should be held in public where possible.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way and for the excellent speech she is giving. In the case I raised, it was made unclear that the name of the officer who had been subject to a tribunal could be used publicly; indeed, it took my local newspaper going to court to get the matter clarified. That cannot be right. Why the confusion?
I thank my right hon. Friend for pressing me on that matter. Again, I will just add to my comments that where possible we expect those hearings to be held in public. And let the message go out from this Chamber that we expect transparency from the police in dealing with these issues.
We all hold it to our hearts that it is unacceptable that women and girls continue to face fear, violence and abuse. Crimes such as domestic abuse, rape, stalking and so-called honour-based abuse and harassment are far too common. That is why we published our Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy last July—to drive a step change in our response.
Regarding the work we are doing, a number of structures, led by the Home Secretary and a number of Ministers across Government, are involved in driving the work of those structures. We have discussed that work on multiple occasions with Members who are here today and with others, and I think we will discuss it again this afternoon.
In the time that I have left, I will just highlight some of the work we are doing, because this is a landmark moment and we have stepped up to act in response to it. We appointed Maggie Blyth immediately to ensure there is co-ordinated action nationally across the police forces, and we amended the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to make it clear that the serious violence duty can include domestic abuse and sexual offences.
Last week we launched Enough., a national communications campaign. It is a multi-million-pound and multi-year campaign in response to the calls of campaigners—both in Parliament and outside Parliament, on the front line—to say that we have to tackle this issue at source and that we have to make it clear that it is not okay; we have had enough of being harassed on the streets. We want to take the onus away from it being on the woman or girl to call harassment out and stop it from happening in the first place. That is why we are driving this campaign and investing significant amounts of cash in it. Many Members were at the launch event for Enough. and they welcomed the campaign. It has also been widely applauded by campaigners across the country.
We have spent significant amounts of money on various schemes, investing in measures to keep women safe at night in the night-time economy, on public transport and in public spaces—issues we have discussed many times in Westminster Hall. We have also awarded significant funding to police and crime commissioners across the country for programmes to tackle perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking.
The major point that I will take a moment to reflect on—again, this was called for by many Opposition MPs and campaigners—is that we put violence against women and girls on a par with national threats to the country, such as homicide, serious organised crime, terrorism and child sex abuse. That is why we made the announcement just last week that we will add violence against women and girls to the strategic policing requirement. That sends a clear and unequivocal message that these crimes must be a priority for forces and must be taken seriously, and that the full effort and resources of the police—indeed, the whole criminal justice system—must respond in an appropriate fashion.
There is a lot more that we are doing in this space.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I just wanted to draw to her attention a major report that is being published this morning by Sir Michael Barber and the Policing Foundation, which is considering police reform. I know that the Minister has listed actions she is taking in relation to violence against women and girls, but in terms of police reform Sir Michael Barber and the Police Foundation are suggesting that police officers should have a licence to practise that is renewed every five years, and that if someone is not good enough they cannot remain in the police. I am not suggesting that that is anybody’s policy yet, but there are some interesting structural reforms that the report’s authors are considering. It has taken them two years to do this big piece of work. It is really excellent and it will contain some sensible things that perhaps the Minister could look at.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that to my attention. I have a lot of respect for Sir Michael Barber and the work he is doing, and of course I will take time to study the report. If there are sensible proposals in it we will look at them, because we all want the police to fix these issues. We cannot go on with the situation in this country where the police force does not command the respect or the trust of over half the population. Nowhere is it more appropriate for me to say that than here, in this place, on International Women’s Day, with a passionate group of female and male MPs, although the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has left the Chamber.
Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) is still here. I know that all our male colleagues support this, and so do our partners, husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. We are all united in the fight.
I want to spend a couple of moments to talk about education, which is vital and was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. From September 2020, relationships, sex and health education became statutory in schools. In primary schools, age-appropriate relationships education involves supporting children to learn about what healthy relationships are and their importance. It is important that we talk to our young people and children sensitively and carefully about the fraught issues of consent, in a world where they are all navigating the online space.
The Government are doing huge amounts of work through the draft Online Safety Bill to provide wider protections that will help our young people to use the internet safely and protect children from all sorts of violent threat, but such education has to start in our schools. That is why I work closely with my colleague at the Department for Education, the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), to ensure that that education is rolled out.
To update colleagues about what issues are covered, young children will be learning factual knowledge on sex, sexual health, sexuality, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, developing intimate relationships and resisting pressure to have sex. We want young people to learn what a positive healthy relationship looks like and how to keep themselves safe in a variety of situations. We will be teaching and talking to children, in a sensitive and age-appropriate way, about what consent is and is not; the definition and recognition of rape, sexual assault and harassment; and the concepts of abuse, grooming, coercion and domestic abuse, in all its forms. We all know that one of the problems with domestic abuse is the difficultly that victims and survivors have in recognising what they are going through, especially when it comes to economic abuse and issues of coercive and controlling behaviour.
The Minister is being generous with her time. There was some resistance when the Government put forward relationship education for five-year-olds. Does she agree with me that the events we have been debating today, and many other forms of misogyny and sexual harassment, underline how right the Government were to ensure that relationship education starts immediately when children start school at the age of five?
I completely agree. Parents and families have a vital role, but not every five-year-old is fortunate enough to grow up in a family with caring parents. As the Minister at the Home Office responsible for safeguarding, I have seen some appalling, shocking and heartbreaking cases of what can happen to our youngest children unless we take sensitive and age-appropriate steps to help and support them to grow up in a safe way.
Yesterday afternoon, I met victims of violence and domestic abuse at a wonderful reception organised by Women’s Aid. Some inspirational people stood up and talked about how they had not recognised that what they were going through was domestic abuse. One of them was Mel B, one of the Spice Girls. She said she could go on stage at Wembley Stadium in front of hundreds of thousands of people and sing, dance and perform, yet she found it much harder to talk about her own abuse. Sometimes it hits home when people see the impact of domestic abuse on someone who lives in the glare of celebrity. We must never forget the work that is being done on such issues and the work that we are all doing together to help victims of domestic abuse.
I thank all hon. Members here, and I especially thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park for securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to underscore just how seriously we take these issues and to outline all the work we are doing, remembering, as always, that there is more to do.
It is important to remember that there are thousands of men and women who wear the police uniform with pride and professionalism, helping us all on a daily basis. I think we have all made that clear in our remarks. Serving as a police officer is an honour, but when that honour is abused, the ramifications are significant and far-reaching. Public confidence is fundamental to our model of policing by consent. That is why it is incumbent on the Met, and policing as a whole, to root out and eliminate behaviour that risks undermining public confidence and trust.
Thank you very much for chairing our proceedings, Mrs Cummins. This has been a really excellent and thought-provoking debate, and I am incredibly grateful to everybody for their contributions. A few things struck me, and I just want to touch on them. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) both highlighted the issue of undermining public confidence in the police. We heard particularly from the hon. Member for Vauxhall about the number of rape victims who are dropping out of the process because they do not trust the police. For me, that really sums up what the issue is, or how the issue manifests itself.
Another thing that really struck me was when the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) talked about their constituents who have had to go out and fight for justice themselves. The hon. Member for Nottingham East talked about the case in relation to protesters and undercover police officers. That took 10 years to come to justice. There was also the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, so vividly described by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. That took nine years to come to justice. It really brings home to me the extent to which women have had to be responsible for their own safety and for getting justice for themselves because we have seen this wall of inertia, defensiveness or, potentially, something more sinister from the police. Those are the two points that really came home to me during this debate.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for the points she made and in particular what she said about mandatory relationships education in schools and how important it is that we tackle the scourge of misogyny in wider society, because it is not found just in the police or in the Metropolitan police. We heard so many examples of police forces across the country, including the one in Northern Ireland, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I was really pleased to hear the Minister touch on that when she gave her response. She said that we are already seeing mandatory sex and relationships education in schools, and I think that that is really important. I just want to raise a tiny point. She talked about consent and resisting pressure to have sex. I would like to think that we are also teaching boys not to apply pressure. I am sure she is happy to clarify that.
I was really pleased with the response from the Minister. She spoke with great passion and great conviction, and that gives me quite a lot of optimism that this is genuinely an issue that is at the core of the Home Office’s work. We have a female Minister here and a female Home Secretary. As I said in my opening remarks, I believe—I continue to believe—that having women at all levels of Government and politics is good for women and girls. I was really pleased with a lot of what the Minister said. In terms of where we are at, we seem to have quite a lot of reports coming out. She mentioned the Angiolini review. There is the Casey review. There is the Barber review. It is brilliant to see that this issue is being looked at seriously and that the problems are being identified. What we really want to see as we move forward is action and police forces across the country being held to account. We need to see measures and to see progress.
I want to touch on what the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said about transparency; I think I saw a tweet or a Twitter thread about the issue she mentioned. That is so important: these things should not happen behind closed doors. As she says, transparency is the best form of disinfectant.
I want to close by reiterating my thanks to everybody for taking part today, but I also want to pay tribute to the families of Sarah Everard and Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. They are still suffering unimaginable grief at the loss of their daughters. It must be so much harder knowing that those cases are being used to highlight bigger issues and in particular that their deaths happened in such an appalling way, so I want to take a minute to pay tribute to them and to send my sympathies to them. I am conscious that talking about all those cases so often today may well have increased the families’ distress, but it is so important that we do not allow these incidents to go unremarked and that we take every opportunity we can to see the step change we all need to see to ensure that this does not happen again. I put on record my gratitude to them and my respects to them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police.
Paid Miscarriage Leave
I beg to move,
That this House has considered paid miscarriage leave.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I am grateful to the Speaker for allowing this debate to take place on International Women’s Day. It seems appropriate that we have a woman in the Chair, and I hope we have many more. I am grateful to the Members in attendance, and to those who have pledged their support for a Backbench business debate in coming weeks.
I thank Ruth Bender-Atik from the Miscarriage Association, as well as the organisations Sands, Tommy’s, Mumsnet and the civil service working group, as well as the many organisations that have provided briefings and endless advice. I also thank colleagues who have supported my many applications for debates on the matter, my early-day motions and my private Member’s Bill on miscarriage leave. I thank the 39,000 members of the public who have signed the paid miscarriage leave petition on 38 Degrees, and who have been in touch with their MP and bravely shared their personal story.
One pregnancy in four ends in miscarriage. That is not to say that one woman in four will have a miscarriage; one pregnancy in four will result in baby loss. Miscarriage it is often used as an umbrella term for a number of conditions. Miscarriage is the most common type of pregnancy loss, which is when a baby dies in utero during pregnancy. In the UK, miscarriage is defined as baby loss that occurs up to 23 weeks and six days into the pregnancy. The main causes of miscarriage are thought to be genetic, hormonal, infection, blood clotting problems and anatomical reasons, but it is important to say that there is never any logical reason for a miscarriage to occur. On most occasions, it is the most heartbreaking thing that can happen to a person, and no amount of rational reasoning will compensate for the loss that the person experiences.
The Miscarriage Association has highlighted that we should also consider ectopic and molar pregnancies, and it is important that they be included in this debate and considered when any policy changes are made on this issue. An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that develops outside the womb, usually in one of the Fallopian tubes; it is one pregnancy in 80. It causes a dangerous situation whereby tubes may rupture, and it often requires immediate surgery.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member and to the way in which she is championing the issue, as well as to the passion with which she speaks. She talks about the number of pregnancies lost, which is a tragedy. For black and minority ethnic women, there is a 60% higher likelihood of losing a birth. Is that the same with miscarriage? The data does not seem quite as clear for BME women as it is on broader loss through stillbirth.
I thank the right hon. Member for asking her question. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that statistics on the matter are adequately recorded, so I hope Departments will look at that.
Ectopic and molar pregnancy should come under the umbrella of miscarriage. We must consider molar pregnancy, which is a condition in which an abnormal fertilised egg implants in the womb, and the cells that should become the placenta grow far too quickly, taking up space where the embryo would normally develop. We must also consider baby losses following in vitro fertilisation treatment, and the awful experiences of recurrent miscarriage, which is faced by too many expecting parents.
The loss of a baby is a major source of grief that many parents will carry with them for the rest of their life. Even those closest to someone who has experienced baby loss might never know what they have been through. There is a stigma around the subject of miscarriage, and more must be done to open dialogue and allow women to discuss the issue openly in a comfortable way.
Members are likely to be aware of the received wisdom of not telling people of a pregnancy before 12 weeks. However, that often results in parents suffering alone and in silence. They may be fearful of disclosing to their employer that they are trying to conceive because they fear workplace discrimination. It can be difficult, embarrassing and sometimes impossible to speak to an employer about what has happened. That means that many people going through the legitimate grief of baby loss will not receive the support they require.
I echo the earlier comments about the hon. Lady’s excellent campaigning on this issue. There has been much talk of creating a kinder society as we come out of the pandemic. When it comes to social reforms, what she is proposing today, as well as wider bereavement leave, is something that any progressive Government would consider.
Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment, which brings me neatly to my next point.
Ahead of the Government’s proposed employment Bill, the Taylor review has highlighted the changing demographics of the workplace. Many more women are in work than ever before. Women’s participation in the workplace has been growing quicker than men’s over the past 20 years.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue forward. One of my office staff has had multiple miscarriages. It has been a traumatic and difficult time for that lady, and I have seen the emotional and physical impact. Having to take holiday to try to get over the experience has added to that. Does the hon. Lady agree that the situation is unacceptable? We cannot legislate for compassion, but we can legislate for compassionate leave, which is what she is saying. That is why I support what she puts forward. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response.
I am sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Gentleman’s member of staff. To experience miscarriage once is truly awful, but to experience it on multiple occasions can be truly devastating. It is not sufficient to say that an employee should take sick or holiday leave when they have a miscarriage. It is a grief, not an illness. That person should be allowed the time to grieve, and that should be recognised.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and does excellent work on this issue. I fully support her. The Lancet’s recent series on miscarriage highlighted the huge and still widely underestimated mental health impact it has; those who experience miscarriage face a quadrupling of the risk of suicide. In the light of that, does she agree that flexible working should never be seen as an adequate alternative to statutory leave?
Absolutely; I thank the hon. Member for that point. Flexible leave was not designed to be a catch-all, taking the place of provisions lacking from legislation. Flexible leave absolutely has a place in workplaces—it allows parents to take time off when required, and workers to adapt their working situation and make it more flexible—but it is not designed for the circumstances we are talking about, and it does not reflect the needs of the employees we are talking about, who need far more support and wrap-around care on their return to work. It is not sufficient to say that flexible leave would cover that.
There is already a cost associated with absences of this nature. Current legislation does not give enough support to women and their partners who experience pregnancy loss in the workplace. I hope that the Minister can update us on what is being done in the employment Bill to ensure that women are helped into work and can continue to work, and to ensure workplace protections are in place to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Bill should also recognise life events that many women face during their employment, such as fertility treatment; and the right to miscarriage leave should be in the Bill.
We must keep in mind, however, that it is not just women who are affected by baby loss; the grief is shared by the partners of those who are pregnant. As I have mentioned, miscarriage is defined in the UK as occurring before 24 weeks of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, baby loss is considered to be a stillbirth. I thank my hon. Friends the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Glasgow East (David Linden), for their work on legislation that would entitle parents to two weeks of paid bereavement leave. At present, there is no provision for those who experience baby loss before 24 weeks. While the updated ACAS guidance recommends that employers still consider giving them time off—I am grateful to the Minister for hearing that—there is no legal right to paid leave, and no statutory requirement on employers to allow paid leave. Many companies, including Monzo, Lidl and ASOS, have created a workplace policy of offering miscarriage leave for up to seven or 10 days, which is welcome, but that does not happen across the board. I commend these companies for taking that step.
A dedicated workplace policy is just one of the many ways that employers can give meaningful support, and it is also further evidence that employers recognise the significance of such a life event. As companies do not consistently have such policies, however, the Government must do more to ensure that employers can support their employees.
Leaving miscarriage provision to the discretion of employers leads to inequality and can result in discrimination against parents in low-paid and part-time work. For many workers, the only option is to take time off through annual leave or sick leave—using holidays or flexi-leave—which is not sufficient. The statutory provisions are not adequate, because grief is neither a holiday nor an illness. A specific statutory provision for paid miscarriage leave should cover not only the women experiencing the miscarriage, but their partners. It would signal to those who experience baby loss that they have permission to grieve.
This is about more than changing policy. It is about changing workplace culture in the UK to account for real-life issues that affect the workforce. We should aim to support the workforce adequately, and we should adopt the recognised international best practice. Both New Zealand and Australia have recently introduced comprehensive policies on paid miscarriage leave. Only last month, the Northern Ireland Assembly legislated to introduce paid miscarriage leave following a public consultation, with the policy due to come into force no later than April 2026. Northern Ireland will be the first place—not only in the UK, but in Europe—to introduce such a policy in the public or private sector.
The Scottish Government have committed to provide three days’ paid leave in the public sector following miscarriage, but they do not have the powers within employment law to extend that further. Therefore, it is up to the UK Government. The rest of the UK should not be left behind but should follow the lead of the devolved Governments and introduce statutory paid miscarriage leave across the UK. Will the Minister look closely at the plans, both internationally and domestically, and consider how paid miscarriage leave would positively impact on workers across the UK?
I wish to highlight the Miscarriage Association’s pregnancy loss pledge, which encourages employers across the UK to commit to support their staff through the stress of miscarriage by meeting a set of basic standards. It encourages employers to create a supportive work environment where people feel able to discuss or disclose pregnancy without fear of disadvantage or discrimination; to be open about pregnancy-related leave rules, ensuring that staff feel able to take the time off that they need; to encourage empathy and understanding towards people and their partners experiencing pregnancy loss; to ensure that line managers have access to guidance on supporting those who have experienced pregnancy loss; to be flexible to those who are returning to work following pregnancy loss; and to implement a pregnancy loss policy or guidance for the workplace, ensuring that it includes affected partners.
Last week, I wrote to every local authority in Scotland, inviting them to sign up to the pledge. Many have already given a positive response, including Glasgow City, Moray, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire Councils, all of which are giving serious consideration to the pledge. Fife Council has already committed to the pledge—the first local authority across the UK to do so—and commitments by large public sector employers represent a huge step forward in the right direction. I am certain that more will follow this example, and I encourage Members present to encourage their own councils to make that pledge. If he has not already done so, I ask the Minister to consider signing the pledge on behalf of his Department and to encourage other Government Departments to follow. There is no doubt in my mind that the legislative change is necessary and essential to ensure that employers have meaningful leave policies in place for pregnancy loss.
Finally, I want to thank all the parents who have shared their stories of loss and grief. I thank Morgan’s Wings and Emma from the Hopes & Dreams podcast for bravely turning their stories of grief into ones of comfort for so many other people. Pregnancy should be a time of celebration, expectation and joy, but when pregnancy loss occurs, it is not only about the loss of the pregnancy but about the hopes and dreams that expectant parents had for their little life. It can be incredibly difficult on expectant parents. The Government must do more to help those who experience miscarriage, with employers acknowledging the value of their workforce and introducing dedicated policies. However, without statutory provision or the legal right, many parents will not receive the support they require. The Government must lead and support those in work with the right to take paid leave and permission to take time off to grieve. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to introducing paid miscarriage leave across the UK and to supporting my private Member’s Bill on 18 March, which calls for this policy to be introduced in statute.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing today’s debate, and congratulate her on the power of work that she has done on this issue. Like many others, I support the private Member’s Bill that she is trying to pilot through the House.
I had a difficult situation only last week when I met a constituent, Gillian McLellan. She and her husband, Christopher, unfortunately experienced the loss of their baby Daisy. Thursday past would have been Daisy’s due date.
I have three brief points to make while I have the floor and we can discuss the wider issue of miscarriage and bereavement leave. First, there are many great charities out there. Baby Loss Retreat is one that has been doing stellar work to support Gillian and Christopher. I sometimes question why it falls to charities so often to provide support to people. That follows neatly to the issue of counselling.
I have looked at the issue across the UK. Not just in Scotland, but right across these islands there is clearly a postcode lottery when it comes to counselling for parents. I accept that during the pandemic some things were done by Zoom, but the lack of support for Gillian and many other families, particularly over the last couple of years, is something we will have to look at.
There is a wider and perhaps more sensitive issue around certification. I understand that we can get into a very difficult debate when it comes to issuing birth certificates. In Daisy’s case that would have been at 17 weeks. That then leads, for example, to details not being recorded in NHS notes, which is particularly problematic if there is a follow-up pregnancy, so Ministers across these islands have to reflect on that.
The final point I want to make relates to the Employment Bill. I have always found the Minister to be incredibly thoughtful. He and I have had a lot of dialogue, particularly on neonatal leave and pay, but I really want to see the Employment Bill enacted as quickly as possible. This will be one of the biggest issues that our generation of MPs will legislate on. It strikes me that elements of the Employment Bill, no doubt as a result of Brexit, will be controversial, but I again issue a plea to the Minister that bereavement leave and neonatal leave and pay be decoupled from the Employment Bill. Some of the issues have such a high level of cross-party support in the House that we could pilot them through in a day, as we did last night with certain legislation.
So let us decouple some of the less controversial aspects of the Employment Bill and make sure that commendable as my hon. Friend’s Bill is, she does not have to take it forward. We need the Government to come forward with a decoupled Bill that would tackle this and so many other issues on which there is vast cross-party agreement in this House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing today’s important debate. This is a really important and sensitive issue, and I want to express my deep sympathy for anybody who has experienced the loss of a baby. Sometimes the most poignant debates in this place are when we talk about baby loss at any stage of pregnancy, or indeed after birth.
The hon. Member has spoken with candour and passion, and I am grateful to her not just for today’s debate, but for our exchanges and the rest of the work that she has done, and for raising awareness of the significant impact of baby loss at any stage on parents. I also want to thank others who have contributed to this debate for their thoughtful and insightful comments, especially, as the hon. Lady rightly notes, on International Women’s Day when we come together to showcase the issues that are so important not just for women, but for families and couples across this country and the world.
As a Government we understand that there is plenty more that needs to be done to support women’s health. I will begin by first setting out the wider work that the Government are taking forward in relation to women’s health, including in the workplace. In March 2021, we announced the establishment of England’s first women’s health strategy, which is being led by the Department of Health and Social Care. Health in the workplace and fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support will be priority areas within the women’s health strategy.
We know that damaging taboos and stigmas remain around many areas of women’s health. They can prevent women from starting conversations about their health or seeking support for a health issue. When women do speak about their health, all too often they are not listened to, but the Government are determined to tackle those issues. We want to ensure that women feel supported in the workplace, that taboos are broken down through open conversation, and that employers feel well equipped to support women in managing their health within the workplace. “Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England”, published on 23 December 2021, sets out an ambitious and positive new agenda to improve the health and wellbeing of women across England. We will publish the full strategy later this year, but in the meantime I reiterate that the levelling up of women’s health is an imperative for us all.
The Government have an active agenda on work and health more widely. One example is the Government’s response to the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation. The response sets out measures that will protect and maintain progress made in reducing ill health-related job loss, and will see 1 million more disabled people in work from 2017 to 2027. The measures include a national digital information and advice service to provide greater clarity around employer and employee rights and responsibilities, working with the Health and Safety Executive to develop a set of clear and simple principles for employers, and increasing access to occupational health. Those measures are key steps in our effort to change the workplace culture around health and sickness absence, which will benefit those who have lost a pregnancy.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East is specifically interested in a leave entitlement for miscarriage. In April 2020, we introduced parental bereavement leave and pay for employed parents who lose a child under the age of 18, or who suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. That new entitlement recognises that the death of a child or the stillbirth of a baby is particularly tragic. Although parental bereavement leave does not apply when a baby is lost before 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, there is support available. Women who are not able to return to work because of ill health following a miscarriage may be entitled, for example, to statutory sick pay or annual leave, and their entitlements need to be looked at in the round with the wider benefits system.
Parental bereavement leave and pay is a statutory minimum, and in introducing that entitlement the Government sent an important message to employers that staff members who have suffered a bereavement should be supported. Indeed, I am pleased to say that there are many good examples of businesses that offer compassionate leave for their employees following a miscarriage. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East talked about ASOS as one of those examples. I have spoken to ASOS. What it offers is not miscarriage leave per se; as she rightly described, it covers “life events”. ASOS is particularly forward looking in understanding that miscarriage is one of a series of really important life events that affect people in different ways. ASOS has that wrap-around care because it understands that investing in the workforce is the right thing to do—to keep people in the workforce, keep them happy and keep them content.
Flexible working may not be an alternative, in the view of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), but different people have different responses to a life event such as miscarriage. It is a really personal experience. Some of those affected may want to stay at home; others may prefer to continue to work, or alternatively may need time off later. That is where flexible working can make a difference for many people, but not all people—as I say, it is a very personalised experience. Individuals are best placed to understand their own specific needs, and good employers will respond to requests made by their employees in a sensitive way. It is right that we showcase those employers doing well, and that we also explain that it is the right thing to do not only morally—from a humanity point of view—but from a business point of view. It makes no sense to take a different view from that of those far-sighted companies that are making a wider, longer-term investment in their workforces. However, we are in a difficult economic climate, and that cannot be ignored. We are mindful of placing additional burdens on business, but, as I have mentioned, we strongly encourage employers to go beyond the statutory minimum wherever they can.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East noted that miscarriage and the associated grief are not illness. However, when an event negatively affects someone’s mental or physical health, they may have the option of taking sick leave, and may also be eligible for statutory sick pay. Employees who are able to claim sick pay can self-certify as sick for the first seven days that they are off work; after that time a fit note is required, and their employer can request medical evidence if they wish. In addition, there are protections in place for those who need to take sick leave following a miscarriage, which mean that any sick leave taken during the two-week period after pregnancy ends should not count towards a total sickness record or be used as a reason for redundancy or disciplinary action. Individuals who are not eligible for statutory sick pay and those who require additional support may be eligible for universal credit and the new-style employment and support allowance.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It would be remiss to allow the debate to pass without putting on record that statutory sick pay on these islands is among the lowest rates in Europe. It is fine to talk about statutory sick pay, but not at the pitiful levels that the UK pays at the moment.
I understand the hon. Member’s point of view. I ask him to look at it in the round, alongside universal credit and other means of welfare. We have said we would always look at statutory sick pay, but we do not believe that now is the time to do it, as we are coming out of a pandemic. That is certainly something that we are keeping under review, as part of that wider holistic approach to welfare, benefits and workplace support.
All employees are also entitled to take 5.6 weeks a year of annual leave, in some cases more if their contract of employment allows. Normally, employees need to give notice of leave dates, but employers may agree to waive the notice period.
That is exactly what I was going to say. That provision is there, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—a good friend of mine—talked about people taking holiday leave to go through a miscarriage. When I have employed people, either here or in my previous life running businesses, I would never have dreamed of counting absences for such life events as holiday. They may want to apply for it, but I would treat them far more sensitively, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. It is so important that businesses and employers have that approach, to invest in their time and future.
The Minister has worked extensively with me to find ways—through ACAS, for example—to ensure that employers can do more to support employees. If he accepts that sick leave, holiday pay and flexible working are not the correct methods to support an employee who has experienced pregnancy loss, and if he will not commit to a distinct miscarriage leave policy, will he consider extending bereavement leave to include parents who experience that loss before 24 weeks?
We will outline employment measures when parliamentary time allows. The hon. Lady earlier talked about the Miscarriage Association pregnancy loss pledge. I am not in a position to commit to a pledge here and now but, looking at the sentiments in there, there are very sensible approaches that employers should take: encouraging a supportive work environment; understanding and implementing rules around pregnancy-related leave; ensuring that staff feel able to take time off if they need; showing empathy and understanding, which is seemingly fundamental and basic, though not all employers do so; encouraging line managers to access in-house or external guidance; supporting people back to work, by being responsive to those needs; and showing flexibility wherever they can. Those are all common sense, and it is great that they have been brought together in that pledge.
Having access to flexible working arrangements can be important for those who experience a traumatic life event of any sort. Changing a work pattern can provide individuals with the flexibility they need to balance their work commitments with their personal lives during such challenging times. Having a statutory right to request a temporary or permanent working arrangement can be important.
I have outlined some of the support and options that are also available to employees when they have suffered a loss. Businesses do have that important role to play. We have commissioned guidance from ACAS on managing a bereavement in the workplace, which has been well received and was updated in 2020, to take into account the introduction of parental bereavement leave.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East made it clear that miscarriage is not an illness. We want to ensure that grieving families and friends who have lost loved ones receive the support they need, when they need it. We have given more than £10 million to mental health charities, including bereavement charities, to support people though this. Our excellent NHS is also there to support individuals with mental health and wellbeing issues. I am pleased to have had this debate and appreciate the discussion and contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Penrose Review: UK Competition and Consumer Policy
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK competition and consumer policy in response to the Penrose review.
It is good to have you looking after us, Mr Efford, to ensure that we do not misbehave during the course of the debate. It is good to see you in the Chair.
Just over a year ago, I was commissioned to write a report by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It came out almost exactly a year ago and it is called, “Power To The People”. It is about competition policy and was produced at the request of the Government. A year after publication, I thought it was reasonably sensible to think that we might want to have a look at what has happened as a result of my recommendations—which ones have happened and which ones have not—hoping perhaps to goad, tease or otherwise persuade my hon. Friend the Minister to be as indiscreet as he possibly can be about what might happen in future, to fill in any gaps, and discuss the recommendations that have not yet taken place.
I will summarise briefly progress on implementing some of the recommendations in the report in the intervening year and I will focus fairly straightforwardly on the things that have not happened yet, so that the Minister has a text from which to work—if I may put it that way—and on the gaps that remain. To be fair, although I do not want to overclaim on this, it is true to say that there has been a reasonable amount of progress across Government on some of the recommendations in my report.
For example, there have been a series of consultations and commitments from the Competition and Markets Authority about the kind of changes that it wants to make to its internal processes and the way it works. One of the central recommendations in the report is that the CMA needs stronger consumer powers—upgraded to match its anti-trust competition powers—and a whole series of other things necessary for it to move faster to judgments in individual cases much more quickly. Ideally, in most cases—the easier cases—that should be within days or months, rather than in the current parlance, when things can easily run into years; we need faster and more certain decisions.
The CMA is supposed to upgrade its capability to become what I termed the “micro-economic sibling” to the Bank of England’s macroeconomic work. In other words, every time the Bank of England talks about the macro economy, the CMA should have a public role in putting forward our progress in creating supply-side reforms to improve competition in individual markets and in individual parts of the country. As we all know, our country has a real problem with declining levels of productivity and of competitiveness the further away from the M25 one travels.
The report therefore makes a series of recommendations, some prompting a series of consultations on internal reforms to the CMA, which are very welcome. There are things like the
“micro-economic sibling for the Bank of England”,
which I have just mentioned, which has been declared and is due to be set up. There have also been declarations that the CMA’s consumer powers will be upgraded in due course. We will need primary legislation for that, but there has been extensive consultation on it. There will also be things such as stronger penalties for companies that do not comply with data requests and so forth, seeking to slow down the progress of any competition cases. So, all—or mostly—good news in that area at least.
The CMA has also established something called the digital markets unit, the DMU, which will be absolutely essential to future operations in ensuring that we can deal with consumer detriment created by digital network monopolies—the big FANGs of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. The DMU is now in operation, but in shadow form, because it does not have any of the necessary legislated powers that it requires. It has at least started. There has also been an increase in the CMA’s resources post Brexit because, as we left the UK, we had to have a stronger domestic pro-competition set of institutions, otherwise all the things that had been happening in Brussels, in the EU’s competition world, would not have been coped with, so they were repatriated.
Equally, the ideas in the chapter on economic regulators are about trying to reduce the overall role of such regulators over time. We should be trying to normalise as much of the markets that they run as possible. There is no intrinsic reason why, for example, energy, telecommunications or others cannot be mostly normal and as usual, as run of the mill as buying a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. We do not need an economic regulator to protect us when we do that. There are large chunks of these markets where we could be just as protected by normal consumer protection laws, and would not need an economic regulator, except for the bits of those markets that are fundamentally based around network monopolies.
Every single one of the economically regulated sectors in our economy—telecoms, energy, water or any of the others—all have network monopolies at their core, whether it is electricity distribution, the national grid, local electricity distribution grids, gas pipes, water pipes or whatever it might be. There is a network monopoly at the core, and those are inherently less competitive. We cannot get them to work in the normal way, and there has to be a residual level of economic regulation on those networks. Perhaps there are some deeply embedded and hard-to-solve consumer detriments in finance, too. Other than that, we could and should seek to erode the role of the economic regulators over time, normalising their markets as far as we can, as this report recommends. It is not a quick process; it will take time, but it can and should be done, outside the areas I have just described.
How are we doing? In some respects, quite well. There is something called the “Economic Regulation Policy Paper”, which I am sure everybody here has been keeping next to their bed for bedtime reading. That came out of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy a couple of weeks ago, and is intended to address the statutory duties of the economic regulators, and increase the level of competition they are involved with. It makes all the right noises and speaks all the right warm words about doing that. I will come back to that in a minute, because one of its problems is that, in modernising the statutory duties, to enable the process I have laid out, it is going to
“launch a review of utilities regulators’ statutory duties in 2022.”
It does not say when that is going to be launched, when it will be finished or what it will do about it when it is done. Everybody here will be familiar with the term “long grass”. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that this is not long grass, that it will happen in a timely way, and that he is out with his lawnmower trimming the sward to ensure that it will happen, rather than get parked somewhere and gently forgotten.
There is also good news on public procurement, which has been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. We absolutely need to have a faster, better and more transparent public procurement process. We inherited this process from the EU as the OJEU—Official Journal of the European Union—rules. They do a lot of good things, but incredibly slowly and in bureaucratic fashion. As a result, we end up with processes that are clunky. When we have a national or international emergency, such as the pandemic, they are cruelly exposed as not working well enough.
I am pleased to say that there was when I published this, and there remains, a continuing commitment to launching a new public procurement Bill. That is due, probably not in this Session, but I hope in the next. It has been heavily trailed, and I hope and expect that it will take what we have and make it much more nimble, digital and open to small firms being able to compete with long-standing large incumbents, such as Carillion. It will not only be pro-competitive but will involve a great deal of better value for money for taxpayers. It will mean that we are less likely to have, for example, a scramble for personal protective equipment, if we have another national emergency such as the pandemic in future.
Finally, on the positive side of the ledger, there has been some progress on the ideas I talked about for trying to improve competition outside the south-east, and to improve retail opportunities for people who need redress, if they have been done wrong and their consumer rights have been breached. There has been a little progress on trying to make small claims courts and ombudsmen work better, more digitally and faster, while continuing to be cheap, so that there is ready justice, if necessary, for somebody who has not got what they paid for under consumer rights. That is all good, but we have a great deal further to travel.
My contention is that in a digital world, we should be able to have the same kind of 24/7 service that we expect when logging on to do our grocery shopping at 3 am— I do not do that, but some people do. That is something that, increasingly, we expect to be able to do. If we can shop 24/7, we should be able to seek redress 24/7 when that is needed, but there is a noticeable gap there.
Although that gap is starting to close, and there have been reforms of the small claims court for example, there has been no reform in other areas that need it, such as in the creation of county competition courts. Such reform is necessary to create opportunity for small, local companies that are being ganged up on by larger local incumbents and prevented from prosecuting their competition rights, because taking someone to the Competition Appeal Tribunal in London for a breach of competition law is never going to be affordable.
Even under the current fast-track approval process, redress is still out of reach for most small regional firms. A restaurant in Bristol, an estate agent in Hull or an hotelier in Liverpool will not be able to afford to do anything if they are being ganged up on by a local competitor until we get what I am calling “county competition courts”. I am afraid that there has been little progress towards that at the moment. Nor has there been progress towards a generalised update and improvement of local trading standards teams. That is needed in many parts of the country to ensure that there are proper defenders of consumer rights.
I do not want to cavil too much, because there is a decent list of progress. It would be churlish to say that nothing has happened in the last year, because it really has. I commend the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister on that progress, but I am afraid that there is a slightly longer list—it is certainly a serious list—of things that have not yet happened on the other side of the ledger. I will run through them quickly, then leave it for others to pick up on any particular points.
First, one of the report’s central points is about speeding up how fast people can get justice through the CMA if they need it. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, we have to ensure that all but the most complicated, hideously difficult and groundbreaking cases can be decided by the CMA. Most cases ought to take weeks or months rather than years. At the moment, there is no overall core process redesign within the CMA or the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is effectively the appeals court for lots of CMA cases. Such a redesign—if I can call it that—will be necessary to make dramatic improvements in the availability and certainty of justice.
That matters because at the moment, it is all too easy for large, well-lawyered incumbents to walk backwards, slowly, in the face of a challenge from a small, plucky entrepreneurial, insurgent firm that is trying to transform and disrupt a particular market. If they can strew legal obstacles in the challenger’s path, they can basically make it much harder for Britain’s economy to be nimble.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about competition. Does that apply to local authorities, which tend just to employ one arm’s length contractor when plenty of local people could bid for jobs such as road building and maintenance, for example?
That is a particularly good example of the kind of problem that I was referring to when I mentioned public procurement reforms. I think we should be all extremely interested in what they show. When those reforms come, they should mean that local government, as well as national Government and many arm’s length bodies—from the NHS to English Heritage, and everyone else in between—should be able to make much faster decisions in a way that is more accessible to small firms that are not equipped to wade through pages and pages of tender documents, some of which require a PhD and actually have little to do with whether a product or service is better than the big incumbent’s. That will be an essential change.
Speeding up the CMA is absolutely essential. One of the most glaring and—I am afraid to say—saddest omissions from the recommendations is on better regulation. There is a difference between deregulation and better regulation. I am sure that you are thoroughly familiar with it, Mr Efford, but for the record and for everybody else, deregulation is where standards are got rid of and there is a sort of race to the bottom—that is not what I am recommending in this report at all—whereas better regulation says, “How do we deliver the same standards in environmental quality, food standards, workers’ rights and all the other things that we regard as essential in our modern society, in a way that is cheaper, quicker, simpler, or more digital or more modern? How can we do that in a way that costs the providers of those things less?” If it costs the providers less, that means they can do it at lower cost, which means that consumers can get the same product or service at a lower price in the first place. It is up to everybody and it will be for all our benefit if we can do that.
However, getting rid of red tape and regulation is one of the hardest things to achieve in Westminster and Whitehall, because everybody here knows that the culture of this place is framed in terms of making new rules. That is how civil servants or—dare I say it?—one or two MPs make their career; it is by inventing new rules and not by getting rid of old ones. That is the culture of this place.
Better regulation is an extremely easy thing to say and an extremely difficult thing to do, although there have been examples—rare ones—in the past where we have succeeded. There was a brief flowering of success between 2010 and 2015, under David Cameron when he was Prime Minister, whereby the pro-regulatory ratchet got reversed and for a couple of years we were genuinely making progress, and in fact local firms and small firms and their organisations, particularly the Federation of Small Businesses and similar bodies, noticed it and said, “This is working”.
Unfortunately, when David Cameron left office, the blob pounced; I do not know whether a blob can pounce, but perhaps it enveloped the new regime. When David Cameron left office, the blob looked at what worked—basically, it was having a gateway condition saying, “If you are the Minister for paper clips, you can’t have new rules about paper clips until you have found two old ones to get rid of”; that was the thing that had been making things work until then—and said, “That’s a terribly old-fashioned way of doing it. We’ve got a much better way of doing it. Why don’t we have a big target and we’ll hit the target and that will be good?”
However, because the blob had got rid of all the rigour and all the mechanisms for getting rid of the red tape, what happened instead was that there was a huge target, which was completely missed. In two years, we went backwards, by £8 billion-worth of extra costs, when we had expected to remove £9 billion-worth of extra costs. Instead of removing £9 billion-worth of extra costs, we added £8 billion-worth, which was a £17 billion miss in two years.
That was absolutely disastrous compared with what we had been doing for the previous five years, and the thing that worries me is that it is being recommended that we go back to something rather similar. I do not care whether it is one in, one out or one in, two out, but it is essential that we have that gateway condition, because if we do not have it we will carry on going backwards.
I am afraid, and very sorry to report, that the benefits of Brexit report—another piece of bedtime reading, Mr Efford, which I am sure you have gone through in detail—says on page 27 that we will not reintroduce the old system at all but will stick with the one that has just failed, and we will carry on repeating the same mistake that we made before. I really hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me that that has now changed around, but I fear that he will be unable to. If we do not change around, then we will fail again, and—let us be very clear about it—that is what we are currently heading towards.
I have final thoughts on the economic regulators, Mr Efford; I am nearly there. As I say, we have had some progress here, because, as I mentioned, the Government have said that they are consulting on trying to improve the statutory duties of economic regulators to add extra competition, which should lead to shrinking the regulators over time.
However, as I also mentioned, we do not have a date for when the report on the economic regulators is due, so we do not know if anything will ever be done about them; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say that the Government will do something about them. Without a date and without a firm commitment in principle that the report will genuinely try to normalise as much of the market as it can, outside the network of monopolies that I was talking about, the suspicion has to be that we are not trying to normalise these markets and that what will happen—unacknowledged, but none the less firmly—is that there will be no appetite for normalising as much of these markets as we can, and that instead the preferred destination is perpetual heavy regulation. I really hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure me that that is not the de facto intention behind what we are currently doing.
My final point is about the final chapter in the report, which is on subsidy control. Subsidies are a very heady political drug, if we are not really careful. No matter the political party we belong to, it is always tempting when lobbyists come knocking. It does not matter whether a Member is in opposition or in government, nor whether it is local government or national or sub-national Government. When lobbyists come knocking, they say how terrible it is that this big, important local employer has been left behind—it did not invest in whatever it was it was doing and is now 20 years out of date, so it has been overtaken by plucky entrepreneurial upstarts from other parts of the country or, indeed, from other countries—and they say, “Isn’t it terrible that these jobs are now at risk? What we need is a just a temporary wafer-thin subsidy to tide us over for a couple of years while we fix things.” Of course, they do not fix things and then, a couple of years later, they come back and ask for more.
That is expensive for taxpayers and it reduces both the productivity of industry and the long-term security and sustainability of British jobs, which become progressively more and more vulnerable to international competition. Ultimately, it is the thing that did for us in the 1960s and 1970s, and which we had enormous pain trying to fix in the 1980s and 1990s. Subsidy control is vital. It is one of those rules that has just come back, post Brexit, from being run by Brussels. We have a Subsidy Control Bill before Parliament at the moment—it is in the Lords. It will do all sorts of really good things to speed up our subsidy control process; it is much more nimble and light-touch. If authorities are compliant with six or seven different principles—
I thank the Minister for that information. If they comply with seven different principles of good subsidy, as opposed to bad subsidy, they can just get on with it—whether that is a local council or a national Government Minister, or anybody in between.
That is fine, except that we are keeping them a secret. We are not telling anybody what the subsidies are that we are dishing out. The EU system, which is what we are trying to replace, says that it is necessary to disclose any subsidies above half a million euros, which is quite a high level, actually. It means that a lot of subsidies are never disclosed at all, particularly if they are dished out by local councils. We are saying that it is not necessary to declare any subsidies under half a million pounds. The last time I looked at the euro-pound exchange rate, that is a higher level of disclosure than the old EU system. There are some other levels that are a bit lower for other bits and pieces, about which I am sure the Minister will remind us.
However, broadly speaking, we are going to declare less in future: we will be less transparent than we were in the past. That leaves the door open to cronyism—to local authorities or national Governments dishing out money to their mates, secure in the knowledge that nobody will know because we will not be able to see. It also leaves the door open to higher levels of subsidisation, potentially of less competitive firms, and therefore to wasting taxpayers’ money in future. Given what is happening to the cost of living at the moment, none of us wants to waste a single penny of hard-won taxpayers’ money, particularly when we have to take it as taxes in the first place.
It is a curate’s egg. It is sort of two cheers, rather than three, for what has been done so far. After a year, there has been genuine progress, and I am delighted to celebrate the points on the positive side of the ledger that I started off with. However, there is quite a lot—marginally more—on the negative side of the ledger; those things have not yet happened, but they could. The advantage is that most of the reforms that I have gone through—which have not yet happened, but which could—will not cost the Treasury a bean. They will not cost the taxpayer a bean. They will mean that British jobs and companies will become more competitive, more sustainable and safer in the long term, because, ultimately, the only thing that protects us against international competition is the fact that we are better than the international firms we compete against. It is a cheap route to economic success.
I am hoping, therefore, that it is a bit of a no-brainer. It is one of those things about which we say, “Why wouldn’t you do all of this stuff? Why on earth would you not?” The only reason, I am sure, is that there are genuinely significant vested interests behind some of these things that make them difficult to shift. However, we have a doughty warrior in the shape of the Government Minister responding to this debate. I am therefore looking forward to hearing how quickly he will be able to fight and smite the various different vested interests that would otherwise slow us down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this debate and on the review. Given his doughty defence of non-regulation, I hesitate to propose more regulation, but I would like to see a new competition and consumer Bill in the next session of Parliament. It has never been more needed than now, given the effects of the two-year pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
The pandemic has led to more people buying online, and more people are putting in fake reviews. That is a scam, and it has left millions of consumers bruised, out of pocket and with little trust in the companies trying to sell them goods and services. More than seven in 10 consumers use online reviews to inform purchases. They do not go down to the pub and talk to their neighbours about their purchases; they have not been able to do so for two years. They use online reviews.
There have been review practices across many of the largest online platforms, including Amazon, Google and Facebook, and multiple sectors have seen a thriving market in commissioning and selling fake reviews. Which? has called for commissioning and incentivising a fake review to be added to the list of automatically unfair practices in schedule 1 to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and I support that. Other than by looking reviews, where do people get information? What they need is the confidence that a review represents a verified purchase; that the review has been written by a real individual who was not given any money or incentive to buy a product; that the review was not for a free parcel that was delivered to the doorstep unknowingly; and that the review is honest. Sometimes, negative reviews are taken offline. People are told, “We’ll give you £5 for a positive review”, and if the review is not positive enough, they do not get the money.
There are other exploitative online practices, such as subscription traps and drip pricing. It is not about choosing the interests of the consumer over the interests of businesses, because the more effective consumer protection becomes, the more the UK economy benefits. It is a win-win. If consumers can trust businesses and their practices, they are more inclined to buy those companies’ products. Crucially to the businesses, people then come back for more.
Particularly when people are thinking very carefully about how to spend their money, it is imperative that we encourage trust in businesses. Companies will then compete on their ability to meet customers’ needs and provide real value, rather than on cutting corners or passing off shoddy products. Only the best businesses will survive, and that is as it should be. It is a partnership, because consumers and businesses both have the same interests at heart. Consumers want the best products at the best prices, and businesses want to sell them those things.
An important component of the legislation is around redress and alternative dispute resolution. Which? says that there should be mandatory dispute resolution schemes in key sectors that have a high volume of complaints and are often complex and high value. We have all seen, particularly through the pandemic, the problems that people have had getting refunds for air travel. Thousands of covid-related flight cancellations left people out of pocket, and the airlines have quite often chosen to ignore the law by refusing a refund. People have waited months, if not years, for those refunds. There are two ADR schemes in the aviation industry, but neither is compulsory to join. Ryanair left one scheme because it disagreed with the judgments relating to strikes by its air crew. Jetair, Emirates and others have failed to join any ADR scheme. If things go wrong, the passengers do not have any redress.
In early 2019, the all-party parliamentary group on consumer protection, which I chair, published a report calling for the wholesale reform of the ADR platform. We looked in detail at the various ombudsmen and ADR schemes and found enormous variation in how they operate. Some are statutory bodies, and some are not. Some cover all firms in the sector, because everyone has to join them, and some do not. Some can enforce the judgments, and some cannot. That creates total confusion for consumers, who are often left frustrated and do not know who to go to. Air travel was one of the areas where the statutory scheme was most keenly felt, and that was pre covid.
Our report said that what was needed was a powerful and accessible statutory ombudsman, which probably echoes the call from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare about a 24/7 dispute resolution platform. People do not know where to go. They have to negotiate a difficult maze of ombudsmen. Who do they go to? There should be a single point of entry for all complaints, which should be passed through to the correct ombudsman. I think that there should be an ombudsman for travel, so that people do not think, “Some of my journey was air travel, but there was also a bit of rail. Was it the delay on the railway that led to my missing the plane?” It gets far too confusing for the consumer. People often buy a package, which includes the flights and hotel. Is that a package, or are there separate bookings for the flights and the hotel? Some companies have said, “You booked the flights and hotel with us, but it is not a package, because they were booked separately.” When one part goes wrong, to whom do people turn? That is why we need an ombudsman for the whole travel industry; I think that is the model in Germany.
We also need to look at enforcement. The CMA is responsible for the enforcement of consumer law in precedent setting and market-wide cases, but it lacks the power to effectively protect consumer rights and deter companies. In order to enforce a decision, there is a lengthy court process, and a company can be fined only if it fails to comply with a court order. One example of that is the issue with the ticket seller Viagogo. It took six years for Viagogo to be forced to change its practices and follow the CMA guidance on the information it gives to consumers. In Canada, however, the secondary ticketing sites Ticketmaster and StubHub had immediate fines of 4 million Canadian dollars and 5 million Canadian dollars in costs. They also received a fine of 1.3 million Canadian dollars for not complying with a previous warning. Compare that with a process that took six years, during which time Viagogo could rip off consumers. It is just not good enough.
There are other examples of companies in the travel and wedding sectors that, despite clear guidance from the CMA, were very slow to offer refunds and unlawfully held on to customers’ money for months and months after the cancellation of services—by them, not by consumers. We need a simplified process of investigation, and we need the CMA to have greater powers—along the lines of those enjoyed by the other UK regulators, such as the Financial Conduct Authority and the Information Commissioner’s Office—to raise standards and challenge companies that fail to comply. We have the power to do that, but it needs some teeth. It is no use having regulation and legislation unless it can be enforced easily for consumers, who are often deterred by a long, complex process; indeed, some businesses rely on that.
We are all consumers. Most of the time, things go smoothly, but it is when things go wrong that the gaps in protection are exposed. Limiting that exposure is vital in order to give consumers the confidence to make more purchases without the undue stress and worry that many have had to go through in the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing this crucial debate and on his excellent work not only on his review, but as the UK’s anti-corruption champion. His review is a vital piece of work and reveals how our competition policy can drive enterprise, productivity and growth. I am pleased to recognise that more competition and support for small businesses outside the south-east is key to our levelling-up agenda.
I speak as the Member for Truro and Falmouth in Cornwall, which has an economy built on fantastic small businesses, with three quarters of local companies employing fewer than five people. Although the terms “competition law” and “ competition policy” might seem far removed from our everyday lives, it can be argued that failing to create a better regulatory regime that fully supports small businesses, consumers and fair competition has led to higher prices and lower wages in Cornwall for much of the last decade. We must unpick the fact that Cornwall has the lowest productivity levels anywhere in the UK, and that places the region at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I draw the House’s attention to section 6 of the report, which shows that Britain has a well-known productivity problem, especially outside the south-east.
Our geographical skew in productivity is not normal; only two other European countries, Poland and Romania, have bigger variations than we have. That difference translates into everyone’s wages. In Cornwall, one in three workers earn below the national living wage, and much of the employment in Cornwall is reliant on two low-paying industry groups, namely hospitality and retail. They are sources of pride for Cornwall and its flourishing tourism sector, but it is inescapable that both are sources of low pay and low productivity.
Against a backdrop of rapid change in the world of work and the need to increase productivity, action to improve skills in Cornwall is crucial. Investing in skills will attract more competitive and successful firms, creating a virtuous circle that attracts more high-skilled people to live and work in the area—boosting productivity, jobs and wages even further.
I am in talks with BEIS and other Government officials about the lithium that is under our feet in Cornwall. We are very lucky, geologically. Few people realise that there is enough lithium under the Cornish soil to power at least half of the electric vehicles that we will need in the future. Cornwall is very good at getting things out of the ground and sending them away, but we need to make sure that all the processing to get the lithium to a battery-ready status also happens in the county, creating long-term jobs. To do that, we will have to compete with firms in China and other overseas players. That makes it difficult, and that is why we need to work with Government to make sure that the processing happens locally.
I am pleased with recent progress, such as the news that the excellent team at Truro and Penwith College have applied to the skills accelerator programme, ushering in a new approach that ensures that all technical education and training is based on what employers actually need. That is yet another example of the principal Martin Tucker and his brilliant team at Truro and Penwith leading the way with excellence and innovation in the learning and skills sector. It adds to their strong existing offer, which includes free skills bootcamps in digital and technical careers and the higher level skills project, to support individuals looking to enhance their knowledge and develop their careers.
We must consider all the options on the table to increase the region’s productivity. The report makes several crucial recommendations to reform competition policy and put consumers at the heart of markets, and I urge the Government to consider those recommendations. In particular, the report notes that to raise productivity in areas such as Cornwall, we need to boost the “local competitive temperature” by supporting small businesses to compete with large competitors. That was what I was driving at in my earlier intervention.
I want to highlight two areas of the report: reducing the burden of red tape and supporting digital industries. Laws and regulations are a crucial part of our market economy, as we have already said. They protect staff, consumers and the environment. I have been very vocal about the need for strong regulations on water companies, which are currently responsible for much of the pollution in our rivers, including the River Fal in my constituency. I agree that we need better regulation that maintains standards but applies them in the least costly and most unbureaucratic way possible.
In particular, we must address the growing crisis in the fishing sector that is caused by complicated new export rules, a lack of clarity about fishing quotas and an increase in red tape. At this point, I have to declare an interest as a fishwife—these are issues that I hear about at the breakfast table daily. Those changes have significantly hit our shellfish producers in particular, and some businesses face the real possibility of collapse unless we take urgent action. The fishing industry plays a vital role in the Cornish economy, and I urge the Government to step in and address the issues to secure its long-term future.
We have a lot of small producers in Cornwall, and up until very recently their only option has been to take their catch to market. A couple of years ago, a fisherman might have received £1.50 for a kilo of mackerel at market. They could go into the supermarket the same day and see lesser quality, net-caught fish of the same type—fish that had been in a net for a couple of days and was not as fresh as line caught—and the consumer would be paying something like £10 or £12 a kilo for it. Somebody is making an awful lot of money out of that fish, and it is not the food producer; it is not the fisherman. I am pleased that the Government have been encouraging direct sales, but I encourage them to further reduce the red tape that these boys and girls have to put themselves through to ensure that they can sell directly to farm shops and even, if possible, directly to supermarkets.
I support the report’s proposals for a new pro-competition regime for digital markets. Digital technologies bring us many benefits, transforming our economy, society and daily lives. However, there are downsides caused by firms with enormous network and digital data monopolies, so we must ensure that digital regulation promotes competition and innovation. Digital industries are a growing part of the economy in Cornwall, which has a rapidly expanding digital and creative community that has grown by 76% since 2010. I will do all I can to support the Government to ensure that we build a pro-growth data regime that will allow the digital industry in Cornwall to thrive.
Improving productivity in areas such as Cornwall is key to levelling up in the UK, and that is why it is important that we invest in skills and reform to make better regulation in industries such as fishing and all the way to digital markets. I look forward to supporting the Government as they consider the recommendations of the report, and I will continue to champion all our small businesses, innovation and competition now and in the years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on his report and on securing this important debate. I particularly want to address his comments on the digital markets unit, which he says has been set up in shadow form. We eagerly anticipate the Queen’s Speech to see whether there is legislation in the next Session to give the unit the power that it needs.
So much of our commerce and consumer interaction takes place through digital services. We have seen that more than ever during the pandemic. They are an integral part of the economy. It is right that we question and challenge whether digital markets are truly competitive, and whether the very large players that dominate them are guilty of abuse of market power, given the great positions that they hold.
It is tempting to think, “There are a lot of big digital companies; presumably they all compete against each other, and that creates a fair market.” When we break that market down, we see a series of monopolies in each sector. Unsurprisingly, Google has 92% of the world’s search business; Chrome, which is owned by Google, has 62% of the browser market; and Facebook and Google together control about 70% of the digital display advertising market worldwide.
Mobile phones run on one of two operating systems: 70% run on the Android operating system, which is owned by Google, and 30% on iOS, which is owned by Apple. You might think, “Well, at least there is a market split there,” but they are both monopolies. Apple customers —I am one; I have an iPhone—have no choice but to purchase apps through the App Store; there is no interoperable or alternative system. I cannot use a different app store system, such as the Google app store, to download apps on to an Apple product, or the other way around. The mobile communication devices market, which is central to the world economy, is dominated by only two operating systems, both of which are monopolies for their users.
As for the messaging app market in the UK, WhatsApp has 75% market penetration. The next most popular messaging app is Facebook Messenger, which has nearly 60% market penetration—that is, 60% of people in this market use it. Of course, people have multiple messaging apps. Both are owned by the same company. Across digital markets, there are these relative monopolies.
Is there evidence of abuse of market power? There is certainly evidence of these companies treating customers differently. There is evidence that Apple has different policies on charges for selling through the App Store for different companies. It does not charge everyone the same amount. Facebook has allowed different businesses to acquire different levels of Facebook data to help them drive their business through the Facebook systems, depending on the value of the commercial relationship to Facebook. When I chaired the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, we published evidence that we secured from an American app developer that showed that Facebook sometimes made arbitrary determinations about whether an app developer should have access to the Facebook graph at all; it depended on whether Facebook thought that the product that the company was developing was a threat to its business.
Some people may remember from the dim and distant past the short film app called Vine, which was very popular. People uploaded very short films to it. Mark Zuckerberg personally decided that Vine was acquiring too much Facebook data, so Facebook kicked Vine off the platform. An email was published in which Mark Zuckerberg was asked to confirm that he wanted to do that, and he replied, “Yup, go for it.” In our report, the creators of Vine said they remembered that moment as though it were yesterday, because it was the moment that effectively killed their business. The chief exec of a global tech company can, like the Emperor Augustus, put their thumb up or down, and determine whether a business is allowed to succeed, based on his assessment of whether that business is a competitor to his.
We often say, “Why is it that, particularly in the tech sector, although the UK produces brilliant, thriving companies, they do not go to scale?” One of the reasons is that if they are too successful, they are squeezed out of the market by bigger, dominant players, which either deny them fair access to customers through their platform, give them the option of being acquired, or drive them out of business altogether.
There have been competition investigations into preferential ranking on Apple and Google systems, to see whether Google search results favour businesses with which Google has a commercial relationship, with to the detriment of others that it sees as competitors. Amazon can monitor whether a product is successful, who is buying it, and, if it is too successful, whether it should copy it and launch its own product. Amazon does not give customer purchase data to businesses that sell through Amazon. Amazon is both the creator of the infrastructure through which businesses sell to their customers, and sells its own products alongside them, giving it immense market power.
We need a digital markets unit that ensures not only that consumers are treated fairly, that they have fair pricing and that there is fair competition among products, but that businesses that reach their customers through other tech platforms are treated fairly. It should ensure that businesses pay a fair rate for advertising, have fair access to data relative to other businesses, and are not a victim of aggressive pricing against them by the platform, or dis-ranked or downgraded through pure prejudice. All those aspects are central to the working of the digital economy today, and that is why it is important that we have a digital markets unit with the ability to launch investigations for evidence of tech platforms abusing their market power over other businesses, to the detriment of consumer interest.
I am delighted to participate in this debate on UK competition and consumer policy in response to the Penrose review. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for all his work on the review. The goals of the Penrose review, which are to improve consumer choice and outcomes, are, of course, very important; they are things that we can all sign up to. Now more than ever, with household budgets being badly squeezed in this cost of living crisis, consumers must be supported, so that they can secure the best value for money and have sufficient protection under the law. For that to happen, we need UK competition and consumer protection that is fit for the modern age.
Consumers need confidence that if they fall victim to exploitation and unscrupulous practices, there is redress and the consumer protection that they need and deserve. It is clear that some markets simply do not work for the consumer. I understand that the clear statement of intent in the Penrose review was that markets must work for people, not the other way round. Who could argue with that?
Consumer confidence is essential for economic growth, so it is worrying that research by consumer champion Which? has found that up to one third of consumers experience at least one problem with a product or service every year. That not only causes financial loss and anxiety but has a detrimental impact on consumer confidence. We all know that there are gaps in consumer protection and enforcement, some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, we all witnessed how the disruption to the travel industry during covid left passengers out of pocket when airlines either refused to pay for cancelled flights or delayed refunds.
Digital markets are not subject to the same regulations as their offline counterparts, and that opens the door to fake products reviews, which have exploded on online marketplaces. We heard a lot about that from the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). Members in all parts of this Chamber have expressed concerns about digital markets, and our constituents share those concerns.
The situation is made worse by the fact that regulators do not have the necessary powers to hold companies to account when the law is flouted. The Competition and Markets Authority does what it can to uphold consumer law, but its investigations can take years and tend to result in commitments instead of fines, and offer little in the way of deterrents for those who would flout the law. The problem is that to be more effective, the CMA needs more powers to properly perform the task of protecting consumer rights.
I note with interest the conclusions of the Penrose review, which proposes that the Competition and Markets Authority be given sharper teeth, so that it has increased power to drive consumer rights, supply-side reforms and productivity improvements. It also proposes a streamlined legislative framework for UK competition and consumer policy.
Of greater interest is the question of which of the Penrose conclusions the UK Government will take forward. Indeed, if the Penrose review is implemented in full, it could constitute the biggest shake-up of the UK’s competition and consumer law regime since the creation of the Competition and Markets Authority in 2014. The changes would range from providing the Competition and Markets Authority with the same powers to prosecute consumer law cases as it has for competition law investigations to reforming sectoral regulations. The review contains some very interesting ideas and would give the Competition and Markets Authority significantly increased powers.
However, concerns have been expressed that concentrating such increased power in the Competition and Markets Authority at a time when it is adapting to its new post-Brexit case load and the challenges of a digitised economy could be very challenging indeed for the CMA. We simply do not know yet what the Government response to the Penrose review will be, although it does appear—I underline the word “appear”—that the Chancellor and the Business Secretary have welcomed the recommendations. The question is: where do we go from here?
We have all waited so long. The chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, Lord Tyrie, set out recommendations for reform in 2019. In 2020, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare was asked by the Government to look into competition, and he published his report last year. The UK Government recognised the need to reform the enforcement regime in their 2019 manifesto, and the Departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, have undertaken consultations.
Last year, the Business Secretary set out plans to bolster competition regimes, but that must be underpinned by legislation. Consumer and competition policy has been under review for over four years, which has meant that the challenges that consumers face in the marketplace have continued, and have often become much more difficult. If the Competition and Markets Authority had more power, as other regulators do—enough power to protect consumers and hold companies accountable for breaking consumer law—we could raise standards in the consumer marketplace.
We can see clearly what the lack of such powers can lead to in practice. We have had the example of the secondary ticketing platform Viagogo for six years; after the threat of legal action, it finally changed its practices and paid attention to the Competition and Markets Authority guidance on advising consumers. Had the immediate imposition of fines for not complying with guidance been an option, it would not have taken six years for Viagogo to comply, and for us to secure the changes that everybody wanted. We have all seen that the Competition and Markets Authority lacked the power it needed, during the time of covid disruption, to ensure that consumers were refunded in a reasonable timeframe by some players in the travel and wedding sectors.
A consumer and competition Bill could tackle the bad business practices that harm consumers and consumer confidence. There could be simpler investigation procedures, and fines could be imposed, so that matters were not dragged through the courts in lengthy processes, as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said. That would be nothing but a boon to consumer confidence and protection.
I agree with the call in the report for stronger protections for consumers against the so-called loyalty penalty, unfair contractual terms, perceived attempts by digital businesses to nudge consumers into making decisions, making it hard for consumers to exit contracts, and of course the practice of creating an unreal sense of urgency to pressurise consumers into making purchases, as well as trapping them in subscriptions.
A code of conduct would benefit both business and consumers. It would ensure that the largest online platforms did not abuse their market power. There would also be an alternative dispute resolution scheme that offered an efficient, affordable and proportionate route for resolving difficulties relating to high-value transactions while avoiding the complexity and cost of going to small claims court.
Finally, a consumer and competition Bill must be introduced in the upcoming programme for Government. That would be the point at which all the work that has been done at last comes to fruition—when a competition and enforcement framework fit for the modern economy is delivered through legislation. There is real impatience for the Government to finally commit to action on these important consumer protection matters. It is not clear how far the Government will go in improving competition and consumer policy. We do not know how they will interpret and implement the recommendations of the Penrose review. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us.
Alongside the proposals made by the chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, Lord Tyrie, we have had consultations by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Penrose review. What we have not yet had is the introduction of a consumer and competition Bill. We all look forward to a Bill with proper teeth that will confer real power on the Competition and Markets Authority, so that it can support consumer confidence and create a marketplace in which the consumer is protected, and in which, as the Penrose review boldly set out, the market works for people, not the other way around.
I look forward to this long-promised, long-awaited and much-anticipated Bill. I hope the Minister will at least say when we will be able to see and scrutinise it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) for initiating this debate, and for his work on this issue. His very important “Power to the People” report was published around a year ago. In his opening remarks, he clearly laid out the sentiments and recommendations of the report, as well as, importantly, the context of declining competitiveness, the productivity challenge we face and the importance of making sure that we can act against the non-compliance of companies that do not play their part, so that we can ensure a fair regime for all businesses and for consumers. He rightly raised points about the vested interests that distort our markets.
Competition law seeks to curb practices that undermine or restrict competition to the detriment of consumers. Those practices can include a firm’s abuse of its dominant market position, anti-competitive practices, and mergers or takeovers that, if allowed, would result in a substantial lessening of competition. There has been a rapid increase in takeovers and mergers, particularly during the pandemic lockdowns, so that is an area that needs further work. I will come back to that.
Labour welcomed the Penrose report, and also highlighted where it needed to go further. UK markets are becoming more concentrated, and that hits consumers and workers, and stops small businesses in their tracks and prevents them from progressing. are stopping small businesses in their tracks. We want a re-evaluation of the role of the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure that it has the tools to tackle the growing concentration of market power.
We may disagree on rolling back economic regulation, but the issue is not necessarily the principle; it is more about asking whether we have the regulations we need for effective regulation of markets for consumers. That may not be about quantity; I think it is about quality. That is where the debate needs to start. I am not interested in regulation for regulation’s sake. For me, regulation is about purpose; it is about making sure that it will be effective and deliver the outcomes that we believe are necessary. We need more robust competition policy; we need to crack down on tax avoidance, and challenge mergers and acquisitions that mean taking on unsustainable debt, or that are not in Britain’s long-term strategic interests.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed; they have made important and distinct contributions highlighted different areas of the subject. We in this House have long known about the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) does on consumer protection. She raised important issues around fake reviews—reviews are part of how consumers are informed—and around how action can be taken when consumers are misinformed. She also raised the important point that consumers and businesses have a common interest in making sure that markets work effectively and fairly. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that reform is based on how consumers behave today, how the market works and how consumers receive their goods and services. Many of those issues are interconnected. She rightly alluded to the important work of Which? in this area, and I thank it for its contribution.
The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) shared a rich picture of her constituency, the opportunities and sectoral issues in her local economy and the challenges in taking forward some of those opportunities. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted clearly the dominance of power of the social media companies, which is an important backdrop to the digital markets reform that we have discussed. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about the importance of value for money and consumer protection. Some of the issues that she raised, like those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, were very powerful.
Focusing on consumer interest has never been more important given the cost of living crisis that consumers face. Inflation is out of control, with energy, food and petrol prices rocketing. It is not just about global factors; we know that poor Government economic management has left us uniquely exposed. We have a buy now, pay later loan scheme for energy bills, rather than dealing with the problems in our energy market. We are very worried about raising taxes on working people and businesses at the worst possible time. In parallel to our debate, an Opposition day debate is taking place to call on the Government, again, to stop the national insurance rise in April.
There has been a long journey of reform. Hon. Members will be aware than when Labour was in power, we argued strongly that UK regulation of anti-competitive practices was weak. That led to one of our first pieces of legislation, the Competition Act 1998. That recent journey is worth noting, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, it has been four years since the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy asked the CMA for proposals to better protect consumers in the digital economy and improve public trust in markets.
The then CMA chairman, Lord Tyrie, outlined his proposals to the Secretary of State in a letter in 2019. The Penrose review followed in February 2021. Last summer, the Government published two consultation documents—the first on reforming competition and consumer policy and the second on a pro-competition regime for digital markets. Both sets of proposals would require legislation to take forward some of the challenges raised, but the Government have yet to publish their response to either of those consultations.
I recognise that both the Penrose review and the Government’s consultation represent some progress in addressing the rules governing the UK’s companies and markets, not least as they recognise that reform is necessary. They are also vehicles for reforming the UK anti-trust regime post covid and post Brexit. The Penrose review is very important in that respect. The existing system, however, is no longer serving consumers appropriately, and is not fit for purpose in a digital age. It could lead to new monopolies created at any time in new markets.
It sounds as though the hon. Lady is joining other Members in saying that we need a new competition and consumer Act to fix some of those things. Could she confirm that that is the Labour party’s position? I think that is what she is saying, but I do not want to put words in her mouth.
I will come on to that, but I think we need legislation. We hope that will be announced in the next Queen’s Speech, but I will come back to that.
There seems to be broad consensus for providing the regulators, including the CMA and the Competition Appeal Tribunal, with more powers to protect consumers and hold companies accountable if they are not found to be playing by the rules. That is a positive step. However, so far—I say this gently—the Penrose review and the Government’s consultation are a missed opportunity for a more fundamental review and reform of the UK marketplace. Even the CMA, which is now responsible for all anti-competitive practices that affect UK markets and consumers, has said that comments in the Government’s consultation on reforming competition and consumer policy amounted to
“incremental, rather than radical, change to the competition regime.”
Let me mention resources, which are needed to make any regime effective, an issue that was raised yesterday in the debate on economic crime. Powers and resources for investigation and enforcement are absolutely critical. They are the other side of the coin to policy, and are about how we make sure that any regime is implemented effectively.
I want to focus on four areas to which I hope the Minister will respond. In large part, they reflect the comments already made, with one or two extra points.
First, on digital competition and regulation, digital is changing our economy. It is changing how the economy works, the products we have, how we receive services, how consumers purchase those services and how businesses trade with each other. There is a huge concentration of power in the big digital firms, with consequences for monopolisation, consumer rights and prices, as well as access to markets for new firms, as has been mentioned already. We know that tackling these issues needs international co-operation.
The Government have embarked on the creation of a digital markets unit in the CMA, which was set up on a non-statutory basis last April. I hope we will hear when that will be moved to a statutory footing and be given the teeth it needs.
Will Bills on competition and consumer law reform and on digital markets be in the Queen’s Speech? Perhaps the Minister can share with us in this Chamber—we will take it no further; it will stay within these four walls—whether that legislation will come forward.
Secondly, on powers for the CMA and the speeding up of investigations, the Penrose review made a recommendation for a taskforce on how we can make sure that CMA investigations are more effective. It is important to get justice for consumers, as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said. What more are the Government planning to do in that area? There are other instances of unfairness and questionable policy. One example really struck me before Christmas. Royal Mail highlighted 23 areas that would see a reduction in service pre-Christmas, but that came on the back of £400 million in dividends being announced the month before. It does not seem right that there is no accountability for that sort of decision making.
There is some positive news. In its response to the Penrose review, the CMA announced that it is creating a dedicated microeconomic unit, which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare called for, and which I understand will be based in Darlington at the Treasury campus.
Thirdly, on the public interest test, Labour has proposed the introduction of a broad public interest test for mergers and acquisitions. That would give the Government powers to review transactions, impose conditions and block transactions where they could have negative, long-term implications for the UK’s industrial strategy, economy and jobs. The Government have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to intervene in mergers and acquisitions where they raise issues of national security, stability of the UK financial system, media plurality or maintaining in the UK the ability to combat and mitigate the effects of public health emergencies.
We are calling for the Enterprise Act 2016 to be expanded to include a public interest test where an acquisition may have long-term implications for the UK’s industrial strategy. In our view, that goes further than the Penrose review in strengthening the interests of consumers, and we believe that we need a debate on how the CMA should move past narrow competition and consumer interests to public interest. On takeovers and mergers, that could apply to consumer interest but also to the impact on supply chains, employees and the public interest more generally, which has implications for consumer interests. As is consistent with the approach that the Minister will know we took on the Subsidy Control Bill, we need the CMA to have more diverse voices in its leadership, including reforms to the authority to make it more representative of the nations and regions of the UK.
I will just comment briefly on hollowed-out local enforcement. Our consumer protection regime has been weakened by 10 years of degradation of local authority trading standards teams. That is a serious issue. The number of LATS officers has been cut by more than 50% since 2010, while 45% of local authority trading standards teams say they do not have the resources to deal with consumer issues in their area. I note that the Penrose review has called for action on that and I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation that some of the recommendations in the review will form part of his package of reforms later this year.
In conclusion, Labour welcomes competition and consumer choice in the UK as a sign of a healthy, functioning market economy. We are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business, and we believe that that is important as part of a pro-business, pro-society, pro-worker agenda to be built for Britain. We are ready and waiting for Parliament to have the opportunity to act and to build on the Penrose review. We believe that the Government have been a little too slow, so I hope that the Minister will give us confidence that things will be speeded up. I look forward to working with him and with colleagues from across the House on this important agenda as it moves forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on securing the debate and on his report. Wolfie Smith will be turning in his Afghan coat when he sees that “Power to the People” has become the mantra for fixing broken markets to encourage good competition and free markets, but the report is an interesting read. That reference got tumbleweed from some of the younger Members, but I hope that my hon. Friend remembers Wolfie Smith.
My hon. Friend’s report is an important contribution to the debate on reforming the UK’s competition policy. It has had a significant role in shaping the Government’s thinking on the priorities for reform, and I reiterate my thanks to him for his work and for his continuing engagement with and advocacy for reform.
In the report, my hon. Friend argues that the UK’s competition and consumer regime should be one of the best in the world and the Government are absolutely four-square behind that objective. Now that the UK has left the EU, we must build on this country’s innovative foundations to create a robust and agile economy that works for everyone and that is fit for future generations.
Competition and consumer policy has a central role in creating a thriving free market economy that encourages innovation, enterprise, growth and productivity. Competition policy is crucial in creating the right conditions for healthy competition between traders in markets to win over consumers by offering the best deals and innovation. Consumer policy is vital in underpinning consumer confidence. It empowers consumers to engage in markets in an assured manner, knowing that they have a strong set of legal rights that will be respected and enforced.
That is why we committed in our manifesto to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle consumer rip-offs and bad business practices. It is also why the Government committed in our plan for growth to the UK’s having a best in class competition regime that will raise innovation and investment across the economy.
An effective competition and consumer policy will help us to build back a better and fairer economy, giving businesses confidence that they are competing on fair terms and giving the public confidence that they are getting a good deal. The UK’s competition regime is already well regarded internationally, so we are starting from a strong foundation. However, we should always strive to be better and to go further.
Markets and the way that consumers and businesses engage with each other have changed dramatically since the current legislation was enacted. That change is particularly stark in the digital economy. The tech revolution has brought huge benefits. Recent research has shown that about 15% of all businesses have adopted at least one artificial intelligence technology. In recent years, we have also seen that some digital markets have certain characteristics that make them more prone to weak competition.
Despite the actions that the UK has taken to promote competition, there is evidence from the CMA that competition may have weakened over the last 20 years. In 2020, the Government commissioned the CMA to produce an expert state of competition assessment to improve our collective understanding of the level and nature of competition across the UK economy. In its first “State of UK Competition” report, the CMA found that mark-ups, the ratio of prices to costs, had increased by 7% from 2000 to 2018. It found that in 2018 the average combined market share of the 10 largest firms in an industry was 3% higher than in 1998. It is essential that the competition regime does more to encourage and maintain competitive markets.
The Government published two consultations on legislative reforms in July last year, building on the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. The consultation, “Reforming Competition and Consumer Policy”, set out a vision for the future of our competition and consumer policy. The separate consultation, “A New Pro-Competition Regime for Digital Markets”, set out a vision for a new agile and flexible regime to promote competition in digital markets, something that my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted that we need to improve.
The package of reforms in the Government’s two consultations shares the ambitions of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare. Those proposals seek to enhance the powers of the CMA and consumers’ rights, and ensure that those rights are robustly enforced. They will work to protect consumers and help businesses thrive. In addition to sharing those ambitions, my hon. Friend’s detailed report has had a considerable influence on where Government see opportunities for reform.
Indeed. My hon. Friend is right to have used the near anniversary of his report as an opportunity to discuss the issue. Unfortunately, he has slightly missed the target of the consultation response, which we hope to bring forward very shortly. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), the Penrose report did not need Her Majesty to give a notification that it was coming forward. Unfortunately, I cannot pre-empt what Her Majesty will say in the Queen’s Speech about future legislation.
A central recommendation of the Penrose report, which my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has repeated today, is that the Government should take steps to ensure that the enforcement of competition and consumer law speeds up to keep pace with the modern digitising economy. We agree and propose a range of measures to make enforcement more efficient. For instance, we propose that the CMA should have stronger powers to penalise businesses that obstruct or slow down investigation. The Government have also proposed new ways for businesses and the CMA to reach agreements on the actions needed to resolve competition issues in market-wide investigations and merger reviews. Both those changes were recommended by my hon. Friend in his report.
He also recognised the need for UK competition regulators to work in partnership with regulators overseas, to help address competition and consumer issues that span borders. We agree that effective international co-operation is an important part of the UK’s competition and consumer regime. Promoting that co-operation is a key objective in our free trade agreements, and we have successfully secured text on that in the UK’s recent agreements with Australia and New Zealand. We have consulted on legislative proposals to ensure that the CMA and consumer authorities can work as effectively as possible with their international counterparts.
My hon. Friend’s report also emphasised the role of consumer protection law in empowering consumers and driving effective competition. We agree that our already strong consumer rights framework must continue to support consumers into the future, allowing them to benefit from new technology and business models and to feel empowered to make the best decisions available to them. We have consulted on measures to tackle subscription traps, where a consumer enters into a subscription for a product or service but has difficulty leaving. We have also consulted on measures to tackle fake reviews, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), which undermine competition and give unfair advantage to traders who are willing to use them.
In taking steps to strengthen the protections for consumers, the Government are aware of the need to consider any new burdens on businesses. We want to ensure that consumers get that fair deal and that businesses are not overburdened by regulatory barriers. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is absolutely right to talk about better regulation, and I will speak a little more about that, if I have time.
My hon. Friend talked about how we can have better dispute resolution, because when consumers enforce their rights, poorly performing firms face more pressure, and consumers know they can trust the system to be on their side if they need it. That is what we need.
The Minister is being very generous. I just want to press him a bit on the point about better regulation. So far, he has not said that he wants to go back to one in, one out, or to one in, two out. Could he clarify what mechanism the Government have to ensure that better regulation happens, as opposed to being wished for with a target that will not be hit?
We consulted on reforming the better regulation framework, and the Government do not think that a one in, two out rule—or whatever number out—is consistent with delivering world-class regulation to support the economy in adapting to a new wave of the technological revolution or in achieving net zero, so we want to reduce costs to business wherever we sensibly can do so and regulate only where strictly necessary. We intend to do that by looking at the merits of each case rather than using the one in, two out system, and we plan to change the better regulation system so that it will do that. However, it is very important that we get the balance right.
The Government believe that a well-functioning alternative dispute resolution system can make markets work more effectively, increase consumer confidence in spending and generate higher trader compliance with the law. It is an important avenue to redress for consumers that more easily allows for mediated settlements and is less confrontational than a court process, which is often more costly and time intensive, so we sought views on proposals to enhance the role of ADR in resolving consumer disputes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare also recommended that the CMA’s civil consumer enforcement powers should be upgraded, which would allow it to decide cases and impose fines in the same way as it does for civil enforcement of competition law. Again, we sought views on empowering the CMA to enforce consumer law directly, and we consulted on giving the CMA new powers to decide whether consumer law has been broken. Under the proposal, the CMA could directly impose directions, remedies or monetary penalties on firms that mistreat their customers without having to go through the courts, as is currently the case. That would allow the CMA to intervene earlier and to go further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare also mentioned the CAT. I have to say that although there are plenty more things that the CAT could do, changes have been brought on by covid. I visited CAT’s virtual court the other day, when it heard the case of Newcastle United’s takeover by the Saudi buyers. It had 35,000 people tuning in, which is more than all but the top nine average gates in the premier league, so a lot of Geordies and Newcastle fans elsewhere are now experts on competition law—I am not sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. None the less, it really shines a light—being with the transparency tsar—on the work of the CAT and the competition regime.
Clearly, there are also challenges in some markets in the digital economy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe talked about. That is why we looked at what we can do to have a bespoke regime in the digital consultation. Frankly, government is not particularly good at keeping up with technology—I am talking about government as an overall body, rather than any particular government—so it is right that the market looks at how we can introduce conduct requirements and how we can have pro-competitive interventions by the digital market unit to keep up with an ever-changing regime. We also consulted on a merger regime, which is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was talking about—the so-called killer acquisitions and other stifling of innovation. I remember the days of Netscape, Mozilla Firefox and all the other browsers that were available but have now fallen by the wayside—again, tumbleweed from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), who is far younger than me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth talked about Cornwall. She did not just talk about regulation and competition regimes and legislation to promote things such as the direct sales of fish and the secondary industries around the exciting opportunities for lithium. Actually, it is about promoting enterprise and innovation. If regulation is there, that is fantastic, but it does not always need to resort back to a constructed regime if there are businesses ready to grab opportunities. That needs to be part of a suite of measures to ensure that the UK is the best place to start, grow and scale up a business. Part of that is the strategy that BEIS is coming up with, to show that we are ready to invest in—and are investing in—and support, for the long term, those kinds of technologies, which will give businesses the confidence to invest in areas such as Truro and Falmouth in order to make the most of that.
Looking at some other areas, the hon. Member for Makerfield talked about weddings. That was an interesting point about the covid pandemic, because I think that shows the difficulty of having a consumer policy. I was the Minister charged with engaging with the wedding sector, and that was a challenge. We had brides and grooms looking forward to their special day, which costs a lot of money. The whole point about the wedding sector is that it builds up anticipation and expectation. Clearly, however, venues and organisers especially had spent a lot of money and had a lot of reservations, but they have only a single day to provide their service. When they were compelled to lock down, or when demand was stifled, if they had refunded everything in one go, they would have been out of business. The balance was hugely difficult, with a lot of arguments between them and the CMA within that. I am glad that we got through that, largely, and that we were able to navigate through it by working with the CMA and the sector to make progress.
I will conclude on the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, because I want to give him time to respond. His report represents a significant milestone in the process of reforming competition and consumer policy. I reiterate my thanks for his work. We will continue the conversation as we bring legislation to bear, as we make the changes where primary legislation is required, despite the fact that changes are already happening. He has acknowledged the direct impact of some of his proposals, on which we have consulted, so we will bring that all together. I continue to work with stakeholders—I spoke with them only last week on this very subject—and we are carefully considering the feedback. We will come back with measures in good time.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. One thing that has been very clear is that everyone present wants us to go further and faster. Everyone is saying, “Get on with it. Why are we not moving more quickly?” I think it is the only time in my life that I have ever been outflanked on a competition issue by the Labour Front Bencher—I am paraphrasing the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra)—who agreed with a great deal in the report but would like to go further in a few areas. Even without that, the clear message from everyone who spoke is that we agree with most of this and we want it to happen quickly, please, and to go further. Radicalism, not incrementalism, has been the universal message.
My hon. Friend the Minister can take away a reassuring message that, perhaps contrary to what he might have expected, there is cross-party agreement on more competition and more consumer rights, because from that comes a better and more trusting economy, and therefore a more productive and high-wage economy. At the start of the debate, I was not sure that I would get that, but it has been clear that that is where we are. However, we will need to push him a bit, because he did not mention a couple of things in his remarks, such as the stuff about whether we can further reform some of the economically regulated sectors, to normalise as much of them as we can to ensure that we do not need extra protections, because the existing ones will be enough. It looks as if he might not have got to a section of his speech, so it would be lovely if he commits to that when we get to the primary legislation.
The Minister was also clear that there will be primary legislation. I appreciate that he cannot give too many details in advance of the Queen’s Speech. However, it is clear that we cannot have the digital markets unit functioning effectively without primary legislation. Therefore, more progress will be needed. He was very clear about the shortcomings—as he sees them—of the one in, one out mechanism, or the one in, two out mechanism, for better regulation and about the fact that he has a mechanism, he thinks, for an alternative approach that will work, but when I asked him about how, we just got a repetition of what, rather than how, and there was no detail behind it. I am sure that he has that, and I hope that he will come around to describing it in detail in public shortly, because at the moment it is a bit of a mystery. Without it, we will have nothing that works.
That said, I again thank everyone for participating and the Minister for his comments. I think we are making progress. We have an awfully long way still to travel.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK competition and consumer policy in response to the Penrose review.
Great British Railways Headquarters: Carnforth Bid
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Carnforth’s bid to become the headquarters for Great British Railways.
It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your stewardship, Mr Efford. I have to swap my glasses because, sadly, I am at that age when I need readers. The debate is about Carnforth station becoming the new headquarters for Great British Railways. It is a national competition and I realise from the outset that the Minister cannot say, “Well, it should come to Carnforth.” This is a competition and, in that spirit, I want to put on the record why I think it should be Carnforth.
The location and geographical area of Carnforth means it is centrally placed in the UK, connecting north, south, east and west by rail. The community has facilities to host the new headquarters, such as hotels, and direct access to the city of Lancaster and to Morecambe, which is soon to be the home of the prestigious Eden Project. I am involved in developing this application with Carnforth Town Council, Lancaster City Council, Lancashire County Council, which is assisting with information, Carnforth & District chamber of trade, Lancaster Civic Vision, the whole community, cross-party, of the Lancaster district, and the great people of Carnforth and the surrounding area. A special mention must be given to David Morgan and his team at Lancaster Civic Vision for compiling a petition of more than 500 names so far from all over the Lancaster district. As I said, all the political parties endorse this and the campaign has unanimous support on Lancaster City Council. It was confirmed to me this morning that the council will submit a formal bid.
It is delightful to see the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) here, also helping and assisting with this cross-party co-operation in trying to make Carnforth the headquarters of Great British Railways.
I thank my hon. friend and neighbour for giving way. I want to put on the record how the bid by Lancaster City Council is cross-party and unanimous. We both represent parts of the Lancaster City Council district. The leader of that council is a Green party councillor and we have all come together to make a bid for the north of Lancashire. If levelling up is to mean anything, does he agree that we cannot just see bids to Government coming from the big cities; we also need them to come from towns such as Carnforth? If Lancashire were to get it, would it not be a shame if it were to go to Preston, for example, ahead of Carnforth? Does he agree that Carnforth has a much stronger bid in the county than Preston?
I totally agree with my hon. friend, in this context and in this Chamber. In short, the whole community in Lancaster and Morecambe, as we have seen, wants to see Carnforth succeed in the bid to become the national headquarters for Great British Railways. I must also pay homage to Councillor Peter Yates MBE for assisting me in writing this speech—what he does not know about railways and especially Carnforth is quite simply not worth knowing.
The projected area for the headquarters could be based near Carnforth railway station or the surrounding buildings, parking and land. There are plenty of sites nearby to build a new office block if needed. The benefits to be gained for local employees are the kudos, connectivity, quality employment and for families to occupy new homes already being constructed, developing more opportunities for young people, school places and excellent local tourism. We are also very well situated for the nearby Lake District and Yorkshire Dales; this will boost our local economy.
Carnforth is also a major crossroads in rail and road—via rail from all directions, north, east, south and west; and via road the M6 motorway has two slip roads, and other roads traverse east to west. The M6 is less than one mile from the rail connections, and I believe it is one of the quickest routes from the M6 motorway to the west coast main line in the country.
We have electric charging points in the surrounding area to promote low-carbon transport. Carnforth is the gateway to the coast, the Dales, the Lakes; it connects the east coast to the west coast by rail and road. It connects via Heysham Port to the Isle of Man and also Ireland. Carnforth has the world-famous tourist attraction, the home of “Brief Encounter”, the David Lean film from the 1940s. The Brief Encounter café is a replica, exactly as it was in the film. It is a fantastic experience. Carnforth has extensive rail heritage, with associated listed buildings left over from that criminal era in rail history: the scrapping of steam engines in the short-sighted Beeching era.
In the spirit of levelling up, new high-profile businesses are relocating to Carnforth. Businesses recently relocated—and some established—include Porsche South Lakes, Havwoods International, Strong Doors, Castle Packaging, Abacus Resources, Logs Direct, Rickerby International, LARS Communications, MasterCraft, DPD Logistics, Lake Coast and Dale, Plus Flooring, Barnfield Developments and Thomas Plant. We also have the Keerside and Bridgeside industrial parks. I hope I have not left anybody out; apologies in advance if I have done so. This gives a business snapshot of the opportunities that the Carnforth area has to offer—all recently completed as well.
Carnforth had thought to establish the footprint of levelling up before the term was even thought up, such is the ingenuity and aspiration of the community I have the honour to represent. The new headquarters will be the icing on the cake for Carnforth. Also underway is the construction of 214 new homes and planning for a further 500, as well as a proposal to develop a sports complex. Rail user groups and societies, of which there are many in Carnforth, promote battery electric locomotives to decarbonise our environment. Clean air is paramount in the ethos of our district.
This is an opportunity for us both, as local MPs, to put on record our thanks to the Lancaster and Morecambe rail users group, which continues to champion rail travel in our area. The hon. Gentleman was making a point about Carnforth being the place where trains went to die. Would it not be so poetic if it was the place where Great British Railways headquarters was relocated?
That is a fantastic sentiment, and I will allude to that later in my speech. It is true that we have a lot of railway heritage in Carnforth, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention.
As I previously stated, we connect to all cardinal points via rail and road, but we must include connections to the Isle of Man and to Ireland via Heysham port. Carnforth has a direct rail link to Manchester airport. This demonstrates connectivity that is the envy of other applications. We also must not forget the disabled access by ramps, disabled changing facilities, cycle storage and routes, bus connections, and secure car parking. The community of Carnforth have raised £1.4 million for restoration and heritage, work closely with Rail Track, and later worked with Network Rail, creating in excess of 50,000 tourist visits annually. Pre-covid, that was 240,000 rail-ticket travellers using the station. Our unique location is key; all transport modes are catered for.
Many precision, high-tech skills are available in the area. We have universities and technical colleges on our doorstep. To our west, the Barrow submarine manufacturer; to the south, nuclear power with BAE systems. Our workforce is geared up to assist. We have links to the Lakes and Dales, which are a tourist hot spot; links to Manchester airport; and links for country walks, cycle tracks, costal bird sanctuaries, parkland and the great halls of national heritage in the Lune Valley. Carnforth is a quality area linking all of the best of the UK, as well as linking to the planned Eden North Project.
To conclude, Carnforth exists because of the railways. Carnforth is steeped in railway connectivity and heritage, and is known the world over as Steamtown. Carnforth hosts the last complete steam railway depot, which is crying out for new life to be injected into its many listed historic structures. The site is now occupied by West Coast Railways, one of the UK’s largest heritage rail operators. The love of rail is in the DNA of Carnforth. Network Rail have depots and offices located close by, showing an established rail expertise, and further personnel and workforces will enhance the community’s heritage. As the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, this is where the trains came to die, and it is now fitting that this regeneration scheme considers Carnforth as the place where the UK railway of the next century—at least—starts.
Thank you, Mr Efford. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for securing today’s debate. Although it is my first debate on the location of the Great British Railways headquarters, I am very aware that it is the third that has taken place in this Chamber, with previous ones on the merits of Darlington and York. It is really heartening to see hon. Members from up and down the country doing fantastic work supporting the bids of their towns and cities.
Railways are close to my heart. Both of my grandfathers worked on the railways—one in Wensleydale and the other in County Durham—and I found out only recently that my dad was actually born in a railway cottage. I do therefore have an understanding of the importance of the industry, and also of the amazing rail heritage across this country.
As my hon. Friend has set out, Carnforth has a significant rail heritage. At its peak, Carnforth was a meeting point between three major railways, and it grew into an important railway town. My hon. Friend touched on the film “Brief Encounter.” When the English film director Sir David Lean was looking for a railway station to film the 1945 classic, it was no coincidence that Carnforth station became the backdrop for such a romantic movie. Today, the film is one of many attractions at the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre. In addition, Carnforth is the headquarters of West Coast Railways, which operates several regular steam trains, most notably the Jacobite, giving passengers the opportunity to travel on historic steam locomotives. For that reason alone, I know that Carnforth will continue to have an important role to play in our railways.
My mailbox is great evidence of the fact that there are, of course, many other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and that hon. Members are very proud to represent. I look forward to seeing the many outstanding applications for the new GBR headquarters that we will receive before the competition closes on 16 March.
I had not realised the Minister’s railway credentials in terms of her parentage—clearly, she was born to do the role that she does today. One of the restrictions that stops some towns bidding for the GBR headquarters is that towns that are not currently connected to the rail network are not eligible. I also represent Fleetwood, which is not on the rail network. It has now been about two years since the residents of Fleetwood were promised that the railway would be brought back to the town; I believe that the Prime Minister visited just ahead of the 2019 general election and promised us that. Can she give us any update on when we might see that?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight Fleetwood, but I am sure that she understands that I am not in a position to give her an update today.
As hon. Members will be well aware, the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which was published in May 2021, set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services; the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets; and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener and accessible network. Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, GBR, which will provide a single familiar brand and a strong unified leadership across the network. It is worth noting that GBR will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve. Bringing ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network under one roof will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring the focus is delivering for passengers.
GBR will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus. It will also have a different culture to the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning. GBR will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a lean national headquarters as well as regional divisions. The national headquarters will be based outside London and bring the railway closer to the people and places that it serves, ensuring that skills, jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.
The competition was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022 and the GBR transition team are now welcoming submissions from towns and cities across Great Britain. Prospective local authorities are asked to submit a short expression of interest to the GBR transition team explaining why they are best suited to meet a set of six criteria for the national headquarters. These are: alignment to levelling-up objectives; connected and easy to get to; opportunities for GBR; rail heritage and links to the network; value for money; and public support.
The GBR transition team will then create a shortlist of the most suitable locations, which will go forward to a public consultation vote. Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ location based on all the information we have gathered. Applications for the competition close on Wednesday 16 March, and I look forward to receiving lots of applications.
As I previously mentioned, alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring decisions about the railways are brought closer to the passengers and communities that they serve. The GBR regional divisions will be organised in line with the regions established in Network Rail’s “Putting Passengers First” programme, which reflects how passengers and freight move across the network today. Cities and regions in England will be given greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations have started with local stakeholders on how those partnerships can best work.
The new GBR HQ that we are talking about today is not the only way that the Government are focused on levelling up the railways. We published the integrated rail plan on 18 November 2021, which is an ambitious strategy setting out £96 billion of investment into the railways of the north and the midlands to be delivered over the next 30 years. The plan sets out how the Government will deliver real and meaningful improvements to communities in the north and the midlands, and support economic growth by transforming east-west and north-south links.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for sharing with me a little more insight into Carnforth and its railway heritage. I look forward to receiving their bids and all the other bids in due course.
In conclusion, the reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. The reforms will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation. While transformation on this scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring the benefits for passengers are brought forward as quickly as possible. New national flexible season tickets are already on sale and the transition from the emergency recovery measures agreement to new rail contracts is under way.
GBR will be an organisation that works in tandem with the local communities that it serves. It will be designed to have the structure to become yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up the regions across the nation. The Government and the GBR transition team welcome the interest of Members and their advocacy for their respective cities and towns, and welcome their participation in the competition for GBR’s headquarters. Together, we can deliver the change that is required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railways in collaboration with the sector and communities. The launch of the GBR headquarters is one of the many steps that we are taking to achieve that.
Question put and agreed to.
Breastfeeding: Government Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for breastfeeding.
It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thank all Members present for making it to the debate this afternoon. It feels particularly appropriate that this debate on Government support for breastfeeding is happening on International Women’s Day. It is an issue that matters to so many women, and I have had lots of people in touch about it. However, today, as with every day of late, I have thought of the women of Ukraine and their babies; I wonder how they are coping and I hope that they can get to safety soon.
I send my very best wishes to everyone who is feeding their wee one and to those who are proud of meeting their breastfeeding goals. I also send my love and thoughts to those who have struggled and felt let down, and to those who carry those feelings around with them for the rest of their lives. We all know that breastfeeding is natural, but it is certainly not easy.
In this debate, I want to talk about the wider context for supporting breastfeeding, because it does not happen on its own. It takes a range of support, across Government, in employment law, equalities legislation and financial support for the maternity, health visiting, peer support and tongue-tie services that are so necessary. I know that Scotland is not perfect, but we have placed breastfeeding support in our programme for Government and engaged positively in the “Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly” international programme. Our investment is paying off, with the data showing an increase in breastfeeding rates. Almost two thirds—66%—of babies born in Scotland in 2020-21 were breastfed for at least some time after their birth. More than half of babies—55%—were being breastfed at 10 to 14 days of age in 2020-21. That has increased from 44% in 2002-03, so it shows what a difference that investment can make. I was also glad to see in the Scottish data that 21% of toddlers were receiving some form of breastmilk. We know that because Scotland has invested in that data, whereas the English infant feeding study was cancelled some years ago. It needs to be reinstated so that that can be tracked.
I was really glad that the UK Government announced a £50 million investment in breastfeeding, but I would be grateful if the Minister could share some more detail on how exactly that will be spent, and how the spend will be monitored. There are many fears that, although it sounds like an awful lot of money, and in some ways it is, it could be spread too thinly across services across England. We also need to regulate the factors that can dissuade and diminish breastfeeding, such as aggressive marketing of infant formula—a global issue, but one on which the UK Government can play a leading role.
I thank Parliament’s digital engagement team for its support in putting out a survey for the debate. It had a whopping 2,618 responses in the very short time that the survey was running, so I thank each and every person who responded for doing so, and for helping to inform the debate. I also thank those who contacted me directly. I hope that I will be able to fit in all the concerns that they raised. Following that social media request, in response to the question “What policies would have encouraged or supported you, your family or friends in breastfeeding?” respondents came back with a number of remarks and policy suggestions around several key themes. The first was better information and guidance through classes and healthcare professionals. Lauren responded to say:
“Covid meant there were no antenatal classes available, however midwives did not discuss breastfeeding other than asking if I intended to do it. There was no feeding support offered in hospital and no information about what feeding support is available. If literature had been available as to what support is available and how to access this, including infant feeding teams and information around tongue-tie, this would be helpful.”
That lack of information, particularly around the time of covid, has been felt by many people who responded to the survey, and indeed people in my own family. It is still going on, with mums from Newham complaining about not being able to be with their babies, and restrictions being unfairly put in place. That continues to this day. Others pointed out the importance of the provision of lactation consultants, with Georgie saying:
“I had access to a lactation consultant because I’m lucky enough to have that privilege but for my friend who did take the ill advice of her midwives, she was misdirected and her breastfeeding journey ended after four weeks.”
There are too many whose journeys finish too soon.
Workplace support is also vital to support women on their breastfeeding journey. Katie said:
“Women need to be supported so that when they return to work they have a dedicated space that they can pump and store milk so that they continue to breastfeed.”
“Too many workplaces don’t have suitable rooms so women have to choose between returning to work or not working to be able to keep providing breast milk for their children.”
Looking more widely at public education, Susannah said:
“Policies within education in schools—lessons around conception/fertility—breastfeeding should be learnt about accurately from a scientific view so children learn its value and importance and it is normalised.”
I know that the breastfeeding network in Ayrshire does a huge amount of work to ensure that it gets into schools to tell young people about breastfeeding.
To move to the global context on breastfeeding, the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes is 41 this year. It was written in response to the aggressive marketing of infant formula, which is of course to the detriment of breastfeeding. I know that it can be a really sensitive issue, so I would like to be absolutely clear that I believe that formula is an essential item that must be available to those who need it. People using formula deserve to receive impartial support and advice, not marketing and advertising.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. She has certainly been a champion on this issue—that word is used often in this House, but it is applicable to her. Following on from my work with her in the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities, I met a lady called Claire Flynn—a Breastival board member from Belfast—who I think the hon. Lady knows. She said that breastfeeding strategies and plans vary across Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a real need to reinstate the infant feeding survey? We understand that work on that is under way at Public Health England. Northern Ireland must be included and funding must be made available to enable that. Through the hon. Lady, I ask the Minister to consider a UK-wide approach.
Order. For those who missed the start of the debate, and so that people do not miss out on their time—we are tight for time—let me just say that we had planned to give Alison four to five minutes, and she has that now. Then the SNP spokesperson will have three to four minutes, Back Benchers two to three minutes and the Minister 10 minutes. I thought it would be worth intervening with that so that Members could work out the timing of their speeches.
Thank you, Mr Efford. I had a conversation with some of the senior Clerks, and I had thought I would be allowed to slightly extend my time if we could get back quickly from the Chamber after the statement.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Breastival; it is a wonderful event in Northern Ireland and I have been able to participate in it. I agree very much that we need to have consistency and the infant feeding survey.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF published a report last month entitled, “How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding”, which found that this $55 billion industry is still doing all it can to target families and to influence their feeding choices,
“undermining women’s confidence and cynically exploiting parents’ instinct to do the best for their children”.
Their data estimates that scaling up breastfeeding globally could prevent the deaths of 800,000 children under five and 20,000 breast cancer deaths among women every single year, which is quite astonishing.
Exposure to formula milk marketing reaches 84% of all women surveyed in the UK. We all know that this advertising works—that is exactly why companies invest so much money, time and effort in it. It influences which brands we choose and how much we spend. The report states that the evidence is strong that formula milk marketing —not the product itself—disrupts informed decision making and undermines breastfeeding and child health. Those who responded to the survey for this debate agreed. Deborah said:
“The aggressive advertising of infant milks and bottles undermines the giving of human milk at every step. It feeds us doubt of our own bodies.”
“Advertising infant formula basically makes out that breastfeeding should be done for 6 months maximum, then baby should be on ‘proper’ milk. It is completely untrue and it needs to be better regulated as people just assume a baby will be bottle fed formula and advertising does an excellent job of solidifying this belief.”
Much of the marketing in the UK is done through traditional means such as television, but there is also a lot going on in social media, through companies’ advertising and influencers, and through online baby clubs run by formula companies, which are a tool to recruit and to market to families, and are a lot harder to monitor. What discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about whether such marketing should be brought into the scope of the Online Safety Bill? After all, this is about the health and wellbeing of parents and the best start for our youngest citizens.
Alongside investing in comprehensive service provision, the Government should do their bit to advertise breastfeeding. There was a brilliant campaign by the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland called “Not Sorry Mums”. I encourage the Minister to watch it and to see what more her Department can do to protect, promote and support breastfeeding through the means at her disposal. After all, if there can be giant billboards promoting levelling up, there is no reason why there cannot be breastfeeding ones on exactly the same scale. The new mural in Greenock by graffiti artist Smug depicts beautifully a breastfeeding mermaid across a whole gable end. Some have argued that normalising breastfeeding ought to use real women rather than fantastical mermaids, but it is beautiful and we should have a lot more of that.
I repeat that it is crucial to have the service provision there, not just the advertising or the advice; otherwise, we are setting women up to fail. Emma, who responded, said,
“there is a lot of information promoting breastfeeding through the NHS but then very little actual support to help facilitate it. This mixed messaging then causes women to feel like a failure if they are not successful meeting in their breastfeeding goals.”
Donor milk has a crucial role to play in supporting babies in neonatal units. I am proud that Scotland has had a national milk bank based in Glasgow for some years now, but the picture is a bit patchier in other parts of the UK. Professor Amy Brown and Dr Natalie Shenker have been researching the impact that milk banks can have on the mental health of women and their families, in offering both reassurance and support for mums until their own milk comes through. I urge the Minister to engage with that research and see what more can be done to develop and support milk banking.
The provision of tongue-tie treatment is also patchy, but it can make all the difference to parents. Siân contacted me to share her experience, the distress she went through and her heartfelt thanks to her fairy godmother Lisa, a specialist breastfeeding support worker who listened to her and got her the support she so desperately needed. Everyone should have access to a Lisa.
I would add that it is also important to recognise the other disparities and inequalities that exist. Those living in deprived communities are less likely to breastfeed—although there is some evidence in Scotland of the difference we are making on that. Those who are new to the UK also encounter barriers coming into a bottle-feeding culture and feel pressured to adopt that culture rather than continuing to breastfeed, as their families would have done before. There are also barriers for those who are HIV-positive, who can receive very variable advice, and barriers put in the way of LGBT couples. Laura-Rose Thorogood of The LGBT Mummies Tribe contacted me to highlight the lack of support that she and others like her had experienced. I hope the Minister will meet that group, too, to discuss support further.
I could speak about this for much longer, as I am sure you are aware, Mr Efford. I could give numerous examples and testimony to illustrate what more needs to be done. I would like the Minister to agree to look seriously at the funding of all services and at the full implementation of the international code of marketing breastmilk substitutes, as the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have called for. She has the power to make this change to protect, promote and support breastfeeding now and in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this hugely important debate. I hope you can do all you can in the Chair to ensure that we have all the time allocated to this debate that we should have, because we have precious little time on support for breastfeeding, but it is vital to so many people.
I am glad that this issue is getting time in the House, and I completely understand how difficult breastfeeding is, why it is not possible for many women, which is totally understandable, and how often it needs support. The current lack of provision for breastfeeding support and the impact of not restoring services after covid will be the main subject of my speech, and that is what constituents have been contacting me about. I breastfed my four children for a total of five years, so I understand the need for support and also the need to weigh babies frequently and straightaway, alongside breastfeeding, especially at the beginning, which is something else that has been cut. It is heart-wrenching to know that many mothers in my constituency are not getting the support that was easily available for me. Breastfeeding is also intertwined with mental health and can strengthen maternal and infant resilience if it is properly supported.
The Minister knows Wandsworth well, so I am glad to be able to raise the situation there. We saw the near total disintegration of breastfeeding support in the community during covid, and it has not yet returned. Every single health visitor infant feeding team was deployed during the pandemic and every single children’s centre closed, so there were no drop-ins for breastfeeding support. Just one person was left across the whole of Wandsworth and the borough of Richmond during the pandemic to support all the mothers and babies there. That is ridiculous, because the need was the same, but the support was massively reduced. Although the voluntary sector stepped up, there is no substitute for good-quality and accessible statutory services. The Government need to provide urgent funding and support for these dwindling services and to find out which are not being reopened. They should do a survey of all the services to find out what was there before covid and what is there now.
One constituent wrote to me about her awful experience so far. She said that, since covid, a lot of breastfeeding clinics providing support to mothers have closed. The only local clinic that she has managed to find is a two-hour clinic on Fridays in Kingston, which is quite far away. Otherwise, there is no provision in Putney and no way of getting a baby weighed other than by going to A&E or asking for a health visitor—something that is very difficult to get. The Eileen Lecky clinic in Putney was fantastic and used to provide this service, but it has been closed and the building is entirely empty. Before this debate I checked when the clinic would reopen, because I hoped to bring some good news. I found out that it is closed permanently now. No one was told about this; it is absolutely shocking to everyone in the area.
So what do we need? We need proper Government support. I urge the Minister to do everything in her power to restore these NHS services—in-person, easily accessible services at pre-pandemic levels. We need networks of trained peer supporters. That requires a training programme, a co-ordinator, regular supervision and updating under a health professional. We also need a specialist IBCLC—international board certified lactation consultant—clinic for complex cases. It is unacceptable that in 2022 parents are being left on their own and in the dark during one of the most important periods of their lives and their children’s lives. The Government can and must do more.
Thank you for giving me the chance to speak, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing the debate and thank her for setting the scene. Some people might think that it is unusual for a man to speak on this issue, but the hon. Lady brought it to my attention some time ago, when she first set up the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities, and since then I have always been very pleased to support her endeavours to highlight these issues and make them more acceptable across society, where sometimes people might have some questions.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central, though the APPG and through the opportunities I have had to help others, was introduced to some of the people from Belfast who work on this. I have attended a number of their events, which I always think is very important, because if there is any taboo about breastfeeding, in public or wherever it may be, I feel that society has to be more sympathetic and understanding. The hon. Lady has done that from the very beginning, and I have been very pleased to support her.
One of my favourite TV programmes is “Call the Midwife”—I don’t know about other Members, but I never miss it—and these are the sorts of important issues it tries to address. My wife and I sit down and are engrossed in that programme. It addresses the issue of mothers being unable to breastfeed, for whatever reason, such as the physical or health circumstances that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central referred to, and it does so in a very sympathetic and kindly way. The wonderful thing about “Call the Midwife” is that, more often than not, things always turn out right, and that gives me a wee bit of a lift on a Sunday night—I wish life was like that all the time. I can think of only one exception, but otherwise the stories always end well.
I was contacted by Claire Flynn, a Breastival board member, who I met at a local breastfeeding event in Belfast to highlight some of the issues—I have been to three or four of those events. Looking at breastfeeding support across the UK, there are huge gaps in provision. Scotland and England have made significant investments in breastfeeding support—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central has driven that, by the way—but unfortunately in Northern Ireland we have not gone so far, although we do have Breastival and other things we have been doing. We have not seen the same investment, despite having further to go.
The covid pandemic has eroded many of the community supports in place and increased new mothers’ isolation, so it is important that we reach out and help. Urgent action that recognises that breastfeeding is foundational for lifelong health is needed to rebuild and strengthen protection and support for the crucial early years of a child’s life.
As I said in my intervention, there is a real need to reinstate the infant feeding survey—the Minister nodded when I said that, presumably to say that it is a good idea or to confirm that she will answer that question. We understand that work on that is under way with Public Health England. Northern Ireland must be included and funding must be made available to enable that. I ask the Minister to consider a UK-wide approach, if possible, with discussions with the devolved Administrations and the devolved Health Ministers.
The Minister will know the importance of reinstating the infant feeding survey across the UK to provide better estimates on the incidence, prevalence and duration of breastfeeding and other feeding practices adopted by mothers in the first eight to 10 months after their baby is born. We need data and statistics to direct strategy. That is hugely important information for anyone developing policies or researching infant feeding in the UK, and it would provide an update on how policies and the state of the UK are impacting on infant feeding.
I am sad to say that the Western Trust milk bank in County Fermanagh is the only milk bank in Northern Ireland, and indeed the Republic of Ireland does not have its own milk bank at all. Therefore, cross-border, that milk bank has helped hundreds of neonatal babies since 2000. It is vital that the human milk bank in Fermanagh, and milk banks across the UK, are supported. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central has done that actively—verbally and physically.
In Northern Ireland, there have been massive steps to try to normalise breastfeeding, including the Public Health Agency’s “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” scheme, as well as the growth of online support groups and Breastival, which is a unique, award-winning festival that aims to support, normalise and celebrate breastfeeding as a part of everyday life in Northern Ireland and across Ireland. I have attended it on numerous occasions to highlight the fact that men need to be involved in this discussion.
We must open our minds, open the conversation and open the coffers, and introduce into this conversation some positivity. My mother informs me—I know nothing about it—that I was breastfed as a child, so I am happy to join this debate.
I could talk for hours on this subject, so the length of my speech will be no reflection of how passionately I feel about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is the best thing for babies and the best thing for mums. It closes the gap and gives babies the best possible chance in life.
I plead with the Minister to reinstate the infant feeding survey; it is incredibly important that we do that. I also echo the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) about properly supporting the international code on marketing. There is much more that we can do on that.
It is really important to ensure that all parents, all prospective parents and all people who might be anywhere near a parent or a baby have information on breastfeeding, know that it is normal and natural, and know that breastfeeding is brilliant. It is the very best thing for babies and we must do more to support it and normalise it and to make it clear that it is natural as well as truly excellent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important debate, which warrants more time and discussion. I agree that, as we participate in this debate, we are thinking about those women in Ukraine who are either giving birth or are about to give birth in the most extraordinary of circumstances and about the difficulty they face in feeding their children. For those of us who have given birth in normal circumstances, that is a truly horrific thought.
We know that the first few months of a child’s life are crucial for their later development and that parents need support in their choices for their children. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to additional funding for breastfeeding support, but it is clear that the cuts, particularly to Sure Start, were a really bad false economy, with centres having closed, parents lacking support and advice, and children being let down. I was proud to be a governor of a Sure Start early years centre and I know how valuable such centres were.
We have heard that women’s isolation during the pandemic was exacerbated because more services were cut. It was horrific to hear the evidence given by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) that it was only when she rang up that she found out that the centre she mentioned had closed. We already know that there is a shortage of such venues and that we need more of them.
Disadvantaged mothers are more likely to have babies of low birth weight, and low birth weight is associated with raised blood pressure and coronary heart disease, as well as reduced educational attainment, qualifications and employment. Sure Start centres help to level up and supporting them would be a really easy, quick win for the Government to support women in optimal infant nutrition, particularly breastfeeding.
We know how much breastfeeding increases children’s chance of a better life. According to analysis from the millennium cohort study, by the age of five breastfed children were already one to six months ahead of those children who were never breastfed.
I was fortunate to have three healthy children. I fed them all myself, with variable results; it was difficult with some of them and not with others—I will not say who, because they might at some point watch this debate, and you can never have favourites. When breastfeeding works, it works well, and when it does not work, it is extraordinarily difficult and stressful.
We also know that those households in the lowest socioeconomic groups have significantly worse health outcomes. We know that women in those households need support and that such support yields results in later life. This is an important debate, particularly on International Women’s Day, and I hope that we can have some positive news from the Minister to support women across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.
I associate myself with comments on the importance of thinking about the mums and babies in Ukraine at this time, given how difficult it must be for all of them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on calling for and securing this debate, particularly today, which is International Women’s Day. We often talk about many issues affecting mums, but very rarely do we talk about breastfeeding, so it is really important to have this debate. Ensuring that every baby gets the best start in life is really important. As we have heard, positive experiences during this period will have a significant impact on a child’s health and wellbeing, and will inform the course of the rest of their life. Although the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) did not get the chance to speak for long, I sense her passion on this subject and she made her points very well.
Breastfeeding provides significant health benefits for both mother and baby. It has been shown to reduce the prevalence of common diseases in babies, such as respiratory infections and gastroenteritis and the risk of maternal breast cancer, as well as offering protection against childhood and maternal obesity. Breastfeeding also promotes emotional attachment and parental wellbeing. However, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said, we need to be mindful of the women for whom it does not work. We must ensure that they get the support and reassurance they need. As the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) said, it can be a very difficult experience for some.
I want to reassure colleagues that the Government are taking this matter extremely seriously. We want to promote breastfeeding as much as possible. The latest available data from the infant feeding survey, which we discussed, shows that only 1% of mothers in England are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months. More than 80% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding in the first two weeks reported that they would have liked to have carried on for longer and that perhaps, with support, they could have done. Common reasons for stopping include a lack of access to support services, as we have heard today, both in the community and at work, while misinformation, inconsistent advice, negative experiences and sometimes even cultural barriers can also deter women.
There are significant disparities in breastfeeding rates across England and the UK. We heard today about some excellent experiences in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The prevalence of breastfeeding is particularly low among young mothers, those who left education before the age of 18, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That contributes to a cycle of deprivation and further widens disparities. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow Central: it is so important that we teach young girls about breastfeeding in schools, so they learn early on about its importance and what to expect when their time comes.
In light of that, I want to reassure colleagues that the Government are taking action to support breastfeeding and to make that support accessible to everyone who needs it. First, we have the healthy child programme, a national evidence-based programme of interventions to support parenting and healthy choices. It outlines all services that children and families need to receive if they are to achieve optimum health and wellbeing, including breastfeeding and infant support.
Secondly, we have the maternity transformation programme, which seeks to achieve the visions set out by Better Births. National guidelines have been published for midwifery and health visiting services to support breastfeeding. I want to take this opportunity to thank all midwives, health visitors, support workers and those offering peer support. I met March with Midwives just before this debate and I recognise the pressures those workers are under. Sometimes things such as breastfeeding support are reduced or taken away when there is pressure on the service overall. I recognise that, and I am very happy to work with the service to try to improve that.
Thirdly, we have the 2019 NHS long-term plan, which recognises the importance of improving breastfeeding support and sets out a commitment to ensuring that all maternity services have an accredited, evidence-based infant feeding programme by 2024. However, we need the staff and the resources to make that happen. I have heard that loud and clear. We also encourage parents to access support through the Better Health Start for Life campaign, which provides advice and information on breastfeeding.
However, for me the most exciting development is the Government’s vision for the best start for life programme. It is only in England, but I am very happy to work with colleagues in the devolved nations to share best practice. The programme will roll out support to the areas of the country that absolutely need the most help. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for her inspirational work in this field.
The early years healthy development review has taken the Government’s commitment to improving breastfeeding rates and improving the support to be included as part of the universal offer for all parents and carers, which will include practical support with breastfeeding, early diagnosis of issues such as tongue-tie and help with formula feeding, which is more appropriate in some cases. The review heard repeatedly from parents about the positive impact breastfeeding can have on their confidence and self-esteem, as well as the value of breastfeeding support groups and peer networks.
In the spending review, the Chancellor announced a £300 million investment to transform family hubs and improve Start for Life services with £50 million for breastfeeding support services. Funding will be made available initially to 75 upper-tier local authorities where we feel the most disparities exist. We will be announcing very soon where those 75 authorities will be and where we can support breastfeeding in those communities. Those local authorities will be able to invest in increasing the range of breastfeeding advice, specialist and peer support, and out-of-hours support that is available in person, on the phone and digitally, creating breastfeeding-friendly environments that will help mothers meet their breastfeeding goals.
I know that time is pressing; I thank the Minister for giving way. Has the Minister done any assessment of how many clinics there were pre-covid? That number of 75 local authorities is great, but what about everywhere else? Has there been an assessment of initial services, what has been cut and what has been reinstated?
I do not have that information, but I was interested to hear about the experience in Putney. I will take that away because I spoke to midwives who were redirected during covid, but I am not aware of which services have and have not restarted. I am keen to look at that, so I will follow that up. I am happy to conclude, Mr Efford, if that would be helpful.
I will just conclude by thanking everyone. There remains a huge amount to be done. I very much take on board the points that have been raised in the debate, and I will follow up with colleagues because we need to put breastfeeding higher up the agenda.
I thank everybody who came along this afternoon. Obviously we were interrupted, for understandable reasons, and our thoughts go out to President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine. We hope that some resolution can be found.
I thank the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for coming along. I also thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for their thoughts on this issue. I listened to what the hon. Member for Putney said about services just disappearing and not going back to their pre-covid levels, but even some of the pre-covid levels of services were not great to begin with. There needs to be greater focus and a greater understanding by the Government, so that the funding can follow exactly what is required on the ground.
I was glad to hear from the Minister about the things that she intends to deliver, such as the roll-out of the £50 million to different communities. I look forward to hearing more about that, and I invite her and all Members to come to the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities, which I chair, because its members would like to hear a lot about the money being rolled out and how that service provision will happen. There is a lot to be said for that support, because for women who are facing these challenges, it is not a “nice to have” but an essential service. You cannot get by without somebody there to help you and show you how breastfeeding is done while you have a screaming baby in your arms who is just not feeding. You need to have services there that can support you and wrap their arms around you. Apps and such things are all fine and well, but having actual people to speak to and sit next to at any hour of the day is really important. I thank the people staffing the breastfeeding helpline, which is a service provided by peer supporters on an absolute shoestring. The Government should fund that in order to expand its excellent service.
There is an opportunity here to take the findings of the World Health Organisation and UNICEF report, and for the Minister to have a roundtable discussion with all the experts in this field—there are many—to see what more the UK can do and how we can move forward to make sure that everybody, whatever their feeding choices are, feels supported and that breastfeeding is protected and promoted within the whole of the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government support for breastfeeding.