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Westminster Hall

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 March 2022

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Covid-19: Impact on Social Work

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of the covid-19 outbreak on social work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. World Social Work Day was on 15 March, so it is perhaps timely to hold a debate in this House on the issue of social work. May I begin by wishing social workers everywhere, particularly in my constituency of Lancaster and Fleetwood, a belated but very happy World Social Work Day?

I see from my casework, as I imagine many other Members do from theirs, the amazing work that social workers do to support our constituents. Social work is one of the lesser-understood parts of our social care sector. Social workers come into people’s lives at difficult and challenging times, and there can be a negative association with them. When social workers are in the headlines, that is often because the worst has happened. When the worst happens, that sadly often means that a child known to social services has died.

When Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was murdered by the very people who were supposed to love and care for him, that was national news. Everyone wanted to know what events had led to that tragic incident and how it could be prevented from ever happening again. Some people were asking why social services could not save him, and why they could not save Star Hobson, who was also killed by the people who were supposed to look after her.

Most of the time, social workers are not in the news. I know an awful lot about social workers. In fact, I was brought up by one. My dad is a retired social worker, but he spent many years working for Cumbria social services in probation, child protection and, latterly, in his longest stint, the youth offending team. Although there are probably many cases in which my dad supported individuals but perhaps did not manage to turn their lives around, I want to tell the anonymous story of a school friend of mine who was in contact with me a couple of years ago. She said, “Your dad was my social worker. I had fallen in with the wrong crowd, but your dad helped me turn my life around. Now I am a mum, I work, and I no longer have a criminal record. I managed to do that with the support of your dad.” The story of my school friend would never make a story in a local paper, let alone a national, but that is the kind of work that social workers do in lots of different sectors. In particular, such cases involve supporting young offenders to turn their lives around.

Every single day, social workers carry out their roles. They support people with learning difficulties and autistic people. They work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. They carry out assessments and reviews, protecting people’s liberties and best interests. Social workers are integral to upholding human rights and child protection, but we cannot ignore the sphere in which social workers work.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for securing the debate. Will she allow me to place on record my thanks to those on the frontline of social work in Glasgow? In particular, I pay tribute to the social work team in Easterhouse in the East community addiction team in Parkhead. Before covid-19, many of those social workers had an enormous workload, which has only been exacerbated by several lockdowns. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that we listen to the voice of social workers on further support from Government as we emerge from covid-19, as their workload has undoubtedly changed?

I thank the hon. Member for making that point. As a frequent visitor to his constituency, I know that his social work team in Glasgow do an amazing job supporting his constituents, and he is right to say that the voice of social workers needs to be heard by Government.

I have spent a lot of time with social workers over the years, some of whom have gone on to be elected Members of the House and who were then able to provide a platform for social work issues, and I have huge respect for the Members of the House who come from a social work background. One of the first MPs I met, Hilton Dawson, was a social worker before being elected MP for Lancaster in 1997. After Parliament, he went to work at the British Association of Social Workers, where I worked with him before being elected to the House. There is probably quite a nice symmetry in that, but I suspect that he is probably watching and wondering why it has taken me so long to get a Westminster Hall debate on this important issue. Indeed, given that his most recent political activity was standing in the Hartlepool by-election for the North East party, he has certainly been on a political journey, too.

The British Association of Social Workers is the professional organisation for more than 22,000 social workers in the UK. Its annual survey was carried out at the end of 2021, and the results were published just a few weeks ago. Social workers are on the frontline. They know their own profession and what they need in order to be able to fulfil their statutory and non-statutory obligations to a high standard. The Government should be listening to them.

In the survey, the three biggest challenges facing the workforce were determined to be the demands of administrative tasks, workload demand and adequacy of staffing. Nearly 5,000 family social workers left the profession during 2021—up 16% compared with 2020. How can we trust that we are doing the best by social workers if they are leaving the profession in such numbers and trying to do their job without departments being fully staffed?

High workloads and staff shortages will lead to current staff burning out. In many professions, burnout at work means that someone drops the ball on a deadline and perhaps one or two deadlines are missed, but a burnt-out social worker can be a matter of life and death for a child. It is not the fault of that social worker; the issue is the environment in which they work. Social workers do their very best to support people, so Government must do their very best to support social workers.

The pandemic did not only affect child safeguarding. The challenges facing care homes were also a key focus, but Government failed to bring forward many solutions. They only issued guidance and let care homes make their own decisions about visitors and testing, and that caused a lot of upset. Social workers reported that they were unable to access care homes. Social workers have a key safeguarding role, and residents’ family members and social workers facing access restrictions only heightened the worry about what was going on inside care homes.

How were people coping with the changes? Many care home residents, especially those with illnesses such as dementia, would not have understood why their family members were not visiting. That was never the right approach. I appreciate that the confusion in a pandemic can lead to some rash and ill-thought-out decisions, but it must never be allowed to happen again. Upholding human rights is not an optional add-on; it is a fundamental part of our social care system and should never have been restricted.

The pandemic also had an impact on people with learning disabilities and autistic people. “Do not resuscitate” orders were being issued basis solely on a person’s learning disability. That is a national scandal. Does the Minister understand the distress that those orders will have caused people? People with learning disabilities have, for a variety of reasons, much poorer health outcomes than the population as a whole. Along with other vulnerable and marginalised groups, people with a learning disability and autistic people bore a disproportionate weight of the impact of covid-19, including a greater risk of death.

This cannot be looked at simply in the context of the pandemic, either. We know from scandals such as that involving Winterbourne View care home that people with learning disabilities and autistic people are not always treated in the way they should be. The British Association of Social Workers’ “Homes not Hospitals” group campaigns on this, so will the Minister agree to a meeting with that group to talk about what the Government can do to get people with learning disabilities and autistic people out of hospital and back into the communities where they belong?

Social workers join the profession because they care deeply about society and the people within it, but social workers can do their job properly only if the Government are giving them the resources to do so. There needs to be proper funding for local authorities so that councils can invest in preventive measures. The cuts to local authority budgets affect social work, but also sectors such as youth work. I have secured many debates in the House on youth work and I know that there is sometimes, in some places, a bit of a tension between the youth work profession and the social work profession but, particularly for children in care, a strong working relationship between youth workers and social workers can really make the difference for a young person’s life outcomes.

We do not know whether there will be another dangerous strain of covid-19 or a new virus altogether that may force us into more restrictions on the way we live our lives, but we have to learn the lessons from this pandemic. Social work and social workers must be at the heart of recovery. It is a profession that is often hidden until someone needs the support of a social worker, but it is work that we could not be without.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing the debate. Like her, I have had the opportunity over many years in the world of local government, to see the transformative benefits that social workers can bring to the lives of many of our most vulnerable people. Those are children in the care system, adults with learning disabilities and people facing difficulties in old age, where the professionalism, attention to detail and the care provided by local authorities across the country have enabled people to live the best life they possibly can in the circumstances they face.

The topic of today’s debate makes clear that the pandemic has tested not just the professionalism of our social workers, but our care system’s capacity to respond. We will all have seen amazing examples of how social workers and those connected to them have stepped up to the plate. The local authorities that serve my constituency—the London Borough of Hillingdon and the London Borough of Harrow—both played key roles in the community. Social workers identified the needs of individuals and harnessed support from volunteers, charitable and community organisations, to ensure that, where there were limits to what the state could do to provide for people in a time of acute need, others were able to step in.

I will give the example of H4All, a charitable organisation in Hillingdon that brought together the efforts of several organisations, supported by a local authority that recognised that social workers would be able to do their best work if they were effectively supported. For example, with libraries closed, library staff were redeployed to man call centres for people who needed to raise a concern about someone they knew, a family member, or who were supporting someone and needed to arrange delivery of medication.

They were able to use staff who were redeployed, so that social workers could concentrate on things that only they could do, such as assessments of need to enable people to progress in their care packages, the preparation of people to be discharged from hospital, and acute work in children’s services, such as child protection for those known to be at risk, who might otherwise have missed the opportunity of a regular visit from a professional to ensure they were safe and thriving in their placement. One of my neighbours, a foster carer, was supported through the process of fostering a baby who was placed with her. Social workers were able to continue ensuring that system for supporting the needs of the most vulnerable, despite all the pressures of covid.

In the context of the debate about the future of social work, covid has given us the opportunity, not just in social work but in many parts of our system, to learn lessons and identify what we can do better, based on how covid tested the operation of the system. As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for social work, I am conscious that, along with other professional organisations, social workers are taking a key interest in how the profession will develop and sit in the context of the care system, of which it is a crucial part.

That is not a new debate. I commend the Department for Education for seeking, through the fast-track programme, to identify ways in which people who want to become social workers could develop their professional standards. They are able to pursue a programme, facilitated by placements in different types of organisations, with different aspects of the social work profession. Having sat in on some of those training sessions, I was fascinated to see how social workers saw things in a different light, through talking to people who managed cases other than the ones they might commonly come across in their day jobs. They were able to support each other to develop their professional judgment. The proposed re-tendering of that programme, although an important part of the system, needs to ensure that it continues to support social workers in developing the highest professional standards, and does not lose the focus it has brought to the system.

Some of those issues are consistent across all parts of the social work profession. We heard, for example, about caseloads, which remain a challenge for social workers whether they are dealing with adults with learning disabilities, very elderly people, or children who are in need for whatever reason. The context of regulation for children’s social workers is different from that of adult social workers, and that also remains a challenge. The work of the Care Quality Commission is perhaps beginning to diverge from the work of Ofsted, so the regulatory framework for the social work profession is becoming more and more diverse, reflecting the fact that the clients that social workers serve are different.

It is worth reflecting on some of the pandemic lessons. We have seen, for example, a move away from significant numbers of family support workers in children’s services, as well as occupational therapists in supporting elderly people, and in the role of youth workers, which was referred to earlier. Perhaps we need to reflect on the structures that we expect from our local authorities and that our regulatory framework drives. Perhaps there should be a greater degree of local flexibility to bring together those different but allied professions so that they focus on the needs of the most vulnerable.

Local authorities will do that for a variety of reasons. I recall Hackney Council’s so-called pod model bringing together youth workers, therapists and social workers. By the time that other local authorities had adopted that model, Hackney had given up on it because it felt it was not working any more, so there is sometimes a risk that, when tested, new ideas prove to be not as effective as we would like. However, we should see the deployment particularly of folks such as family support workers in a way that can really help the social work profession to do what it does best and what only it can do, and the service that vulnerable people receive should be of the highest quality possible.

The greater divergence among the workforces around children, adults and the elderly can be positive, particularly in the context of extra funding, which we expect to see coming into the system through the decisions that the Chancellor and the Government make. Some will say that that is overdue and insufficient, but I can say that from my experience in a local authority it will be most welcome. It will ease a lot of the pressure that has been building up in the system and, because the local authority funding model is so diverse across the country, it can re-base social services departments so that they are more consistently funded through a national programme in a way that putting the burden on council tax payers cannot achieve because of the diversity of how much funding is raised.

The social work profession has an opportunity to consider parallels with what is going on in other professions, especially across the public sector where we see many similar roles. How is the nursing profession developing? How are the lessons from professional development being applied? In teaching and policing we see not just similar salary levels, but often common qualifications and of course a focus often at the most vulnerable end on the same families, so are there things that we can do to improve the way that the training and development across all those professions is aligned so that they can work more effectively together?

The pandemic period, the debate today and the celebration that has been referred to have demonstrated once again that social workers and those who support and work with them remain a key part, often a hidden part, of the social infrastructure of our country. The local authority with the most people coming into contact with any part of social care has less than one in five of its population receiving any form of support from social care during the whole of their lives. Most people will never be touched by social care, but for a critical group in society it is absolutely vital that they receive care to the highest possible standard, and I join the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood in paying tribute to the work that social workers have done in keeping society together during the pandemic.

I thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for raising such an important issue. I had hoped that we would have more people here today to participate because there is not one MP who does not have regular contact with their social workers on behalf of constituents; it happens in my office every week. I want to mention some of the issues and care packages in place, and I will mention some figures for my constituency.

I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. I always look forward to her response—not just because she is a good friend, but because she always answers with knowledge and help, which I think we all wish to see. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood is seeking with the debate. I am also pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), in her place—I look forward to her contribution—and my good friend the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who speaks on behalf of the Scottish National party. We are pleased to participate in this debate on such an important issue.

It is not the fault of anyone in this room, but the outbreak of the pandemic has cruelly exacerbated the social work situation. How we respond is the subject of the debate and the Minister’s responsibility. There is no doubt those in the profession have faced unprecedented challenges, and it is great to be here today to illustrate some of them and to discuss how we can support our brilliant social workers.

We have mentioned the NHS and many of those who kept the wheels turning and the shelves filled, who visited people and who made everything happen through a pandemic of unprecedented ferocity. All of society gelled together as a team to make that happen. I meet people every week in my constituency of Strangford who make the lives of the vulnerable and those in need better. That is their responsibility, and I have that responsibility on their behalf.

We are sometimes confronted with incredibly difficult cases. I am no different from anybody else, so I suspect that my response is the same as everyone else’s. Social workers are involved in some awful cases: the lives that people are confronted with, probably through no fault of their own, and the impact on children. I have a special place in my heart for children, because I am not only a father, but a grandfather; it is a great stage. Those of us in the Chamber who are grandparents will know that it is a wonderful experience. The great thing, Mr Robertson, is that we can give our grandchildren back at 7 o’clock at night! Whenever they get tantrummy and want to go to bed, or do not want to go to bed—it depends what mood they are in—we can always phone up their mum and dad to say, “By the way, the kids are ready to collect.” We can enjoy all the fun, but for others on the frontline, I am afraid that there are real problems.

As of 2021, 105,000 people were employed as social workers for children, the elderly, and those who are vulnerable and in need. I am not asking the Minister to answer for Northern Ireland as that is not her responsibility, but I want to sew the Northern Ireland perspective into this debate because it echoes what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said in her introduction. The Minister always gives me some succour and encouragement in her response, and that is important.

There is predicted to be a mismatch between the supply and demand of social care professionals, with 1 million workers needed by 2025, which is not that far away. We seem to be having anniversaries regularly—whatever they may be for—and I look back and think, “That can’t have been four or five years ago”, but it was. Three years will pass quickly, and it is predicted that there will be a 35% shortfall in social workers. Will the Minister tell us from a UK perspective what has been done to recruit and train social workers, and to have the support at every level that is critical to a good response?

My hon. Friend is outlining the extent of the problem and the imminent mismatch between supply and demand, which is just two and a half years away. Does he agree that what we need to see and hear from Government, both centrally and throughout the devolved regions of the UK, is an acknowledgement and admission of an impending problem? Action needs to be taken now, so that social workers and others in the care sector can see that our Governments are looking ahead, planning and preparing for the problems that we will all face.

My hon. Friend has summed up in a few seconds exactly what the debate is about, whereas I will take 10 or 12 paragraphs to explain it. His point is that we have to be strategic and visionary, and have a plan of action. Today is all about what that plan of action is.

I visit schools in my constituency and speak to some of the kids about what they want to be when they grow up—although I am probably not grown up yet and do not know what I want to be—and it strikes me that we have to look at this issue in the context of schooling, which I accept is devolved in Scotland. We need to encourage young people to think about careers in social work. Looking around the Chamber, I was probably the one in school most recently, but I do not recall being encouraged to look at social work, when we were told in the traditional way, “Here are careers you can do.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can do more to encourage young people to consider a career in social work, and would he be willing to promote that in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Many social workers I deal with are probably of a certain generation. He makes the point that we need to be preparing, and that goes back to my question to the Minister about having a strategy and plan in place.

I understand that many young people do come into social work, because I have met some, but—I say this very gently, and it is not in any way meant to be critical—they need to have experienced social workers to work alongside and gain their knowledge. Young people will sometimes be confronted with cases that they might not have the life experiences to deal with. That is not a criticism; experience is gained over many years. I have been confronted by such cases on behalf of constituents, and I feel that decisions are not always made—in my opinion, as someone who is not a social worker—as they could or should have been.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member’s point. Does he agree that programmes such as the fast-track ones bring the opportunity, in particular for young social workers who might be graduates straight out of university, to work with people who may have been in the profession for 20 or 30 years? Young social workers would have the chance to learn from experienced people and to see how they dealt with cases with which I, as a lead council member, was sadly familiar—for example, sometimes, the sexual abuse of children committed by professionals who were meant to be caring for them, or elderly people suffering complex financial abuse within a family. It is important that the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education continue to support that type of professional development, so that we can grow our own highly professional social workers in the future.

As my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), said—and as I am trying to say, in my broken words—people have to start somewhere in life; they have to start their job somewhere and learn about their role.

Social care organisations have revealed that 75% of social workers feel more negative about their work life in 2021 compared with in the first year of the pandemic. People come to us all the time with problems, and I like that because it is my job. Many people say, “I don’t know how you do your job, listening to people’s complaints and always solving their problems, and so on”, but I reply, “That’s what life is about. Life is about making lives better.” We need to be aware that social workers sometimes deal with complex and difficult issues. My question to the Minister is, has any assessment been done of the impact of the pandemic on social workers? If the figures are right—I understand that they are—that 75% of social workers feel more negative about their work life in 2021, we have a potential problem. I hope we do not, but we must at least consider that and respond.

This situation is down to the increasing pressures and challenges that the social work sector has faced. Referrals of children to social services in Northern Ireland have increased every month since February 2020. The highest figure was in April 2021, with 3,616 children being referred. That clearly indicates that parents are struggling to cope, and is a clear sign of the increasing pressure on our social workers, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood illustrated very well in her contribution, and as other Members have reported.

We must not forget the impact that the covid outbreak has had on the social sector in relation not just to children, but to the elderly and the vulnerable. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) rightly referred to an issue that is on my mind as well: people who depend on family members to look after their financial affairs. I have dealt with a few of those cases, which are always difficult because there are often two sets of family members saying two different things—but there is a person in the middle who is losing out.

The BBC revealed in mid-2021 that almost 2,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for care packages, so that they can be supported to live in their own homes. Just this week, a very lovely man who I have known all my life—he is well into his 80s now—has been ill and had to go to hospital. Although he wants to come home, and would be able to, he needs a care package in place before he can come home because, due to the nature of his disability, his wife would be unable to provide the physical care that he needs. That is not the Minister’s responsibility; I am just illustrating the issue.

The wait for care packages could mean an increase of patients to residential care. My constituency of Strangford takes in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which has reported that 282 people were waiting from the end of August 2021. Social workers are a key part of making that a success story. The provision of home care is crucial in taking the additional pressure off of hospitals and care homes. We must ensure that our social workers have the capacity to deal with the increasing amount of care packages needed. I have never seen anything quite like it. I know that we are getting older—we are living longer and our bodies are breaking down, meaning that more people need care packages—but there has to be a strategy and a vision for how we deal with that, as has been pointed out in other contributions.

There is an increased risk of covid infection for those who work in the social work industry, as we have seen happen over and over. That is nobody’s fault; it is the nature of life. It cannot be helped when tests are positive and people must take time off work. However, that is where we can step in to ensure that there is a sustainable number of social workers to cope with the level of care needed by children, the elderly, the vulnerable and the disabled.

We must also take into consideration the impact of the pandemic on our social workers’ mental health. Some 55% of respondents to a survey said that they felt increased anxiety—in an already difficult job—given the risk that they posed to the vulnerable by potentially carrying covid. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how we can better deal with that. One way would be to have extra staffing, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned earlier. Social workers are as prepared as they can be in terms of personal protective equipment, as the Government and the Minister have done extremely well in responding to that need, but the Government must step in when it comes to staffing and workload. Many social workers have stated that their casework load has increased by as much as 40% over the pandemic. They are working longer hours—I know that, because they tell me that and I see it—and those longer hours are probably for the same money. Overtime rates will never compensate for the loss of physical wellbeing and mental health.

The Department of Health and Social Care must have provisions in place to ensure that our social workers are not under the most extreme pressure. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response and the encouragement that she will give us. I urge her and her Department to consider the impact of that pressure not only in England, where her responsibility lies, but across the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister, like those in other Departments, regularly contacts her equivalent Minister in the devolved Administrations, be that in Scotland, Wales or, in my case, Northern Ireland, so I know that there is continuity between those Administrations. I say very gently to my two friends, the hon. Member for Glasgow East and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, that I very much think that within this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we are always better together; we can work together and exchange ideas, and we can all benefit from that. I say that gently to my friends in the SNP, because I know that they really do agree with me that we are better together.

I am managing not to laugh; I will do my best.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for securing today’s debate, which has been thoughtful and consensual. It is a worthy topic and I start by expressing my own gratitude to social workers for their outstanding work during these difficult times. They have continued to work tirelessly to support children, families, individuals and communities across a range of specialisms and services throughout the covid-19 pandemic.

I am grateful for the comprehensive and measured manner in which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood outlined and opened the debate. It is a timely reminder to us all that, sadly, lives can be at risk when things go wrong, so it is vital that things do not go wrong and that social workers play a major role in helping to sort out people’s lives.

There are around 11,000 social workers registered with the Scottish Social Services Council. They are part of a social services workforce of over 209,000 people and are aligned to, but a different profession from, social care professions. Most work in local authority settings, across adults, children’s and justice social work. Registered social workers are also employed by the independent sector and may be self-employed independent social workers. They were all classed as key workers and admirably carried out their roles within the additional pressures of the pandemic climate. However, 77.7% of social workers interviewed by the British Association of Social Workers strongly agreed that working under lockdown had increased concerns around being able to safeguard children and adults. Concerns for the safety of women and children experiencing domestic abuse heightened over the pandemic. In some cases, lockdown and social distancing exacerbated already high-risk situations. It is deeply concerning that referrals to domestic abuse services increased during that period.

The Scottish Government are working tirelessly to ensure that frontline services continue to support adults and children experiencing gender-based violence, with £12 million allocated to tackle violence against women and girls. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Scottish Government allocated an additional £5.75 million to various organisations, including Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland, to support those providing frontline services to people experiencing the violence of domestic abuse, and to ensure that services could meet increased demand. Services, including national helplines, remained open during the pandemic, so that anyone who needed help could access them.

The Scottish Government have also committed to review the funding and commissioning of special services, with an additional twin focus on domestic and sexual abuse services. They recently launched the Delivering Equally Safe fund, inviting applications from public bodies and third-sector organisations. The fund provides up to £13 million a year from October last year to combat violence against women and girls.

Following the Scottish Government’s commitment in the 2020-21 programme for government, they published revised national guidance for child protection on 2 September. The guidance, which incorporates learning from child protection cases, supports improved cross-agency working and outcomes for children at risk. Local implementation of the guidance has been supported by a national group that is chaired by the deputy chief social work adviser. Chief officer groups oversee local public protection arrangements and the assessment and response to risk, vulnerability and protection across the 32 local partnerships.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 provisions were also developed to improve capacity and flexibility of local child protection processes and prioritisation of children at greatest risk. A local authority and Police Scotland data return, collected since April 2020, continues to be key to understanding how the pandemic is impacting on Scotland’s vulnerable children and young people.

While the Scottish Government have worked to protect social workers and those they serve, the UK Government’s requirements for mandatory vaccination of those working in care homes has forced valuable workers from the sector. The British Association of Social Workers issued a statement at the time warning of the dangers of the UK Government’s approach and expressing opposition. In my opinion, the UK Government should have followed the Scottish Government’s “educate and inform” approach to vaccination of care and social workers.

Social work relies very strongly on a human rights regime, which the Scottish Government have championed through working to enshrine the UN convention on the rights of the child and the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in Scots law. The UK Government’s shameless attempt to prevent the enshrining of the UN convention on the rights of the child does nothing to protect the rights of children, and their plans to overhaul or overturn the Human Rights Act are a direct threat to social work, as has been highlighted in the British Association of Social Workers’ briefing. The UK Government should commit to supporting human rights and end their attacks on the Human Rights Act.

There can be no doubt that poverty is a driver of the need for social work interventions. As I have repeatedly called on the UK Government to make the £20 increase to universal credit and working tax credit permanent, it was disappointing that that was not done. The September cut to the £20 uplift has meant that millions of claimants suffered a £1,000-a-year cut, with only tapering to soften the blow. That cut is estimated to have pushed 60,000 people in Scotland into poverty, including 20,000 children.

I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I am glad he has raised the issue of poverty; that is one of the things I did not include in my contribution, but not because it is not important. Does he agree that it is important to understand the link between poverty and families needing support through social work, and that eradicating poverty would go a long way in easing many of the issues that we wish to address through social work?

I agree entirely with the hon. Member. I am bringing my remarks to an end, and she has helped amplify my point, for which I am very grateful. On poverty, the British Association of Social Workers has commented in its briefing that

“it cannot be ignored that poverty will have wider repercussions, such as on social work.”

I will leave that thought as my final remark. I hope it helps focus the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for bringing the debate before the House, and for the work she does with the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) on the all-party parliamentary group for social work. The debate has been less well attended than some, but it has been high in quality. As parents, none of us really knows what our offspring think of us or what they will say in future, but it was good to hear my hon. Friend talk about her father, Alan Smith—the work he has done in social work, and what she heard from her friend—and for her to bring that experience here today and have it drive her work. I am sure he must be very proud, and we are grateful that she is doing it. Perhaps Parliament sometimes seems aloof to workers in the social work sector, but we all have our own personal stories and we bring them to this place to inform the debate.

Since becoming an MP, I have realised that my inbox is a fairly good indicator of what is happening in my constituency. In Bristol South, the high impact of violence against women in the home has driven my casework in the six years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, but children’s mental health and family crisis have become an increasingly substantial part of my inbox. Often, those cases have children at their core—those are the most heartbreaking, and are very difficult for our staff to deal with. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we are not the frontline of those cases; often by the time parents, family members or friends have come to us, things have gone very wrong, and what we see in our inboxes is the tip of that iceberg. Social workers are at the forefront of the response, and what we have heard today and from the representative bodies in their briefing is really alarming.

I will focus my comments on two key issues: the workforce and more complex work. Every debate I have been involved in since taking on my role as shadow Front Bench spokesperson for health and social care has been dominated by one issue, which is the lack of people available to do the jobs we so desperately need. I say gently to the Minister that next week the Health and Social Care Bill will be back in this place after some excellent debates in the Lords, particularly on workforce, following the work done by the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). It would be good if the Government could come back with some support for a workforce plan that is credible, is funded, and will give hope to all the people who are keeping our society functioning at that level. We know there are some battles to be had with the Treasury, but everyone in this room is right behind the Secretary of State and his Ministers in that battle.

As we have heard, vacancy rates are up to 9.5%, which starts to mirror the workforce crisis across many areas in the health and care sector. Some 5,000 children and family social workers have left a social worker post in England, which is a massive increase over five years. The vacancy rate is at a five-year high with about 6,500 vacancies and that is part of the wider trend, with the pandemic exacerbating the issue. It is important to note that the situation was not caused by the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by it. The wider trend, from high-pressured jobs to the undermining of support services such as Sure Start, has left social workers to pick up the pieces.

As we have heard, burnout is a worrying problem. A survey by the Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust found that throughout the pandemic 75% of social workers were emotionally and mentally exhausted. That is true across much of the workforce, but we are now asking these people to pick up the pieces and go forward. Some good news from the Government on that would be welcome.

We know that the pandemic has increased the complexity of cases that social workers are dealing with, because of what is happening in the rest of society. Again, the situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I pay tribute to social workers in my constituency of Bristol South and across Bristol for the work they have done throughout the pandemic. In a survey of the sector, 67% of respondents who worked in children’s services agreed or strongly agreed that they had seen an increase in referrals or their caseload since the return to schools and colleges in autumn 2020. Members of Parliament know from discussions with headteachers in our constituencies that where children, young people and families are presenting in schools, the vacancy rates and the lack of ability to pick up those cases are causing massive problems throughout the sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about care homes and the experience of disabled adults throughout the pandemic, which is shocking. The Care Quality Commission’s report about death rates in care homes should alarm us all. I know the Minister is very open to meeting with representatives of the sector and I am sure she will look favourably on my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting. It would be valuable to bring that issue directly to the Government and, I hope, get a more positive response.

The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made an excellent point about foster care support, and I know he has a lot of experience in the sector. Where families become most vulnerable, we need that support for the people who are coming forward. People lead different lives from those they led even 10 or 20 years ago, and Bristol City Council has led a lot of good work in encouraging people to come forward for foster care. People should know there is support available for them from the social work sector and that will help those children who we want to see succeed and thrive.

I shall keep my comments short because we want to hear from the Minister. We want to know that the sector has the Government’s support as they take us out of this pandemic, and that hopefully people can start to thrive. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline how the Government will work with local authorities to address the rising vacancy rates in the social work sector. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made some interesting comments about the different ways in which local authorities often lead innovation and how they are prepared to learn and recognise that sometimes innovation does not work out. That is part of the learning cycle, which we need to support and encourage. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

Has the Minister assessed the impact of the rising cost of living on social workers? This afternoon, we have the spring statement and it would be good if there were some positive news for people who are living on medium wages and experiencing the cost of living crisis, as well as for the families they support, who are feeling the impact of inflation and fuel costs. That is particularly the case for people who are in their homes and people with disabilities, who are feeling the pinch from the increasing fuel and heating costs. They could do with some good news, too.

I gently take the Minister back to the decision to cut universal credit, which pushed more families into poverty. We have started to have a discussion on that serious issue, which affects all countries of the United Kingdom, causing unnecessary hardship for families who are already dealing with complex social issues and escalating the cost of living crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, we could lessen the load if people were not being plunged into greater poverty.

It would be good to hear from the Minister about rewarding the social workers on the front line, who, as we have heard, are a key part of the infrastructure. Thankfully, most people do not encounter them, but for those who do, they are absolutely key to the sort of country that we want to be, and we thank them for their work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for securing the debate so close to World Social Work Day, and for using her excellent speech to highlight the excellent and varied work that social workers do day in, day out. I had the pleasure of attending the world social worker of the year award ceremony, which was held here in Parliament on World Social Work Day. I know that many Members from both sides of the House enjoyed going along, meeting their local nominees and celebrating the fantastic work of social workers, as well as congratulating the winners of the awards.

Social work is a highly valued vocational profession and we thank all social workers for their important work to support those who are hardest hit, especially during the pandemic when we really relied on their support. Social workers provide a critical model of practice for the health and social care sector. They undertake relationship-based engagement with individuals, their families and communities, and combine emotional support with practical help at a time of great need. Their strengths-based personalised approach in understanding what matters enables them to shape people’s care and support so that they can have the best possible lives. I pay tribute to them all, including the hon. Lady’s father, who obviously contributed to changing many lives during his career.

Importantly, social workers work across agencies and connect people to the resources and the services that they need. They span the boundaries of our health and care workforce, ensuring that people’s human rights are protected and that the individual’s choice and control of their care and support is respected at all times. The pandemic has taught us that co-operation and collaboration across the health and care sectors are absolutely critical, and social workers are central to embedding that way of working. They co-ordinate health and care planning and make vital links to ensure that people with care and support needs do not slip through the gaps in provision.

We have never needed the expertise and insights of social workers more than we do now. As we emerge from the pandemic—into fresh anxieties and tragedies born from the war of Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and other things that we will have to deal with—we will turn to the social work profession for advice, guidance, leadership and support. Covid-19 had a significant impact on health and social care services, including social work, and the response of our workforce was one of dedication and commitment to the people whom they support. Those were unprecedented and challenging circumstances and we stand by the entire workforce and thank them for their vital work to make a difference to people’s lives.

Our focus has always been on ensuring that the adult social care sector has the resources that it needs to respond to covid-19. Throughout the pandemic, we have made available more than £2.9 billion in specific covid support funding for adult social care, including £1.81 billion for infection prevention and control, £523 million for testing, and £583 million for workforce capacity—recruitment and retention—as we know that there are shortages across the sector.

The infection control and testing fund and the workforce recruitment and retention fund supported the care sector to prevent the transmission of covid and to support local authorities in working with providers to boost staffing and support existing care workers until 31 March of this year. Some of that funding helped to enable local authorities to provide continuous support to those in need of social care, including by delivering social work appointments virtually, as well as in person where it was appropriate and safe to do so.

Social workers went above and beyond during the pandemic and they deserve huge thanks for their tireless work. That is why continuing to help social workers manage their mental health and wellbeing remains a priority for the Government. We are determined that everyone working in social care should feel they have someone to talk to or somewhere to turn when they find things difficult. As many hon. Members have said, they deal with the most complex and difficult cases. We are committed to supporting social workers to recover from their extraordinary role in helping our country through the pandemic. We will deliver a listening service to help relieve immediate pressures, as well as talking therapies and coaching sessions for those with more intensive needs.

The chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, has implemented a range of measures during the pandemic, including partnering with Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust to issue guidance to support the wellbeing of adult social workers and social care professionals. She meets regularly with the principal social workers in each local authority and NHS trust, advising and supporting them on practice and workforce support for their staff during the pandemic.

We have invested in increasing the number of social workers completing their approved mental health professional qualification for local authorities to increase their capacity in responding to the needs of people with mental ill health. An additional 228 social workers will be supported to complete their training. Social workers have been supported to improve their knowledge and skills in working with people with learning disabilities and autism.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) mentioned the vital work that social workers do to support people with learning disabilities. The chief social worker for adults commissioned the British Association of Social Workers to develop a capability statement for social workers working with adults with a learning disability in 2019. That supports best practice in this important area, especially considering the impact of the pandemic on those with learning disabilities and/or autism.

As well as our focus on wellbeing, we know the importance of building and strengthening our social care workforce. A number of hon. Members mentioned that it is vital to strengthen the social care workforce so that we can meet demand now and in the future. It is encouraging to note that the number of child and family social workers in the workforce is increasing every year, up from 28,500 in 2017 to 32,500 in 2021. That is 2% more than in 2020 and 14% more than in 2017.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly focused on recruitment and strengthening the workforce. The Government invest over £130 million a year on recruiting, training and developing social workers to ensure the social care workforce has the values, capacity, skills and knowledge to perform its roles. This includes investments in bursaries for undergraduate and postgraduate social work degrees. A new and very popular addition, which I am very proud of, because I worked on it in my last role, is degree apprenticeships.

We have education support grants to support practice placements in organisations delivering social work services. That is vital to build that experience that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). We also have a range of postgraduate fast-track training programmes for those wanting to work in children and family social work or mental health social work. Our attention is not just on training our social workers of the future; we also invest a significant amount in leadership and development programmes for qualified social workers. That includes leadership programmes for social workers and the assessed and supported year in employment for newly qualified social workers. That provides high-quality support for every newly qualified social worker by sharing best practice and quality-assuring provision.

We have announced record investment in developing the social care workforce. In our recent White Paper, “People at the Heart of Care”, we set out our workforce development strategy and plans for the investment of £500 million over the next three years. I am sure we will be discussing that many times as we develop those plans. The investment will help us to realise our vision for a workforce of people experiencing rewarding careers with opportunities to develop and progress in the future. That includes a focus on how we can develop new training routes for people who want to become social workers.

We will also work with the adult social care sector, including providers and the workforce, to co-develop a universal knowledge and skills framework and careers structure. As well as supporting the development of our care workforce, we will help those wanting to progress into regulated professions such as social work. I am also delighted that the number of people taking part in the new social worker degree apprenticeship programme continues to increase, with 660 starts in 2019-20 alone. That is only the second year for which it has been available, so that is phenomenal growth.

Looking forward, we have commissioned Health Education England to work with partners to develop a robust long-term strategic framework for workforce planning. For the first time ever, the framework will include regulated professions working in social care, such as nurses, social workers and occupational therapists. That work will look at the key drivers of workforce supply and demand as well as careers, as has been mentioned, and will inform the direction of the health and care system over the next 15 years.

The framework will help identify the main strategic choices facing us, develop a shared and explicit set of planning assumptions and identify the actions required at all levels of using all our system levers. That will ensure that we can plan for a workforce that is skilled, confident and equipped with the right support to deliver the highest quality health and social care in the future. It will also form the basis of our next phase of work to develop a long-term workforce strategy, led by NHS England and NHS Improvement in partnership with Health Education England and the Department of Health and Social Care.

I very much welcome what the Minister is sharing with us today. Does she agree that it would be worth considering how to develop the finance function of health and social care? The recent Competition and Markets Authority report highlighted that a lot of the provision the private sector has brought into the care market, both in children’s homes and adult social care, is, frankly, quite an astonishing rip-off for the taxpayer. Profit margins of 30% and more are not unusual and these are complex structures that are extracting resources that could be spent on care. Does she agree that there is an opportunity both strategically and in developing the skills of social workers and others involved in those decisions locally to bring more focus to the issue so that we can ensure we procure the best possible care with an eye to value for money for the taxpayer?

My hon. Friend raises an important point that we will address as part of the White Paper, “People at the Heart of Care”. It is important that we equip local authorities with the skills and tools they need to commission well in the market and to get the balance right between paying a fair cost for care while making sure that they get value for money for taxpayers.

I welcome quite a lot of what the Minister is saying, and I hope that I am not straying beyond her brief. The complex issue with social work, of course, is that it crosses many Government Departments. While she is talking about the recruitment and retention of social workers, I would like to invite her to put on record her thoughts about why, particularly in child protection, a social worker tends to burn out a lot faster. People tend to go into child protection and then progress to different parts of social work. Would she share her thoughts on why child protection in particular seems to lead to such quick burnout for social workers?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Anyone who has met social workers doing that vital job, particularly in child protection, has nothing but admiration for the job they do. It is an incredibly difficult job with incredibly difficult choices that are highly complex and have a massive impact on families and individuals. It is a highly stressful job, but we need to do more to support people in the workplace so that they can deal with their mental health, talk to people and share their experiences. There is no doubt that it is an incredibly difficult job and one that is done very well, but every day they face enormous challenges and big decisions.

Finally, last November we announced a review of leadership in health and social care, led by Sir Gordon Messenger. The review will report in early 2022 and is considering how to foster and replicate the best examples of leadership. Strong leadership in health and social care will help to ensure the best outcomes for our key priorities, including, most importantly, improved care for patients and service users. The review aims to ensure that the necessary leadership behaviours, strategies and qualities are developed to maximise these efforts. We all know that leadership is vital in these key professions.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned the work of the British Association of Social Workers and the “Homes not Hospitals” campaign to help more people to get the support that they need in their community, so that they can leave hospital. I completely agree with the desire to get more people out of hospital and getting the right care in the community. Indeed, we have an action plan, “Building the right support”, which we will be publishing in the not-too-distant future. I will be delighted to meet with representatives of the British Association of Social Workers to discuss this further.

Once again, I thank all hon. Members who have provided valuable contributions and insights today. It is important for the sector that we have this debate. We know, in our role as Members of Parliament, the work that we can do to highlight the fabulous work that people are doing. That does not always get highlighted, so this is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the complexity of the social work role and the variety of the role—the many different areas in which social workers provide vital support and the link to ensure that people get the right services from a load of different public services and get the wraparound care necessary for them.

The measures that I have set out today show that the Government are fully committed to supporting and developing the social work workforce—it is vital, and recognised as vital—as well as the wider health and social care sector. I thank everybody for their contributions and I look forward to continuing to work to celebrate this fantastic profession.

Thank you, Mr Robertson. I had actually forgotten that I would get to wind up, but I will take the opportunity to thank all hon. Members for taking part in this important debate. I know that it will be reported on in various publications and read by social workers across the four nations of the United Kingdom, and I think that the contributions by the Members present will be appreciated. It is fair to say that social workers often feel invisible or unrecognised and that the only time they get the spotlight is when, sadly, things have gone horribly and tragically wrong. However, this has been an opportunity, so close to World Social Work Day, to highlight the good work that social workers do.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet with the “Homes not Hospitals” team at BASW. If she would not mind, I would be delighted if I could join her at that meeting.

There has been such a lot of agreement and consensus in this debate, and it has been an absolute pleasure to hear so many positive things said about social workers right across the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the impact of the covid-19 outbreak on social work.

Sitting suspended.

Treharris: Restoration of Post Office Services

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

I will call Gerald Jones to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. In accordance with the convention for 30-minutes debates, I am afraid there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up at the end.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the restoration of Post Office services in Treharris.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of residents in Treharris. Figures from Citizens Advice show that almost half of all adults visit a post office at least once a month. Sadly, that has not been the case for my constituents in Treharris, as three years ago this month the post office closed. The community of over 8,000 people has had no access to the post office services that were established in the village for decades.

I have previously raised this issue with the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who assured me that taxpayers’ money had been made available to Post Office Ltd. Despite that, Post Office Ltd has made no effort to restore a post office branch in Treharris, even though I understand that several parties have expressed interest in operating a service. Shamefully, the Post Office has left Treharris and many other communities across the UK in limbo, as it allows what was supposed to be a temporary branch closure to drag on indefinitely. Quite frankly, that is inexcusable.

I have been working closely with local councillors Gareth Richards, Ernie Galsworthy and Ian Thomas, and my Senedd colleague Dawn Bowden MS, all of whom have received representations from residents and businesses about the closure. Indeed, a petition launched less than six weeks ago has already secured almost 700 signatures from people who want a post office restored in Treharris, and it is not hard to understand why.

Until just a few years ago, Treharris was home to three major banks, all of which have now closed. The post office was a lifeline for residents and businesses. Treharris is still home to many businesses that have had to make alternative arrangements now, often at great inconvenience and cost. Glib suggestions by Post Office Ltd about using branches in Trelewis or Nelson fail to take account of issues such as low car ownership—around 30% of my constituents do not own a car—or the hour-long walk up steep hills to access the nearest post office. Public transport is sporadic, with a service once an hour at best. Long difficult walks and uncertain bus journeys—it appears Post Office Ltd has little understanding of the geography and topography of our area.

One local resident told me recently that they rely heavily on the post office service and budget their weekly bills using the cash they withdraw when they receive their pension. Over the past three years, they have had to make a weekly trip to Trelewis or Nelson to withdraw their pension, which involves taking half a day for a return bus journey and the added cost that entails. That is an unnecessary cost and an inconvenience that has a detrimental impact on many of my constituents.

In the three years since Treharris post office closed, there has been no attempt to provide mobile provision, and despite my office asking about that, no response has yet been given. Post Office Ltd’s own statement of principle says that it

“will provide an update to locally elected representatives if the status of the temporarily closed branch has not changed after 12 months.”

That did not happen.

Treharris is not alone in this situation; there is something very wrong with Britain’s post office network. Citizens Advice, the statutory consumer advocate for postal consumers, says in “Post: The state of the sector in 2022” that

“by September 2021, 1,291 post offices across Great Britain were temporarily closed, nearly twice as many as 5 years ago. And many ‘temporary’ closures last a significant period of time - more than 8 in 10 are shut for over a year. In reality many of these post offices are permanently closed.”

The report goes on to say that one rural post office in three in Great Britain is now provided as a part-time outreach service. Those post offices are open for an average of five and a half hours a week, although many are open for an hour—just one hour—a week.

I have some specific questions for the Minister. How can the Government allow so many post offices to be, essentially, permanently closed without the courtesy of consultation, discussion or debate with the communities they serve? How can it be that the Government provide money to Post Office Ltd to reopen branches, yet so many communities are left without a service?

As we have seen from the scandalous way in which Post Office Ltd treated its own sub-postmasters, its modus operandi is to keep quiet and hope that the problem goes away. I can assure you, Mr Robertson, and, more importantly, Post Office Ltd that the community of Treharris will not just sit silent. Treharris is a vibrant and viable community that is rapidly expanding owing to its proximity to Cardiff. There is, I believe, more than sufficient demand to sustain post office branches in Treharris, Trelewis and Nelson. The fact that Treharris does not have an operational post office when there is such strong local support is shocking.

On behalf of my constituents, I ask that the Government do all in their power to ensure that the service is restored to Treharris post office as quickly as possible. I hope that the Minister will provide much needed answers to give the residents of Treharris the assurances that they seek and very much deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing today’s important debate. I thank him for his commitment to the post office network, in particular his commitment to his constituents in Treharris and to getting postal services for them, especially given the social value that post offices provide to so many people.

Post offices play a crucial role in communities and for small businesses around the United Kingdom, and they comprise the largest retail network in the country, with more than 11,500 branches. Over the past 10 years, the Government have provided more than £2.5 billion to support the post office network. Crucially, that has included an annual subsidy to ensure the viability of rural and community branches. Since 2019, that has been maintained at £50 million a year, and I can confirm that it will remain at the same level until 2025. That shows that we in the Government are committing significant funding to the future of the network.

The country has faced unprecedented challenges in responding to the covid-19 pandemic, and post offices were essential services and postal workers key workers. That enabled the continuation of essential services provided by post offices, which would not have been possible if it was not for the hard work of postmasters and postal staff, who worked tirelessly to ensure that those services could continue. That enabled people to keep in touch with loved ones, which provided a lifeline to our communities and to the most vulnerable. That goes to the heart of what the hon. Gentleman was talking about: why people in Treharris value services that are as close to them as possible.

I would like to take a moment to thank postmasters and post office staff for their tireless efforts, the immense contribution made to communities across the UK, and their continual hard work and support. I am extremely thankful to all postmasters, who are pillars of their communities.

In a network as large as this, there will be variations in the number of branches open at one time. That is usually outside the Post Office’s control and is subject to external changes, such as postmasters retiring or branches closing and new ones opening. The network fluctuates and changes over time. That churn in the network is part of the modern and dynamic business that is the Post Office, but the Government-set access criteria ensure that services remain within reach for all citizens, which helps to protect the network: 99% of the UK population are within 3 miles of a post office outlet, and 90% within 1 mile.

To allow itself time to identify alternative ways to provide services, the Post Office requires operators to provide six months’ notice of a branch closure. Those plans apply to all partners, whether a multiple retailer or an individual postmaster. Where notice is given, the Post Office works with communities to ensure that the service is maintained.

As we have heard, Treharris post office has been closed for nearly three years, and I recognise that that is extremely frustrating for the hon. Member, and indeed for his constituents. He has been campaigning extremely hard to reopen Treharris post office, whether it be on the existing site or a business taking over that site. I thank him for his commitment to ensuring that the impact on his constituents is fully understood by the Government, the Post Office and the House. It reminds us how important post offices are to our communities, not only acting as a hub with social value but connecting to the country, from Swansea to Stockport, indeed to Strangford and Stirling, as we have seen from our absent hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who would normally be here contributing to the debate. Post offices are valued across all four nations of this great country.

Changes to the network are extremely concerning to members of the community who daily rely on postal and other services. I understand that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recently met with the Post Office to discuss the future of Treharris post office. As he is aware, the Treharris post office will remain closed. He mentioned the Trelewis branch, just under a mile away. That was subject to a commercial transfer, which resulted in an extension of opening hours from 7 am to 9 pm, seven days a week. Two branches in such close proximity could reduce the viability of both businesses, based on current levels of post office footfall in the area.

Like many businesses, Post Office is operating in a challenging economic climate, and having two businesses open may not be sustainable. Post Office Ltd carried out a comprehensive review of the network, to ensure it is meeting the evolving needs of customers. It assessed the current services in Treharris and concluded that customer demands have been met, but I appreciate what the hon. Member said about the pressures on the local community due to the bus service. I hope the Post Office will listen to that, as well as the debates in this place, and reflect that in any further considerations of the area’s coverage.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for his speech. I support his comments about post office workers, who have been essential to the national effort during the pandemic. I want to re-emphasise the topography for communities such as Treharris. A mile away does not sound a lot but, with steep hills and a poor bus service that is sporadic at best, those challenges are too great to overcome for communities and residents alike in the valleys.

I have no doubt. This is where it is right to bring to bear the hon. Member’s local championing and expertise. It is easy for us to look at a bit of paper or at Google Maps, but that does not emphasise the topography he describes. I very much take that on board. I hope that the Post Office will equally take that on board, as it listens and reads Hansard, and will reflect on that when considering wider views on the Post Office network in the hon. Member’s area. Because the Post Office operates as an independent commercial business, the company has the commercial freedom to deliver the branch network within the parameters we have set, but I want to reassure the hon. Member that his concern has been taken seriously. I will continue to monitor network numbers in his area.

He referred to recent Citizens Advice research that highlighted the number of branches classed as temporarily closed. I agree that the overall number of branches classed as temporarily closed needs to be reviewed. Post Office has started that review and is engaging with Citizens Advice on the process to reclassify the majority of branches classed as temporarily closed to permanently closed. I will engage with Post Office to find out its plans regarding this specific branch, as part of that exercise.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney talked about outreach, as he has done on other occasions, not being a substitute for a bricks-and-mortar shop. Clearly, we would all prefer bricks-and-mortar shops in our communities. That is the ideal for any post office services. In absence of that branch, it does provide a full range of services and remains an important means of maintaining access. Post Office does try to keep set times for outreach services for each week, so local communities can rely on them timewise. They know the patterns, so they are not hoping and waiting for a service to come, but I freely admit that we would all rather have that bricks-and-mortar post office, both for the convenience and for the social value I have talked about.

The retail sector has undergone a significant period of change, which has been accelerated by covid-19 and has raised many challenges that we are working hard to address. The Post Office continues to explore new business opportunities to ensure a thriving national network for the benefit of communities, businesses and postmasters up and down the country. Post offices play a key role in supporting high streets across the UK and helping keep town centres vibrant, as well as levelling up communities throughout the country. On 15 July, we published the “Build Back Better High Streets” strategy, which set out the Government’s long-term plan to support the evolution of high streets into thriving places to work, visit and live.

As demonstrated during the pandemic, the Government have sought to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods while supporting businesses and public services across the UK. Post offices, like many other businesses on the high street, are eligible for Government support. We will continue to provide 66% business rate relief until the end of the month and a temporary 50% relief in 2022 and 2023 to eligible businesses; reduce the burden of business rates for all businesses by freezing the multiplier for 2022-23; introduce a new relief to support investments in property improvements; and introduce measures to support green investments and the decarbonisation of non-domestic buildings.

However, the trend towards online shopping has been accelerated by covid-19, resulting in more and more of us shopping online. Post offices, whether in Treharris and Trelewis or further afield, will clearly need to keep up to meet those consumer demands. A new agreement has recently been signed with Amazon and DPD, and more than 3,100 branches now offer click and collect services, allowing consumers to receive their goods quickly and conveniently.

To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for his contribution; for bringing this debate before the House; and for making sure that the voice of Treharris has been heard, not only by this House, by me as the Minister or by Government, but by the Post Office, which—as I said—will be monitoring this debate.

Just to reiterate, the community has not had a consultation on the temporary closure. I seek reassurance from the Minister that any changes from a temporary closure to anything more permanent would be subject to a full community consultation, because the community deserves nothing less than to have its voice heard in a consultation process.

I will certainly reflect that in the conversations I have with post offices, not just in Treharris, but all around the country. It is important that the Post Office operates as an independent commercial business, but none the less it has a responsibility to provide social value as well as economic value to reflect the communities it serves. In doing so, it needs to listen to those voices and consider all aspects of this issue, because the most vulnerable in our communities—the hon. Gentleman talked about the topography of getting from Treharris to Trelewis—are often those who need access to cash and services because they do not necessarily have good online access, or the any online access at all. We need to work through a reasonable listening exercise to make sure any decisions are taken in full knowledge of the facts and the views of the people the Post Office network serves.

We in this place all share a common cause: ensuring that a vital national asset continues to serve our constituencies for many years to come. I reiterate that I too am absolutely committed to safeguarding the post office network, and will continue to work closely with the Post Office to deliver that sustainable network and deal with the challenges faced in a post-covid world.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

A5 in the Midlands: Improvements

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of increasing capacity and other improvements to the A5 in the midlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, on an important day here in Westminster, and to be able to highlight a vital issue for residents and businesses in my constituency and in the broader west midlands region. By way of introduction, the A5 is one of the UK’s oldest roads and a strategic route operated by National Highways. It connects London to north Wales and runs through large parts of central England, and I wish to focus on that part of the road.

For many years, various groups have been involved in campaigning about the state of the road, including colleagues from neighbouring constituencies, many of whom are present today; leaders of our local councils; businesses, both large and small, throughout the west midlands; and Midlands Connect, which researches, develops and progresses transport projects to provide the best social, economic and environmental benefits to the midlands. We also have an overarching group called the A5 Transport Partnership.

In recent years, all those groups have been lobbying central Government for funding to improve the strategic 53-mile corridor of the A5 running from the M1 at junction 18 in Warwickshire—close to and then bordering my constituency—all the way through to the M5 at junction 12 in Staffordshire. That strategic corridor through the west midlands not only connects the M1 and the M6, but intersects the M42 and the M69.

Those motorways in the centre of England are four of the country’s busiest motorways, and the A5 corridor is home to almost 3 million people, supporting 1.3 million jobs and serving several large cities and towns, such as Tamworth, Nuneaton, Cannock and Hinckley, as well as my constituency of Rugby. It also supports major employment sites including Magna Park and the MIRA enterprise zone.

Given its strategic importance at the centre of England, this section of the A5 sits at the heart of what is known as the logistics golden triangle, around the districts of Rugby, Daventry, Harborough, Hinckley and Bosworth. With that golden triangle, the corridor creates £22 billion in gross value added annually, which is approximately 10% of the total GVA of the area covered by Midlands Connect, the organisation entrusted by central Government to help identify research on the most important transport investments.

I intend to show that, with the improvements we all believe to be necessary, this corridor of the A5 has the potential to provide an alternative route to our existing congested motorways, while simultaneously supporting housing and employment growth.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of the A5 to residents and businesses in Staffordshire and across the midlands. Having campaigned with my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), and with the Government against the building of the West Midlands Interchange, which is at the A5 roundabout near Gailey in Staffordshire, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we protect our environment and our green belt, as well as tackle congestion on the A5 and other Staffordshire roads?

My hon. Friend is right. The environmental benefits are important, but I want to focus on the one that we would achieve by having less congestion, with car engines running for less time, and on the efficiencies and economies that can be provided to our local area as a consequence of a more efficient and effective A5.

Let me turn to the growth that is forecast for the area around the A5. Local councils within the corridor anticipate that, over the next 15 to 20 years, their local plans will bring forward 103,00 new homes, 16,000 new jobs and a further 524 hectares of employment land, which need a road. By investing in the A5 and improving its performance and resilience, we believe that the central Government have the opportunity to unlock the growth aspirations and priorities of the region.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbouring MP on securing this important debate on the A5. He makes some salient points about the level of economic growth along the A5 by comparison with other parts of the country. Does he agree, however, that without sufficient investment, such as the long-awaited dualling of the A5, we risk missing out on a huge amount of economic growth?

My hon. Friend anticipates my point. He is exactly right: we need to have an efficient road that enables growth to take place. One of the challenges of the A5 is that it is dualled in parts, but single carriageway in others. There currently appears to be no consistent approach to an upgrade, and we need that upgrade in order to achieve our local councils’ ambitious objectives for the area.

As part of the wider strategic road network, the A5 currently carries 23,000 vehicles a day on its busiest section, so it is a pretty hefty road. Sadly, however, and despite its increasing importance and usage, the A5 in the midlands has not seen a proportionate increase in funding to provide resilience and capacity. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) points out, if that is provided, it will enable the A5 to spearhead and safeguard sustained growth in the region.

The fear is that, if neglected, the A5 will act as a barrier to growth rather than an instrument of it. With investment, we believe the A5 can become a significant corridor for growth by enabling greater east-west connectivity, providing access to the M6 toll road, and supporting north-south movements through its strategic interchanges with other regionally important motorways, as I have already mentioned.

In its November 2018 A5 strategy document, the A5 Transport Partnership outlined three key strategic interventions that it argued would be required to unlock the potential of the area served by the A5, and they are relevant today. The first priority is to make improvements between the M42 and M69—a combination of online and offline dualling to deliver the first phase of the A5 expressway, providing expansion of the MIRA site, which sits between Nuneaton and Hinckley, and works associated with the construction of HS2 at junction 10 of the M42. That is the first priority.

The second priority is the part between the M69 to M1 and M42 to M6. Again, it would be a combination of online and offline dualling, but this time to deliver the second and third phases of the A5 expressway. A third objective is to make better use of the M6 toll road. Those of us who have used the M6 toll road will know that it is not to capacity. If we can improve the size, we can get more traffic off the M6 and on to the toll road. In addition to those key priorities, improvements are needed to enhance the A5’s connectivity to the wider strategic road network. I know there are proposals for a new junction 20A on the M1, to bring relief to junction 20 at Leicester, which is the junction between the M1 and M69. That will provide additional growth opportunities.

Ministers are aware of the need for investment, given that one of the third road investment strategy pipeline projects is the upgrade between junction 1 on the M69 and junction 10 on the M42, and I hope that the debate will further press the case to bring that scheme forward. By securing this much-needed upgrade of the A5, we can help deliver growth around the corridor route, support network resilience, ensure greater sustainability and safety, and manage the impact of freight on the road.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire made some remarks about the economics, which I want to focus on. The 53-mile section between the M1 and the M6 plays a significant role in supporting the sub-regional economies of Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Coventry, Staffordshire and west Northamptonshire, and the economic performance of the A5 is strong when looked at in the light of the broader west midlands economy. As I mentioned, a number of important economic centres along that corridor will be subject to further expansion in coming years.

The MIRA enterprise zone is expanding; Magna Park in Leicestershire, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is expanding; DIRFT 3 in Northamptonshire, which sits on the border of my constituency, is currently the subject of substantial construction; and Kingswood Lakeside Employment Park in Staffordshire—which I believe is close to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke)’s constituency—is coming forward. In my constituency, we have a substantial residential development at Houlton and the Rugby Gateway mixed-use development. I hope I am building a case for why it is imperative that the A5 is upgraded, to ensure that its present constraints do not curtail this planned growth or act as a barrier to continuing inward investment.

It is worth pointing out that unemployment levels along this corridor of the A5 are currently lower than the UK average, and with the expansion of the economic hubs I have just referred to and the further employment opportunities that will bring, that situation will only improve. As well as supporting local economies, the road has a wider role in providing connectivity to other economic centres, such as the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge growth corridor. When we combine the housing growth with the economic growth and the increased employment opportunities, it is clear that the A5 will come under significant further pressure over the coming years.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic case for why the A5 is so important. Does he agree that one of the principal problems with the A5 are the boundaries of the districts, councils and administrations that it borders? That makes things hard, because people always see the A5 as a periphery. We have heard talk about the west midlands, the east midlands, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, and that is part of the problem. It is so important that my hon. Friend has secured this debate to make sure the Government realise we can release this stricture across the centre of the UK between Wales, England and London, and that doing so would make a huge difference economically, but also to the daily lives of the people we represent.

My hon. Friend is right. The road sits as the boundary—it is the boundary of my constituency, the boundary of Warwickshire, and a regional boundary—but the local authorities have come together pretty effectively to press this case. It would have been very easy for each authority to have tried to do its own thing, but as it is, a range of bodies, including those in the private sector, have come together to argue the case for improvement. The Government have been clear that they recognise investment in infrastructure is needed to improve productivity and economic growth. When it comes to the A5, I hope the Minister will be able to say positive words that will lead to action.

I will also say a word or two about the importance of the logistics sector. As I have mentioned, Rugby is part of the golden triangle, and my constituency has certainly benefited from its geographical location at the centre of England. It contains several large logistics businesses, which has driven economic growth in Rugby, provided many employment opportunities, and helped my constituency become one of the fastest-growing towns in the country. Rugby is home to such household names in the logistics industry as DHL and Hermes, and just over two years ago, Amazon took the decision to invest in Rugby by building one of its fulfilment centres on the outskirts of the town, near the A5 and its junction with the M6.

As well as the numerous employment sites in my constituency that benefit from the A5, there are numerous other large and strategic employment sites in B8 use, logistics and distribution along the route. I have already mentioned DIRFT, Magna Park and Kingswood Lake, but I will now also mention Sketchley Meadows in Hinckley and Birch Coppice in Tamworth. Previously, I have outlined the importance of the MIRA Technology Park, an enterprise zone that is of course vital to the resurgence of the automotive industry in the midlands; indeed, that manufacturing sector is synonymous with the west midlands.

All the sites that I have referred to are of strategic importance, with many in line for expansion as our region continues to attract investors who are either keen to locate in the west midlands or keen to develop their businesses in the west midlands further. I regularly hear from developers keen to invest along the corridor.

However, a real worry is that growth in investment will be inhibited unless we now take the decision to invest in our strategic transport network. We are fortunate in our location at the centre of England to have generally excellent access to the motorway network, but without further investment to build network capacity and resilience, there is a real danger that we will miss the opportunity to rev up the midlands engine in the way that we would all like.

My hon. Friend makes some excellent points about the importance of this trunk road, which provides an alternative route to already congested motorways, for example. Does he agree that the A5 must also have improved capacity to ensure that overflow traffic is taken out of the many rural villages around it?

My hon. Friend no doubt has constituents who will have experience of that overflow traffic in exactly the same way that I do. I will talk a little later on about how the A5 acts as a relief valve for the M6, but if people cannot move along the A5 in the way that they need to, the danger is that they will seek alternative routes that take them off the trunk road network.

I have already mentioned that the local councils are coming together, demonstrating their desire to grow and develop their employment and housing offer. By investing in this road, central Government can help those councils to meet their growth needs by facilitating a safe, reliable, efficient and resilient A5.

With that bit of resilience in mind, I will talk about the importance of keeping the traffic moving, to which my hon. Friend just referred. We know that there are often many planned and unplanned incidents on the M6, and that when the M6 comes to a halt many vehicles turn to the A5. Indeed, over the last 36 hours, there have been a dozen or so different lane closures on the M6 due to either maintenance work or incidents on the road.

In those circumstances, when traffic migrates from the M6, the A5 struggles to cope in certain situations and creaks under the weight of the additional traffic. That is often compounded by operational issues on the A5 itself, which in turn creates significant problems on local roads, as my hon. Friend has just referred to, with traffic dispersing because drivers seek alternative local routes.

One of the reasons for the lack of resilience, and it is the core of our call to the Minister today, is the variation in the standard of the road along the corridor. It is, in parts, recently constructed dual carriageway, with a great road surface that enables the road to work well. However, in other parts it is a windy A road, a single carriageway with double yellow lines, where the traffic really slows down. It is that variability that is at the heart of the challenge facing the road’s users. That situation is aggravated, as the Minister may know, because the road is constrained by old canal and railway bridges. That creates congestion and slows down journey speeds, impacting businesses and commuters, and even impeding emergency vehicles. Along with my colleagues here today, I am arguing that what we really need is the complete dualling of the road between the M1 junction 18 and the M6. That is our long-term objective.

On safety, one of the key objectives of National Highways is to reduce casualties on our roads. Sadly, the pressures on the A5, along with the development I mentioned, mean that the road has become a barrier to road users safely accessing economic hubs and other parts of the road network. I spoke about how that has impacted on congestion when incidents occur on other strategic roads but the safety of the road itself is impacted. Many of the junctions—be they roundabouts or road turnings—were not designed to cope with the levels of traffic that they are experiencing. We know that as congestion increases, so does the risk of collision. It can be caused by driver frustration or the limited safety provisions on the single carriageway sections of the road.

Along the corridor, that is, the 53 miles between the M1 and the M6, about a quarter of collisions occur during evening peak hours. Significantly, data demonstrates that the nature of the road, which is of a mixed standard, moving from dual to single carriageway sections with a large number of roundabouts, contributes to the number of collisions. Indeed, across all sections of the road, approximately 40% of the accidents that lead to personal injuries occur at roundabouts, compared with a national average of 10%. That is based on data provided by the police.

The historically fragmented nature of the A5, both through its construction and its inconsistency, can be seen as the heart of the issues with the road. Further or full dualling of the A5 will improve the overall capacity and resilience of the road while improving its safety and performance.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Given what he has said, does he agree that we need safety improvements on the A5 for the road to cope with greater capacity? In my constituency, for instance, High Cross and Smockington Hollow junctions are notorious accident blackspots, so I am grateful that he has mentioned the safety issues on the A5.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. We do want to make the road safer as it is a horrible road for drivers to negotiate.

I also want to talk about sustainability. As part of the wider picture, improving the highways infrastructure should involving cycling and pedestrian routes and the use of public transport. In my constituency, both Rugby Borough Council and Warwickshire County Council are committed to investing in and further developing sustainable transport infrastructure with a view to reducing the congestion on our roads, encouraging healthy living and improving air quality. Those ambitions are shared by both central Government and local councils.

Public transport along the A5 by bus remains extremely limited. I have spoken about the new housing and commercial developments on the road and they are not accessible by public transport. I cycle, and I certainly would not want to ride my bike along the A5. At no point along the part of the road that I am particularly concerned about are there any cycleways, creating further issues around access. All in all, that drives people to use their cars to access sites along the A5, adding to levels of traffic and congestion on the road. By looking at sustainability, we can move traffic from the road. We really ought to consider sustainability when the new developments take place.

To conclude, I hope the debate has reinforced the message that I and my colleagues have been sending to Ministers over many years. Without an upgrade of the A5 in the midlands, economic growth will be restricted in our area. I hope that I have been able to show that in many ways the corridor has become a victim of the growth near it, with piecemeal improvements and developments made along it. It has not been considered in its entirety, which is what we would like to see. It should be treated as the strategic road that it is. Historically, any improvements have been fragmented in delivery and we now need an upgrade that looks at the A5 in its entirety—at the whole picture—and acts to unlock the potential throughout the corridor.

Our role as midlands MPs is to make certain that the funding to upgrade the A5 provides us with a consistent standard of dual carriageway between the M1 and M6. I hope that I have shown that the road experiences significant peak-hour congestion and will support major growth over the next decades, based on plans that have already been adopted and are emerging from the local councils along the corridor route. Without that action, growth in the midlands will be inhibited and lost.

The Minister will be aware that the midlands engine is revving up and is more than ready to play its part, but it needs the transport infrastructure to match that ambition and drive. I hope that in response to the debate the Minister will be able to reassure residents and businesses that the Government understand and recognise the necessity of an upgrade of the 53-mile corridor from the M1 junction 18 in Warwickshire to the M5 at junction 12 in Staffordshire, and that they are listening and will be ready to act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hosie, and even more of a pleasure to be involved in the debate. I wholeheartedly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for securing it. I admit that when I came down to Parliament, I never thought one of the things I would become most passionate about would be a road. The colleagues I have worked with, two of whom cannot be here—my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones)—have inspired me through the work they have done to drive forward why the road is so important.

Unfortunately for some of those listening to the debate, over the next few minutes I shall repeat some of the points that have been made. They are crucial to understanding why the road matters, why we care and why it is needed locally and by the UK. We know the road runs from Wales to London and I, too, want to focus on the A5 corridor, the middle, because that is the most important part. It is the heart of the logistics site; it is the connection from east to west, from the east midlands to the west midlands. Unfortunately, it is acting as a straitjacket to our economic growth and prosperity.

If we get the road right, we will have housing, businesses, growth, levelling up and, above all, happiness. It is one of the few roads that prompt people to come to us and say, “Please sort it out. This would make my life better.” It would improve not only their job prospects but their business prospects, commute and daily living. That is why the road is so important, and why I want to speak about the section between Cannock Chase and Rugby, which intersects across Hinckley and Bosworth. If we get it right, there is a real chance to make a difference.

Why does it matter? As we have heard, the A5 corridor affects 1 million people and supports almost 500,000 jobs, 10% of the jobs in the midlands. We know that there are 25,000 vehicles on its busiest sections, and that one third of those vehicles using the A5 are classified as HGVs. As we have heard, local authorities are planning for more than 100,000 new houses and 190,000 new jobs to be created by 2033. We need the infrastructure to be able to deliver that. That leads us on to its economic importance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby rightly pointed out, it has a GVA of £22 billion. That is 10% of the Midlands Connect area, a substantial amount, but I would like to add some further facts. On the corridor, 38% of the jobs are in the economic sector that relies on the strategic network and 185,000 jobs, equivalent to 11% of the jobs in the region, rely on the strategic network. That is a huge amount for joining up the midlands.

The problem is resilience and reliability. A critical incident, as defined by National Highways, happens every eight weeks. When an incident happens, there is on average a five-hour delay to resolve it. In my constituency, 15% of those incidents happen when our bridge is hit. The Watling Street bridge was unfortunately the most bashed bridge in Britain last year. We have relinquished that title—we are now sixth—but an incident was happening every two weeks. When that happens, there is on average a six-hour delay to clear it, which means misery and suffering for those around the incident and for those in the villages around our area. Congestion goes up and people look for rat runs to beat their sat-nav throughout the constituency. That is a real problem, because the roads are not designed to deal with HGVs and the extra traffic that comes from such a delay.

When it comes to the functioning of the road itself, it does not even do that very well. The corridor is slow and unreliable. The average speed for the corridor is 40 mph, but in some sections, at the peak, it gets down to 10 mph. Midlands Connect has said

“there is up to a 20 mph difference between the fastest and slowest journey time, making it challenging for users to plan for their journeys…this does not meet Midlands Connect’s reliability conditional output that journey times should not be more than 20% higher than the average journey time for all days.”

That is why it matters, but why do we care about it? We care because we feel that this road is forgotten. Many of my colleagues—both former representatives of Hinckley and Bosworth and those who cannot be here today—have raised this issue in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton has raised the issue of capacity at the Dodwells and Longshoot junctions, as well as the issue of safety at Longshoot and Woodford Lane. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has campaigned tirelessly about congestion and how, if we get this road sorted, we can increase housing. The A5 Partnership, Midlands Connect, the businesses, the county council, the borough council—from all parties—have come together and said why this road is important. It sometimes feels like we are not heard.

The feeling was compounded in August 2021 when the long-awaited Dodwells island to Longshoot dual carriageway, promised in 2014, was scrapped. To the people of Hinckley and Bosworth and the surrounding areas, that felt like a body blow. However, we pledged to fight on. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We were lucky enough to secure £20 million for RIS2, and we are now looking at RIS3. The light at the end of the tunnel was the assessment that it would not be an efficient use of taxpayer’s money. That says to me that if there were to be an improvement, it would be right not to spend the money on that section if we get the 53 miles of dualling that we all require.

I come back again to the most bashed bridge in Britain, because it creates misery. For years it has been raised up. Signage and alternative routes have been talked about and we are finally getting closer to an answer, which is lowering the road to get it sorted. I am grateful to all the agencies working to put that in place. However, if that fails and the A5 does not go through, our community will feel stranded and forgotten about again. It matters to people—getting to work, getting their kids to school, improving journey times and their ability to get to their businesses, recruit more people and sell more goods. It joins one side of the country to the other. That is why it matters. It matters even more because the people around it have suffered the effects of the road not working. The wider communities have suffered when people cut through the likes of Twycross. We have had many an injury and death on some of the roads around my constituency, caused by people having to navigate a different road and not understanding where they are going. It leads to speeding, deterioration in the road and concern that our countryside cannot cope.

What do we need? Locally, we need the dualling and the upgrade as soon as possible. I am hopeful that with RIS3 ministerial point one will lead to a ministerial decision, allowing us to go ahead and make improvements to the road. It is a Roman road, although it does not lead to Rome; it leads to London and Westminster. Westminster needs to hear that the million people living around the A5 are saying that we need this improvement. We need the straitjacket to be removed, or the corset to be loosened, so that we can level up our ability to produce housing, prosperity, jobs and happiness. Minister, release the corset and let us be happy!

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. Before the debate started, you reminded us of the famous folk song about the A5. I have the answer—it was Christy Moore, with “Go, Move, Shift”:

“Born in the middle of the afternoon

In a horsedrawn carriage on the old A-5

The big twelve wheeler shook my bed

You can’t stay here the policeman said…

Go, move, shift”.

I win the brownie points on that quiz of yours, Mr Hosie.

I will, Mr Hosie.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing the debate about an issue on which he has campaigned for some time. It is of huge importance to his constituency, and to that of the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans)—what an impassioned plea he made! The hon. Gentleman was like some latter-day Henry Tudor on Bosworth field: ending the Plantagenet dynasty, slaying Richard III—the last King to go into battle—and making a plea for investment in his constituency. His was an eloquently framed speech.

There is a vast amount of consensus on the need for more action to be taken, and I hope the Minister will consider all points raised today. As has been pointed out, the A5 is a strategic route that generates about £22 billion each year. It brings huge benefits to the UK economy and not least to the regional economies in the midlands. It is a vital road corridor that connects businesses with ports, airports and motorways, and it supports major employment sites such as Magna Park and the MIRA enterprise zone.

I am acutely aware of the ongoing capacity issues on the A5 in the region. Although the pandemic has altered commuting patterns, congestion on the A5 in the midlands still averages approximately 25 seconds per vehicle per mile, I am told. On some sections congestion is even more severe, reaching over a minute and a half per vehicle per mile at some points.

As hon. Members have said, the cost of congestion is plain to see. It causes undue stress and, as the hon. Member for Bosworth said, a lack of happiness—although I have never heard about that in the context of a road—because of the extended journey times for motorists. It also contributes to increased carbon emissions and poor air quality for local residents, which I see all too often in my constituency around the M56.

Furthermore, research shows that traffic in the UK costs the economy billions of pounds every year. National Highways and the Department for Transport have highlighted the severe congestion issues on the A5 and identified the need to improve traffic flow. However, that is not being backed up by real action; hon. Members representing their constituencies in the midlands will be disappointed by the lack of progress on increasing capacity on the A5.

RIS2, running from 2020 to 2025, had committed to widening the A5 into a dual carriageway from Dodwells island to Longshoot, but, in a hammer blow to the local area, those plans were scrapped last year by National Highways and the Department. National Highways has said that the improvements will be considered in the context of wider proposals in RIS3 to improve capacity on the A5 from Hinckley to Tamworth.

In the meantime, congestion on the A5 remains at significant levels. Motorists will rightly question why they must wait until 2025 for funding to improve the traffic flow even to be considered. That is just one of a number of potential improvements to the A5. For example, the hon. Member for Bosworth told us that his constituency has Britain’s most bashed bridge—the alliteration trips off the tongue whenever he says it, and he raises it time and again.

Many Members will be eagerly anticipating the publication of RIS3 and hope for a coherent strategy to tackle congestion on the A5. However, given the broken promises so far, commitments may have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Wider investment is needed in our road network, not just to tackle today’s congestion, but to future-proof our major corridors. National Highways has projected that traffic on its roads will increase by 20% between now and 2050, but there is a complete lack of planning to prepare the strategic road network for the capacity that is needed.

We have to face this challenge together as the nations of the United Kingdom. I have not checked with the House of Commons Library, but I believe there are now about 40 million licensed vehicles on our roads. The figure has almost doubled in 30 years. At some stage, we have to make a decision. Yes, we have to help car drivers, but we must address how Government can begin to tackle that growth. We cannot continue with such vehicle numbers on our ever-shrinking highway network. It is important to lay that out.

Labour supports investment in our roads. Under this Government, the state of our roads has rapidly deteriorated. The issues discussed today are examples of wider endemic problems. From our country lanes to motorways, our road network has suffered more than a decade of under-investment. We need only look at what happened to highways maintenance funding last year: the Government slashed it, on average, by 22% across England. In the west midlands, the cut was even steeper. For instance, Government funding to pay for pothole repairs fell by a staggering 27% in the region, the second biggest cut in England.

We are now seeing the long-term nature of the cuts to road funding. Many local councils have been told that they can expect the cuts to their road maintenance grants to be embedded for the remainder of this Parliament. Last year, the annual local authority road maintenance survey found that it would take 11 years to clear the maintenance backlog, if local authorities had the funding and resources to do the work.

Labour has committed to rebuilding the infrastructure our communities depend on, as part of our contract with the British people. That starts by fixing the mess on our roads. We will invest in our strategic road network and our local roads alike to build a transport network that is fit for purpose, both now and in the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) is a passionate advocate for his constituency. I congratulate him on securing this important debate, on working with local leaders and colleagues in the House and on articulating so clearly the need to increase capacity and to make other improvements on the A5 in the midlands.

I do not think there has ever before been such a comprehensive discussion of the need to improve roads. We have discussed the issue economically, environmentally, socially and culturally—even a song has been written about this road. I am sure we all appreciated the rendition from the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby set out why improvements to the A5 are so important to his constituents and to the wider area. It is good that Members are working together.

As we know, the A5 is an ancient road of 252 miles, yet just 15% of it is dualled. We heard the rationale for improving that percentage. Significant housing development proposed in north Warwickshire, Hinckley, Tamworth, Bosworth and Nuneaton and Bedworth, including sites in the immediate vicinity of the A5, add to the reasons why the road needs to be improved. The average daily traffic figure on the A5—21,338—-is considerable.

The A5 is part of a strategic east-west corridor running from London to Holyhead in Anglesey. As we have heard this afternoon, it links towns across the midlands, including Milton Keynes, Rugby, Lutterworth, Hinckley, Nuneaton and Tamworth. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) spoke to me at length yesterday about the need to improve the road, and he specifically mentioned the areas that most concern him: the Dodwells island connecting to the A47, the Longshoot junction and the Woodford Lane junction. He talked to me about the closures on the M6 and their impact on the A5. As we have heard today, rat runs are created in local communities when there are problems on the A5.

The A5 is a core artery bisecting the golden triangle of logistics distribution centres, supermarkets and high street stores in the midlands. Spanning from Northamptonshire, up the M1 to East Midlands airport and as far west as the Tamworth area, the golden triangle is bustling with big logistics names. As well as being in proximity to the huge distribution centres of supermarkets and high street stores—with Daventry in the south, Leicester in the north-east and Birmingham in the west—the corridor remains a key artery for communities in the midlands and for jobs in major employment sites such as Magna Park and the MIRA enterprise zone, which I had the pleasure of visiting thanks to the invitation from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans). I saw for myself the innovation happening there. As we decarbonise the transport system and think about the future of self-driving vehicles, automation and connected vehicles, the site will become even more essential to the transition. As he articulated so well, the work being done by the midlands engine is critical to the economic, social and environmental prospects of this country.

The Government recognise the role that the A5 plays. It is a key piece of infrastructure that supports and provides resilience to nearby locations, which is why we are spending £24 billion on our motorways and trunk A roads in England in the five years between 2020 and 2025, as part of the second road investment strategy. RIS2 builds on the £17.6 billon in the first RIS, covering 2015 to 2020—a then record. Of that £24 billion, £12 billion is being spent on the operation, maintenance and renewal of existing networks, including beginning multi-road period programmes of structural renewals and concrete road surface replacement.

More than £10 billion is being spent on improving the performance of the network, supporting the Government’s levelling-up agenda and underpinning national and regional growth. The core principle of our strategy is to create a road network that is safe, accessible and reliable for all users, and that meets the needs of those living alongside the network. Although investment has an important role in achieving that, the road investment strategy also includes challenging performance targets that must be met. I recognise the frustration of my hon. Friends, the business community and residents that the A5 Dodwells to Longshoot widening scheme commitment in RIS1 was not started in road period 1 and was instead incorporated into proposals in RIS2 for a more extensive improvement to the corridor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth raised the challenge of Britain’s most bashed bridge. National Highways is in discussions with the developer about the possibility of lowering the carriageway in the vicinity of the low bridge. The discussions are ongoing, and I know he needs no encouragement from me to do what he does best, along with colleagues in the A5 area: to continue engaging with National Highways on this important matter.

In championing the need for improvements, the work of the A5 partnership has been exemplary, and I reassure hon. Members that this work will continue to be fully considered by officials within the Department and National Highways as part of the canon of evidence for developing our third road investment strategy, RIS3, which will cover 2025 to 2030. It includes informing decision making on the proposed A5 Hinckley to Tamworth scheme—one of 33 schemes in the pipeline that are currently being developed for possible delivery in RIS3. The likely cost of the scheme is substantial, in excess of £1 billion in all likelihood. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, with such large sums involved, investment decisions need to be taken in the round to ensure we maximise value for taxpayers.

My hon. Friends have set out the importance of this road improvement for the economic viability and social happiness of the area. Individual pipeline schemes will be considered alongside future operations, maintenance and renewal priorities and how we respond to environmental pressures and opportunities, planning for a future of connected autonomous vehicles as well as small-scale improvements. In practice, those decisions will not be made until the final road investment strategy is set in 2024.

One of our key asks is that this 53-mile section of road is looked at as a whole, rather than in individual pieces. There is a marvellous precedent in the midlands with the work being done on the A46—plans are coming forward for the final roundabout in my constituency—which will provide a continuous road from the M5 in the south-west at Evesham all the way through to the M69 and then the M1 at Leicester, providing a south-west to north-east link. That road has been looked at as a whole and will be a complete, uninterrupted road. Can we have the same for the A5?

I am sure my colleague in the other place, Baroness Vere the roads Minister, will be listening to this debate. I reiterate how effectively my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby is championing this cause, and he is being taken seriously. Also, this is not all we are doing for the A5. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, National Highways has committed to delivering another scheme for the A5. The Dordon to Atherstone scheme is set to deliver improvements that will unlock the potential for 4,000 homes. National Highways will deliver that scheme, and the design of the improvements can be tied into the wider options being considered for the route. National Highways will also be completing safety improvements to the A5 Northampton Road this month.

I appreciate hon. Members’ concerns about the current operation of the A5 and its impacts on proposed growth in the region. My hon. Friends and I agree that efficient, reliable transport is a catalyst for enterprise and enables growth. Better connectivity means greater economic opportunity and all the benefits it delivers for communities.

I know that my hon. Friend for Rugby and other hon. Friends who advocate for improvements on the A5 are passionate about investment in the midlands for their constituents, and I recognise it is in everyone’s interest to mitigate the barriers to growth. That is why the Department is working closely with National Highways to fully understand congestion issues along the length of the A5 and how its key congestion pinch points can potentially be mitigated, including the A43-A5 Tove roundabout, the A5-A426 Gibbet Hill roundabout and junction 1 of the M69. I assure hon. Members that National Highways will continue to work closely with the local highway authorities and stakeholders to understand and deliver improvements where they are needed, so that the region’s potential can be truly realised.

As we look to the future of the network, National Highways has just finished the formal evidence-gathering phase of the third round of route strategies, which will inform its assessment of the current performance of the network and its needs. Those strategies provide an important input, alongside strategic studies and other evidence-gathering mechanisms, in informing decisions about further investment on the strategic road network beyond 2025. The route strategies review performance, pressures and opportunities on every part of the network, and provide a significant opportunity to consider the needs of the A5 corridor and, in particular, reinforce the case for improving the Hinckley to Tamworth section. The input of Midlands Connect and the A5 Partnership was an important contribution to that process and, as we have heard, the input from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and his colleagues was an important contribution to the series of roundtable meetings that the roads Minister, Baroness Vere, hosted in the autumn.

I thank my hon. Friend once again for the work he does with Midlands Connect and the A5 Partnership to ensure the overwhelming support for improvements is well represented within Government. I welcome the integrated approach with local community leaders, sub-national transport bodies and transport authorities to demonstrate a united front on the need for investment, which is essential for building the case for improvements along this stretch of the strategic road network. The formal window for feedback through the route strategies feedback tool came to a close at the end of December 2021. It is vital for National Highways to understand and prioritise the issues that matter most for users of the road network. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue making the case for investment in the strategic roads that matter most, and the important engagement that is already under way with National Highways across all these issues is making a tremendous difference.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Bosworth for this debate. In preparation, I learned much about the 252 miles of the A5 and I hope they are satisfied with my response to their concerns. We recognise the vital importance of the A5 in supporting all aspects of the regional and national economy, and the concerns and views that have been expressed will be dealt with as matters of the utmost importance when considering how to improve the A5 now and in the future.

I am grateful to the Minister for her remarks. She has appreciated the passion in the midlands for improvements to this road. It is a piecemeal road; we have great bits that have recently been improved, and other bits that are single carriageway and have not had any work done on them for 50 years. I hope we have persuaded the Minister of the strategic importance of improvements, and their impact on growth in an area that is very sympathetic to attracting businesses, new housing and other such developments. We very much hope that the Minister and her team will take this forward, and that we get the shiny new road our constituents deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of increasing capacity and other improvements to the A5 in the Midlands.

Sitting suspended.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn

I will call James Wild to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. The Member in charge will not have the opportunity to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered quality of care and the estate at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this important debate, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the significant improvements at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, while once again making the compelling case for it to be one of the new hospital schemes that the Government have committed to building. I also want to recognise the close interest that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken in QEH and to thank him for the many meetings and discussions we have had about it so far. Of course, I also encourage him to back the bid.

QEH serves 330,000 people across Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, providing a comprehensive range of specialist, acute and community-based services. It is a busy hospital, with 55,000 in-patient admissions, a quarter of a million out-patient appointments and 70,000 emergency department admissions last year. However, QEH has suffered from poor Care Quality Commission ratings and an historic lack of investment, and has therefore been in special measures for some time. However, under the leadership of Caroline Shaw, the chief executive, and the chairman, Steve Barnett—who is moving on shortly, having done a lot of good work—things have changed.

In the last three years, there have been significant improvements in care. However, you do not have to take my word for it, Mr Hosie; that was the verdict of the CQC’s report a month ago. The core services it inspected—medicine, urgent and emergency care, and critical care—were all rated good overall. Indeed, critical care was recognised as having outstanding elements in many areas. That means that QEH is now rated good in three domains: caring, well led and effective. The CQC found that

“Staff provided good care and treatment…treated patients with compassion and kindness, respected their privacy and dignity, took account of…individual needs…and made it easy for people to give feedback.”

The report shows how far QEH has come. As a result, the Care Quality Commission’s chief inspector of hospitals has recommended that QEH come out of special measures, which is very welcome for the area.

It is frankly remarkable that all this has been achieved during a period when covid posed such huge challenges to QEH and other hospitals, and to other parts of the health and social care sector. This has not happened by luck; it is due to the leadership, hard work and commitment of all the staff at QEH. I have seen that dedication at first hand when I have met doctors, nurses, the infection control teams, the porters and all the others who make up the hospital during my regular visits. I commend them for all that they have achieved in the report. As the CQC said, staff were

“passionate about…providing the best possible care for patients”,

and leaders understood

“the priorities and issues the trust faced”

and were

“visible and approachable…for patients and staff.”

Clearly further improvements are required, as the hospital recognises, but it is important that we acknowledge the huge step forward that has been taken, as reflected in the report.

Those improvements have been made despite the decaying and ageing buildings that staff and patients have to experience and operate in. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, QEH is one of the best-buy hospitals and has major issues with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete planks—which I think we should refer to as RAAC planks for the rest of the debate—which are structurally deficient. The hospital was built with a 30-year design life, but it is now in its 42nd year. Some 79% of hospital estate buildings have RAAC planks, and I am sorry to say that it is the most propped hospital in the country, with 470 steel and timber supports across 56 parts of the hospital.

Being in a ward or another part of the hospital, surrounded by props holding up the roof, is a poor experience for patients. It makes it harder for staff to care for them. It is not something that we should accept, and we do not. This is a serious situation, and the trust’s risk register has a red rating for direct risk to life and the safety of patients, visitors and staff, due to the potentially catastrophic risk of failure of the roof structure. Last year, the critical care unit had to close for some weeks due to precisely those safety issues. The urgent need for a new hospital, and the strength of that case, is underlined by the fact that over a third of all reported RAAC issues in the east of England were at QEH in the last year.

I know that my hon. Friend recognises the seriousness of the situation, and the £20.6 million of emergency capital funding that he approved last year is very welcome. That is making a difference: a new endoscopy unit is taking shape to modernise facilities, and to create space to enable installation of fail-safe roof supports. In addition, there is £3 million of funding for a west Norfolk eye centre, which along with other projects, including digital, means that QEH is currently delivering a more than £30 million capital programme.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this incredibly important debate. It is a very poor situation to have a hospital in Norfolk in this position, when it clearly needs a rebuild. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he has done; we would not be in this position without his tireless work to raise this matter with the Secretary of State. May I raise one point? We have three hospitals in Norfolk. We want a new hospital at QEH. That will benefit not just his constituents, but those all over Norfolk, particularly in my constituency of North Norfolk, who will also use its fantastic services when it is rebuilt.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and words. He is absolutely right; I think his constituency has the oldest average age in the country, and that poses particular needs. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who has joined to support the debate, also have challenges, so we need to ensure that the care is in place. There is also a lot of planned housing growth in the area. The demand is strong across our constituencies, and in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, which is why it is important to show the strength of support for the hospital across Norfolk and beyond.

When compared with the turnover, the level of capital programme is significant, and it is important to acknowledge that the programme is being managed well. QEH has submitted a further bid for £18 million for an orthopaedic centre, as part of the funding to tackle the backlog. Given that it is the area with one of the longest waiting lists for QEH, I strongly endorse that bid, and encourage the Minister to approve it when it comes to his desk. Seeing is believing. When the Secretary of State visits QEH—which he has agreed to and I hope will happen soon—he will see those improvements, but he will also see the props and the very real need for investment. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) will be able to join him on that occasion or another, as he will be very welcome.

As well as the structural issues, the hospital has outgrown its footprint. The emergency department sees 70,000 patients a year—more than double what it was designed for. The layout of the hospital does not meet modern care pathways, with too few consulting rooms, and wards well below the recommended size.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I wish to add my voice to the support he received from my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), and to highlight the importance of this hospital as a regional centre of excellence. It does not support only the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), but also those of North Norfolk, Broadland and further afield.

I pose this question: what impact does receiving care in a building where the ceiling is maintained by acrow props have on the patient’s confidence in the care received?

My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the issue, which is the impact of this situation on patients. The previous Secretary of State for Health came to the hospital, saw that and spoke to patients in those beds. They made light-hearted remarks, but they were concerned about the safety of the building after seeing props and timber supports. Of course, the trust is doing all that it can to manage that risk, but the risk of catastrophic failure remains, which is why it is rated red on the risk register.

The hospital cannot cope with the current demand. NHS modelling shows a 64% increase in overall floor space is needed to maintain services and meet future demand, with lots of housing planned in the area. In short, QEH needs to be replaced. The case is compelling to take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a hospital fit for the future. QEH has submitted proposals to the new hospitals programme for a single-phase new build on the existing site to meet current and future demand. The plans put forward would eliminate RAAC, and transform and modernise local healthcare, integrating primary, community, mental health, acute, social care and the third sector in a health and wellbeing village.

However, this is not about having shiny new buildings for their own sake; it is about delivering better health outcomes in some of the most deprived areas in the country that the Government have recognised as priority 1 areas for levelling up. It is also about an anchor institution—the QEH in west Norfolk—combining with the new school of nursing studies, which will be funded through the Government’s town deal, to help the NHS workforce by boosting local opportunities to develop skills and careers in our healthcare sector. It is also about promoting sustainability by using modern methods of construction and net zero principles, and maximising the use of digital technology.

It is important to recognise that the trust going from inadequate to good in the well-led domain in this inspection is a significant achievement, which provides confidence that this is a trust capable of delivering the new hospital that the patients and staff in west Norfolk need. A lot of hard work and engagement has gone into developing the plans and the scheme is highly deliverable, with a strategic outline case well advanced and on track to go to the June board meeting.

QEH’s bid is backed by 4,000 staff at the hospital. Stuart Dark—the leader of West Norfolk Borough Council—as well as all the councillors and the county council are supportive, as is the Norfolk and Waveney integrated care system, and at least seven right hon. and hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk and for Broadland. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff—the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay)—and the Foreign Secretary also back the bid, and it enjoys local support, with more than 15,000 people having signed a petition backing a new hospital. It is essential that we have an acute hospital in this geographic area. The plans that have been put forward would deliver major improvements to care, patient outcomes and staff experiences. An alternative multi-phase approach has also been put forward. It would, of course, be an improvement on the status quo, but it would not deliver the same benefits or value for money as a single-phase build and would not be delivered in the required timeframe.

My constituents in North West Norfolk are frustrated by the delays in the timelines for the new hospital selection process, as am I. That will not come as any surprise to my hon. Friend the Minister; I confess publicly to bugging him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State repeatedly for decisions on the shortlisting of these hospitals. I press the Minister today: when can we expect to hear a decision on the hospitals that will go through to the next phase of the programme? What implications does the delay have for the final decision on the eight schemes to be selected, and for getting design and construction under way? I encourage him to do all he can to move this process forward as rapidly as possible.

Over the last three years, there have been real changes at QEH and patients are getting better care. The leadership has demonstrated that it can drive sustained improvements, and move to a position where staff feel supported and valued, and where there is a strong focus on improved patient care and outcomes. Now we have an opportunity to build—literally—on that progress, to provide the major investment to modernise the hospital, to improve care further and to support the trust’s strategy to be the best rural district general hospital.

The Government and the Department of Health have already committed to removing deficient RAAC from the estate by 2035. However, experts on RAAC have said that for QEH the end-of-life deadline is 2030 and that the risk will only worsen. There comes a point where it no longer makes sense or represents value for money to keep propping up the roof. I would contend that we are past that point. Indeed, in the report that set out the significant improvements needed to QEH, the CQC said that

“The trust’s most substantial risk was the safety of the roof structure”

and that there is a

“need for long term solutions to the estate problems.”

As well as having serious structural issues, the current hospital cannot meet the current or future demand. The only long-term solution is a new hospital to deal with the RAAC issues, meet demand and serve patients. By selecting QEH as one of the eight new hospital schemes, that inevitable need for replacement will become part of a funded programme, rather than an unplanned demand requiring repeated emergency funding. I urge the Government to include QEH as one of the schemes. The people of North West Norfolk and beyond deserve nothing less.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to respond to this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), about the quality of care and the estate at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn.

As my hon. Friend has already alluded to, this is an important subject for him. It is rare that I pass him in the corridors of this place without him gently but firmly drawing me aside to raise this issue with me. I know that he does so because it matters hugely to his constituents. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) said, it also matters hugely to other people living in the region—the wider Norfolk area—and beyond.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk rightly highlights the close interest that a large number of right hon. and hon. Members take in this subject. Indeed, I am conscious that even some Members in their lordships’ House take a close interest in this issue. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) for his words. He is absolutely right to highlight the dedication of our hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk to this cause. His constituents and, indeed, those represented by all hon. Members here today are lucky to have them, as they continue forcefully and firmly to argue the cause of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk will be aware, the Government are backing our NHS with a significant capital settlement that will create a step change in the quality and efficiency of care up and down the country, including in Norfolk. We are pleased to confirm that an initial £3.7 billion has been provided over a four-year period—this spending review period—to begin making progress on delivering 48 new hospitals by 2030, with 30 of the hospitals already announced to be built outside London and the south-east. I am pleased that six of the 48 hospitals are already in construction and one has already been completed. Of course, this hospital building programme is in addition to the 70 upgrades, worth £1.7 billion, that are part of the wider programme of capital investment. Those commitments will result in outdated infrastructure being replaced by facilities for staff and patients that are at the cutting edge of modern technology, innovation and sustainability.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk is, as always, passionate in putting the case for his local hospital to be among the next eight to be announced—I will turn to the process and timelines for that shortly. As he highlights, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust has been provided in recent times with significant national funding, including £5 million in 2021-22 from our targeted investment fund for the establishment of an eye care unit at the Queen Elizabeth and a modular endoscopy unit, and £2.65 million in 2020-21 for the emergency department expansion works and to address backlog maintenance across its locations. My hon. Friend advocated for both those investments.

Let me turn to a point that I know is a significant concern for my hon. Friend. We remain publicly committed to eradicating reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete from the NHS estate by 2035-36—I note my hon. Friend’s point highlighting that in his view and the view of others, that needs to happen more swiftly—and to protecting patient and staff safety in the interim period. As he said, we awarded the Queen Elizabeth £20.7 million this financial year as part of SR20 £110 million ring-fenced funding to address the most serious and immediate risks posed by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. In addition, further funding confirmed in the autumn Budget and spending review will allow for the continuation of this remediation work in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and, indeed, on the wider NHS estate.

Let me turn to the next eight new hospitals. The proposal for trusts to submit an expression of interest to be one of the next eight was announced last year and, as my hon. Friend knows, his local hospital submitted its expression of interest. We have been reviewing all submissions against our robust assessment process, to identify a longlist of schemes to progress to the next phase. We will communicate with trusts in due course about the next stage of the process, and will announce the selected eight schemes later in the year.

I am conscious that my hon. Friend, his local trust and his constituents will be keen to see that progress as swiftly as possible. There is a challenge there. We want to ensure that the assessment is fair and rigorous. I am also sensitive to the upcoming purdah period for local election campaigns across the country, but I do take my hon. Friend’s point about the need for speed. I suspect that his local trust will wish to know swiftly whether it is successful or unsuccessful and, if it is successful, what it needs to do for the next stage. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment, beyond those process points, on the specific bid that his local trust has submitted, save to say that it will receive very, very careful consideration in that process.

Let me turn to, more broadly, the quality of patient care and the points that my hon. Friend made in that respect. The CQC plays an important role, as he knows, in ensuring that NHS providers meet the standards of care expected by patients, families and carers. I recognise that the Queen Elizabeth had long struggled with financial and performance challenges, as previously identified by the CQC. The trust had previously been removed from special measures, now known as the recovery support programme, after being placed in the regime between 2013 and 2015, only for the CQC to subsequently recommend that it should fall back into those measures in 2018 when the regulator identified concerns across several core services.

Recent inspections in December 2021 and January 2022, which my hon. Friend highlighted, found significant improvements in the governance, leadership and culture of the trust. Although its overall rating was “requires improvement”, this represents a significant step forward from its previous rating of “inadequate”. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the hard work and commitment of the chief executive, Caroline Shaw, the rest of the leadership of the trust and, crucially, all the staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, who have clearly worked incredibly hard through even more challenging circumstances than they would usually encounter in the course of their work, and still made improvements in patient care and in the CQC rating. I pay tribute to all of them for the work they have done.

I welcome the commitment given to the CQC by the leadership to ensure that those improvements are sustainable and continue to be built on. As we would expect, the CQC will monitor the trust’s performance in order that the improvements are embedded and that further improvements in care and services are made for the benefit of patients and their families.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend cannot get into the specifics, but can he assure me that the fact that this is the No.1 bid for the east of England will play heavily in the consideration of whether it will be on the shortlist and then chosen as one of the eight schemes?

As my hon. Friend knows, each region will feed in its views about which of the schemes and bids in its area are the highest priority. Without prejudging that assessment process, I hope I can reassure him that one factor that I know he considers to be of significant importance—RAAC—will be considered. Patient safety and the safety of the buildings will be a factor in the analysis of which bids should go forward to the long list, but I do not want to go further than that at this point, however much he may charmingly seek to tempt me to do so.

Elective recovery is an area of real focus for the Department and for the whole Government, and I am aware that covid-19 has placed an unprecedented strain on routine and planned care, with waiting lists in England reaching a record high, at just over 6 million in January 2022. I understand that 19,366 of those patients are waiting for treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

In February, the NHS published the “Delivery plan for tackling the COVID-19 backlog of elective care”, which set out a clear vision for how the NHS will recover and expand elective services over the next three years. That delivery plan commits to eradicate waits of longer than a year for elective care by March 2025. Within that, by July 2022, no one will wait longer than two years, and we will aim to eliminate waits of over 18 months by April 2023 and of over 65 weeks by March 2024.

To support elective recovery specifically, the Department plans to spend more than £8 billion from 2022-23 to 2024-25, in addition to the £2 billion elective recovery fund and £700 million targeted investment fund already made available this year to help drive up and protect elective activity. Taken together, this funding could deliver the equivalent of around 9 million more checks, scans and procedures, and will mean that the NHS in England can aim to deliver around 30% more elective activity by 2024-25 than it was delivering before the pandemic.

In highlighting the extra resources that we are putting into our NHS, it is vital to understand that this is not about the inputs; it is about the outcomes for patients and how those resources are used wisely to deliver improved patient outcomes and improved experiences for patients, with shorter waits. With regard to what is needed to achieve those outcomes, a significant part of that funding will be invested in staff, in terms of both capacity and skills.

I understand that an orthopaedic unit bid for about £18 million has been submitted by my hon. Friend’s local hospital trust. That is in the context of the £5.9 billion elective recovery funding, and the £1.5 billion from that for capacity and social hub improvements. Those bids will be carefully considered. They will need to meet the recommendations arising from the pilots that took place in London and the getting it right first time review, but I certainly look forward to considering the bid from my hon. Friend’s trust in due course.

Does the Minister know that the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was named after the Queen Mother? As it is Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee this year, does he agree that it would be a fitting tribute to give the green light to rebuilding a hospital that is named after her mother?

My hon. Friend is even more dextrous than our hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk in seeking to tempt me into an indiscretion or a prejudgment of the application process and consideration. I hear what he says and he makes his point eloquently, but I will not be drawn while that analysis and assessment of the bids is under way.

Ambulance services, like other emergency care services in the NHS, have come under significant pressure, as hon. Members will know. In February 2022, the service answered over 764,000 calls to 999—an increase of 13% on the number of calls in the same month before the pandemic. High levels of demand on the emergency care system, alongside the need for infection prevention and control measures, has resulted in higher instances of delays in the handover of ambulance patients to A&E in some areas.

I reassure hon. Members that significant support is in place for acute trusts, to help address handover delays. NHS England and Improvement and its regional teams are working with local systems—in this case, with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk—to improve their patient handover processes, helping ambulances get swiftly back on the road. Ministers are in regular contact with NHSEI on the performance of the emergency care system, including the ambulance service and accident and emergency departments.

In conclusion, I once again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk and all my hon. Friends who have spoken in this brief but very important debate for the work that they are doing to champion the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn. As I say, his constituents are incredibly lucky to have such a champion of their cause, of healthcare in his constituency, and of investment in his local hospital, and I look forward to continuing working with him to ensure that the quality of healthcare his constituents receive is the best the NHS can provide. I note his very kind offer, which has been reiterated to me, to visit him in sunny Norfolk—as I suspect it will be in the coming months—to see his local hospital. If I am able to do so, I will be delighted to visit.

Question put and agreed to.

Physical Education

I beg to move,

That this House has considered physical education as a core subject in schools.

As always, I am delighted to have you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, for this important and, I hope, enthralling debate at the end of the day on physical education in our schools. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

To begin, I thank personally all 386 members of the public who so far, in just 48 hours, have taken the time to respond to the survey distributed by the Chamber Engagement team, sharing their experiences and ideas on PE as a core subject. I also thank students of the Bishop of Hereford’s Bluecoat School who, as part of the Pupils 2 Parliament programme run by former children’s director Dr Roger Morgan OBE, contributed their views and proposals. I am extremely grateful to them. That demonstrates the significant and rising interest in this crucial aspect of school, and growing recognition that the status quo is not delivering for children in the context of the modern world in which we live, in particular for those with special educational needs and disabilities or from more deprived backgrounds.

I am also grateful to the Minister, whom I know, from our early morning runs together, is as passionate as I am about the power of PE as a springboard to a lifelong love of sport and physical activity. Indeed, the Government have an ongoing commitment to which I am sure he will refer. The £320 million a year primary PE and sport premium, the 2019 manifesto pledge to invest in primary PE teaching and the new £30 million of funding to help schools open their sports facilities are all demonstrations of the desire to see improvements in participation, performance and prolonged engagement into adulthood with physical activity and sport among children of school age and beyond.

Last year, I chaired the PE taskforce—I thank Sue Wilkinson, the chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, and her team for their support—and it laid bare that this is happening at a time when children’s physical fitness and their mental health and wellbeing are all heading in the wrong direction, unfortunately. A Lords Select Committee report, “A national plan for sport, health and wellbeing”, which was published in December 2021, cited data from the Active Lives annual survey showing that of 2.3 million children in England—I emphasise that I am speaking about England and English schools—almost a third, or 31.3%, are doing less than 30 minutes of activity a day. It also found that girls and children from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds are the most likely to have lower activity levels.

We have also seen a growing trend of obese children in both reception and year 6, leading to one in five secondary school pupils falling into that category. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation has gotten worse since the pandemic, with a surge in numbers of children being referred to mental health services, including a rise of 77% in severe cases. At the same time, there is evidence of PE being side-lined by some schools as a “nice to have”, rather than a “must do”, reducing PE time in order to focus on catch-up in other areas, which is understandable but to the detriment of PE.

It is worth remembering that even before covid, the situation was deteriorating. For example, as part of the research review series, Ofsted published its PE paper only last week, revealing reductions in the time allocated to PE of up to 20% since 2013 at key stage 3, and 38% at key stage 4. If we add increasingly sedentary lifestyles, gaming, phone addiction and sleep deprivation, we see that those are all turning children and young people off physical movement, with dire consequences for their own health and that of the nation. If we are serious about taking on the ever-growing pressures on the NHS, instilling a habit of physical activity for life would be a good way to start alleviating that pressure. The Lords Committee also said in its report that schools are the place where:

“Attitudes towards sport and physical activity…track into adulthood.”

The even better news is that we can actually do something about it; that is where physical education comes in. I am not, I hope, naive enough to think that making PE a core subject will, on its own, achieve that laudable objective. As a father of four, I know I have a responsibility to lead by example, and encourage my own children to find ways that they can enjoy keeping fit and active into adult life. Indeed, my 18-year-old son recently announced to me that he wants to join me on my next London marathon—my 17th, I think— this October, so I must be doing something right.

Having had the privilege of being Children’s Minister, rarely have I come across a specific policy, with a modest price tag, that has a very real prospect of changing the trajectory of so many young people towards a healthier and more fulfilling life. The evidence is staring us in the face. It is no coincidence that the very best schools, both state and independent, have for many years understood that the holistic intertwining of PE into their school offer reaps rewards in so many different ways—physically, socially, emotionally and academically, too.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need to combat and reduce childhood obesity. I congratulate him on securing this worthwhile debate and fully support what he is saying. There is a greater social benefit to children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds who do not have the life advantages of children from affluent backgrounds, in playing sport, coming together, learning team skills and enjoying being part of a team and the social fabric of sport. That is recognised, quite rightly, in much of the state sector—in good-performing state schools—and in the private sector. What he is proposing will ensure that all children have access to the opportunity to benefit from those wider parts of education, and that will bring their lives along further. I do not know if my hon. Friend would like to reflect on that, but I hope that the Minister has taken note of those comments.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the benefits that I saw when I was responsible for school sports as Children’s Minister was from programmes in the inner cities where children do not always have access to other facilities. The children there were gaining so many of the elements, which other children take for granted, that sport, physical activity and—the precursor to that—good physical education can bring to their lives. It is not only about their participation in sport; it is about their life skills, confidence and sense of achievement and purpose, and where that can lead. At the end of my speech I will mention an individual who all Members will know and who falls into that category.

That point segues into one made by the celebrated 19th century educator—and headteacher at one of my former schools—Edward Thring. He was ahead of his time in observing that when it comes to physical education,

“The aim was to produce a wholeness and harmony, within and beyond the classroom, in work and in play, and in body, intellect, and soul.”

As an academically rigorous curriculum is not at odds with having PE at its heart, we can see it as the only subject that educates through the physical domain. The evidence that it helps enhance academic performance—not forgetting concentration and behaviour—has never been greater.

In 2015, the University of Texas at Austin published a paper entitled “Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance”. The paper reviewed 39 separate studies and unanimously found that,

“Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning.”

Let us take an example from England. At Sandal Castle VA Community Primary School in Wakefield physical education is at the heart of their curriculum. It is also seen as a vital and critical priority driver for school improvement. They have two members of staff who have the Association for Physical Education and Sports Leaders UK level 5 certificate in primary school physical education specialism, which is vital in raising standards in primary school physical education teaching and learning. The breadth of curriculum opportunity on offer in the extended school day has ensured that attainment in core subjects continues to be well above the national average. In 2019, 82% of children achieved the national standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with the England average of 65%. Progress measures in English in particular are well above the national average, with reading at +3.5 and writing at +3.1—no coincidence, one might think.

At this stage, it is probably sensible to explain exactly what PE is and how it interrelates with physical activity and sport. The structure of the national curriculum is based on 12 subjects, classified as core and foundation subjects. English, mathematics and science are core subjects across all key stages, with PE being the only foundation subject across all those key stages. The purpose of studying PE as outlined in the national curriculum is as follows:

“A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically-demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness.”

The stated aims of the national curriculum for PE are

“to ensure that all pupils: develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities; are physically active for sustained periods of time; engage in competitive sports and activities”

and “lead healthy, active lives.”

PE is essentially the planned progressive learning that takes place in the timetabled school curriculum involving both learning to move and moving to learn, the context for that learning being through physical activity. Sport is the structured learning that takes place beyond the curriculum, often within school settings, out of hours or in the community, but there is clearly a symbiotic relationship between all three, with PE being the foundation from which all other physical activity and sport flows. As Ofsted points out, a child with lower levels of motor competence may be less inclined to participate in physical activity and sport. As such, getting PE right is fundamental.

Writing in the British Medical Journal on 2 March, Michael Craig Watson and Dr John Lloyd from the Institute of Health Promotion and Education observed:

“In addition to the current low levels of physical activity in the UK there are also stark inequalities in levels of physical activity within the population. There are large disparities in physical activity participation rates in relation to age, disability, ethnic group and gender”

and that

“physical activity should not just be for the elite or for example individuals of a certain age, or ability”

—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—

“but should be actively promoted to the whole population.”

Schools have an important part to play in developing health literacy. That includes physical education, which is a central part of the curriculum for all pupils of all ages.

In calling for this debate, I am realistic: PE will not miraculously appear as a core subject overnight. Further work is needed to ensure we have the capacity, culture and commitment within the schools system for it to have the desired effect. Some have also legitimately raised issues about curriculum time, assessment challenges, recruitment, and the quality of PE teaching at primary level. The Government are already addressing the latter, and I humbly suggest that when it comes to recruitment, the Department for Education should use Ofsted’s recent review of PE to help improve accountability and inspection of PE and the use of the premium, as well as develop a coherent standards and assessment framework for PE that would satisfy a core status in the future. That could include how PE reduces the burden on the NHS, as suggested by Professor Jo Harris from Loughborough University.

Turning to the question of curriculum time, PE has the flexibility to be incorporated more in the wider curriculum and woven into the school day if the leadership, innovation and desire is there. For instance, at St Gregory CEVC Primary School in Suffolk, the headteacher, Daniel Woodrow, has introduced a whole-school, 10-minute “wake and shake” activity first thing and, later, a 15-minute daily mile—something I know the Minister is keen on, and these days runs pretty decent times on, too—as well as three PE lessons every week.

Crucially, we should not see the curriculum as sacred and be dogmatic about its constitution; in my view, the move towards better vocational representation at school and college—which is the right move—is testament to that. The curriculum has evolved over time, and should continue to do so in order to best reflect the current and foreseeable demands and needs of society. Quite rightly, we place high value on all children having good knowledge and application of maths, English and science, but surely the time has come to recognise the equal value of good knowledge and application of PE as one of the cornerstones of setting up a child with some of the core attributes they will need for life.

Let us build on the excellent practice and leadership already out there. Let us learn from the outstanding schools that have already made PE essential to their delivery of an excellent education. Let us start to build the base of expertise and understanding across our school workforce. Let us set the achievable target of having a great PE teacher in every primary school, and let us make CPD more effective, so that the transition from a foundation to core subject up to key stage 2 can be where we begin. As Nik, who replied to my survey, said, let us assess the quality of the delivery through internal and external engagement and improve the real, “on the ground” evidence from the likes of the United Learning trust, which is piloting PE as a core subject across its whole family of schools. That is what children and the public want, too.

Pupils from the Bishop of Hereford’s Bluecoat School told me that they wanted more time for PE and sports in the curriculum, including different after-school and lunch timings to help find that time. A survey of adults conducted by the Youth Sport Trust found that the majority of the general public wanted more physical activity in schools and would support enhancing physical education to core subject status. Almost two thirds of respondents strongly agreed or tended to agree that PE should be a core subject in the national curriculum, with 80% agreeing that there should be more opportunities for young people of all ages to be physically active at school.

Before I allow others to contribute to the debate, I want to mention swimming and water safety. It is a statutory element of PE that every 11-year-old is required to be able to swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres. Despite the requirement being in place since 1994, one in three children, around 200,000 every year, leave primary school not being able to do so. I find that astonishing and worrying. It lends further credence to the need to take swimming even more seriously as an essential life skill. I hope the Minister will use the funding already announced to look at improving access to facilities, including pop-up pools, and better scrutinising this aspect of PE, so that we can ensure that all children get what they are entitled to.

I am aware from the Government’s response to the Lords’ report that there are no immediate plans to re-categorise PE as a core subject. However, I do not think it is giving away any state secrets to say that over the last few weeks I have had both enthusiastic and encouraging conversations with other ministerial colleagues in a position to make things happen. There will be people who want to put it off—either because it is not a priority, because it is too difficult to do or because they simply are not interested. As I said earlier, there are very few straightforward policy changes that sit on a Whitehall desk carrying such a clear need, evidential basis, public support and potentially far-reaching impact as this one.

I earlier alluded to Jason Robinson OBE, the former England rugby union World cup winner and British Lion. He said:

“Physical education was a vital part of my life growing up and gave me so much, playing an instrumental role in the success I went on to achieve in my career. PE has a unique power to inspire, but too often it isn’t taken seriously enough. The time for change has come and for PE to become a core subject in every school, rightly put alongside other key subjects to ensure that the next generation of our young people are given better opportunities.”

If the Government were able to accept, at least in principle, the recommendations of the Association for Physical Education’s taskforce, the Lords Select Committee and others focused on PE becoming a core subject, it is no exaggeration to say that we would be taking the lead with an absolute commitment to the development of healthy bodies and minds for all children, whatever their background. If we have the will—or should I say Will—we can make it happen. PE should be at the heart of school life.

I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for securing this debate. It is not often I get really excited in this place, but today is one of those days. This is a subject close to my heart.

I have a background in sport and physical activity and health and wellbeing, having lectured in these subjects for over a decade and worked both in primary schools, delivering exercise sessions to young children, including the aforementioned “wake up, shake up” activity, and in a secondary school PE department. Based on that experience, I strongly believe that PE should have a much more central role in the curriculum.

Successive Governments have missed the chance to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing by adopting a holistic and preventive approach, placing an emphasis on educating young people about the importance of physical activity, what it means to have a healthy lifestyle, and ensuring that they adopt healthy, enjoyable exercise habits from an early age. With alarming figures relating to childhood obesity, diabetes and a range of other health conditions, along with serious concerns around children’s mental health, we must take a more preventive and long-term approach to health and wellbeing. The provision of high-quality PE in our schools should be a fundamental part of that.

Do not misunderstand me: the provision of good-quality PE is not the only solution to those problems. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury said, we also have to look at a wide range of other things, such as active travel, active families and active communities, grassroots sports provision, nutrition, and addressing the barriers to being more active—be they real or perceived. However, young people’s access to good-quality and wide-ranging physical education is an important part of addressing some of those serious health issues. That is why I think that PE should be a core subject.

I accept that that cannot happen overnight, and we do, of course, have to consider the implications for the broader curriculum. However, as the Association for Physical Education says, we should give PE a higher priority straightaway, with children spending more time on physical activity, and aim to have a highly trained PE teacher in every primary school within a few years.

As The Times Educational Supplement reported recently, by having high-quality, properly resourced and immovable PE provision in our schools, we encourage children and young people to adopt life-long physical activity habits, which will reduce the prevalence of a range of chronic health conditions and, in turn, take some of the pressure off the NHS which we know is bursting at the seams.

The “A national plan for sport, health and wellbeing” report, recently discussed in the House of Lords, noted that:

“Attitudes towards physical activity…track into adulthood.”

In short, by exposing children to a wide variety of PE options and enabling them to develop healthy habits from a young age, we help to create a generation of healthy adults. The benefits of high-quality PE provision do not stop at the physical. The skills that children learn from PE are many: perseverance, resilience, collaboration, teamwork, initiative, and confidence, to name just a few. Those skills help young people to flourish in education and life.

The great thing about physical activity is that there is something for everyone, whether that is in competitive sport, dance, gym, group exercise, running, and everything in between. There is something for everyone—boys, girls, men and women. On that note, I am pleased to be providing a female perspective to today’s debate. I had two very good female PE teachers, who were instrumental in inspiring me to adopt physical activity habits for the rest of my life—including a 30-year hockey career which, sadly, came to an end as a result of the pressures of this job. Those role models are important, and that is why PE should be a core curriculum subject at the heart of our education system.

As well as having PE on the curriculum, it is also important to look at how we can embed physical activity into the education system as a whole. The “creating active schools” framework, designed in part by the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, is a good example of that. It encourages all stakeholders, from local authorities to school leaders and pupils, to play a role in embedding physical activity in the school’s ethos.

To finish, I am pleased to take part in today’s important debate, and to have the opportunity to speak about a subject so close to my heart. I offer to work with colleagues across the House on taking this agenda forward. Thank you.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, yet again, in Westminster Hall, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for securing this important debate. I thought his speech, and that of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), was fantastic in outlining the absolute reasons why physical education needs to be taken much more seriously, particularly in primary school curriculums.

Mr Hosie, the irony is not lost on me; I am quite aware of the overly large circumference of my waist at this moment in time, and that for me to be talking about physical health, I should be leading by example. However, PE is absolutely essential to tackling issues such as childhood obesity, which are, sadly, all too prevalent in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, and in Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am also proud to represent. There are a number of different factors for that obesity, but one definite challenge is that, all too often, in the advancement of students’ literacy and numeracy—which are absolutely critical in improving the life outcomes of pupils in my area—the physical education side has suffered.

I am the first in my family to be the beneficiary of a private school education, something I am very proud of. My parents worked very hard and made many sacrifices to give me the head start in life that they felt they had not had through their education. People always ask me, “What is the major difference between a pupil from a state school and a private school?” I was a teacher in a state school for eight and a half years before I entered this place. The answer is simple. Even though private schools produce fantastic academic results, they heavily invest time, the money from parents—yes, I understand that is an advantage—and energy into giving children a rounded education, not just through debating, LAMDA and drama, but physical education.

I remember that Wednesdays from one o’clock meant games for the entire year group. A variety of football, hockey, rugby, netball and many other sports would be available to us for two to three hours. That meant we were getting high-quality physical education from fantastic teachers, such as Mr McCollin, whom I still dread and fear to this day. When I went back to see him 12 months ago, I still looked down and called him sir, because of the fear he brought when it came to being disciplined. Perhaps Mr Speaker should have a word with him, to get me to behave in the Chamber.

Ultimately, it was teachers such as him who inspired me to play rugby, a sport I had never played before I was 11. I was delighted to end up with a very successful career, even being paid to play rugby union while I was at university. It is about that type of support network. As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen said, it is about teamwork, the learning and camaraderie with colleagues, the resilience from taking a knock and getting back up, and accepting defeat, even when it feels undeserved. Those are the things that are inspiring, and why we need to do a much better job, ensuring that children in state schools are getting access to that.

Stoke-on-Trent in 2019-20 featured among the top local authorities for high levels of childhood obesity; 27.7% of children were either overweight or obese. In Kidsgrove and Talke, 27% of children in year 6 were obese and 19% overweight. Those are scary statistics that have a huge impact. As someone who has been open recently about my mental health struggles, I understand the impact a poor diet and lack of exercise can have on mental health. It is no shock to me that high levels of obesity are leading to long waiting lists with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Adults in the city of Stoke-on-Trent have issues with asthma, heart conditions, with a clear link to the lack of physical activity at the earliest stages. We talk about the first 1,001 days of a child’s life being the most critical for imparting knowledge and nurturing their growth, but there is a physical aspect as well.

Kidsgrove sports centre was closed in 2017. Thanks to the Government’s town deal funding and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, it has been refurbished and will reopen in July 2022, bringing swimming back to the town, with its record high levels of obesity and overweight children. There will be a gym, which will be run by the Kidsgrove sports centre community group, so that every pound that is spent in it stays in that community centre, for the benefit of that local community.

Alongside that, we have invested in a pump track at Newchapel Rec, which has kids on their BMXs, scooters, roller blades and a variety of other wheely machinery. It is getting them out and about. When I drive past, I see the benefit of that with tens, if not hundreds, of children on a daily basis enjoying that facility. For the mere sum of £100,000, that town deal has already delivered over and above what was invested in that area. Clough Hall bowls club is nearby and there is a FIFA-standard 3G astroturf pitch at King’s Church of England school, supplied through the town deal funding. That will not only be used by kids during the day. We opened it up by doing a deal with the school, so that the community can use it in the evening and at weekends. This is a sports village complex that we are trying to bring to local areas, so that there is no excuse why anyone cannot access good, high-quality physical education.

The last thing I want to say is that we have some great people in our city doing fantastic work. We have companies such as Bee Active which was established in 2013 by brothers Ben and Bobby Mills. It offers an innovative approach to physical education, Ofsted-registered schools and holiday sports clubs. It has extended services beyond children’s PE, to include gentle exercise for older people, birthday parties, celebrations, special events and community sessions, to name a few.

Bee Active even has a great app that parents can use to do activities with their kids at home, record them and have them marked and assessed on how well they are doing. The company came to the office, and let me just say there is a lot of work to do on my part—I am sure my daughter and son will be much better. Bee Active has become Staffordshire and Cheshire’s leading provider of sports and physical activity, supporting 75 primary and secondary schools to deliver PE. However, there is one challenge in its way: the PE and sport premium. Because the money is not secured for the long term and there is almost an annual bidding process, there is insecurity as to whether the fund will even exist and, therefore, whether the business can carry on. Ben from Bee Active wants me to ask whether we can have a long-term settlement for the fund to ensure that companies such as his can continue to operate.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend’s last comment about the premium, which I was privileged to help set up in my time at the Department for Education. I am delighted that it is still going, but long-term funding makes a significant difference to schools’ ability to bed in some of the practical improvements that they need in the way that they teach PE. Do we not also need confirmation from the Government in relation to school games organisers by 7 April, so that they can continue their excellent work on interschool and intraschool competitions, which have been so successful over the last 10 years?

I could not agree more. This is so important. Again, the benefit of private schools is that they have interschool cups, so we should have interschool competitions. The highlight of my week was knowing that I could get out of maths halfway through the lesson in order to go and play against another local school in a rugby match, or against another house when we were doing our school cup games. It is so important for breeding confidence and motivation in young people within our education sphere, so long-term funding needs to be approved. We cannot have year-on-year uncertainty with primary schools and the providers that are doing such great work externally.

My final point is that we need an extended school day. I bang on and on about this, and I know I will embarrass the Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), who is sat behind the Minister. He was an advocate for physical education when he was on the Education Committee, and they sucked him into the Department—probably to shut him up. Now that he is in the Department, he can tell it loud and clear that we need an extended school day. Not only does it keep kids off the streets and make the most vulnerable kids feel safe in their school building because it is a place that they know, surrounded by adults whom they trust. It also means that, regardless of whether there needs to be catch-up, the whole school can enjoy good-quality physical education if there is a challenge with fitting it within normal curriculum time.

The extended school day is happening already in the private school sector, and it is unfair that it is not happening in the state school sector. It is unfair on parents, who are having to leave work two or three hours earlier than they should, and who are having lower incomes than they deserve, in order to go and pick up their loved ones or look after them. The stats do not lie: all too often in major cities, knife crime involving young people peaks at the end of the school day, between 3 pm and 5 pm, as I have seen in some studies. We need to grab hold of the situation and announce this fantastic thing. I know it costs money, and I am fully aware that those in Treasury will be rolling their eyes at me yet again because I am asking for more funds, but this is something that, in the long term, we will see money come back in because we have confident and healthy young people who do not need to access health services in the way that they are doing now, and who feel much more confident and have aspiration to go and achieve.

I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for securing the debate. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), in his place, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. The Minister has shown that he can do this, because I remember when he was slightly broader than he is now. It is lovely to see him in his place. My contribution will reflect the Northern Ireland perspective, as it always does.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I think we have now found his weakness. We know that Mr Speaker threatened to ring his mother, but we now know the right person to call, so perhaps I will text Mr Speaker to say, “The person you want is his teacher.” Beware of what might happen in the Chamber.

I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic. I did not set out to be a type 2 diabetic, but I had Chinese carry-outs four or five times a week with two bottles of Coca-Cola, which is never a good recipe for keeping thin and trim. I realised only a year after my diagnosis that I had probably been a diabetic for a long time. I make that point because it is about having the right start.

I go back further than most people in this Chamber, as I was at school in the 1960s and early 1970s. I think about the grave impact of my type 2 diabetes and the benefits of PE. I went to a sporty school, and I was thin and wiry. I was always a good runner, and I loved rugby and cricket. Sport was an integral part of where we were.

However, I was always aware of something else at school, and I am speaking personally now. There is always a child—I was at an all-boys school, so it was a boy—who is always picked last when a team is picked. He came in last and was the last out of the changing room. That is how I learned to observe and consider how we encourage children. The fact is that boy always turned up for PE, but he did not seem to get enthused about it.

I learned to swim at school, and I am glad I did. I have always been a fairly strong swimmer, but I understand why some children ask their parents to write a note to get them out of what they perceive to be a humiliation. Yet the importance of a healthy lifestyle must be established from a young age.

Times have changed in the world of PE. In my day, we used a sports hall. Star jumps and the dreaded rope were deployed, and I am probably ageing myself here. Now, my speechwriter Naomi—she is a very busy speechwriter—tells me that her six-year-old came home saying that she was doing a month of Monday football, as an additional day of PE. There were no complaints about that extra PE.

I am not sure how schools enthuse children, and I will give another example shortly, but they certainly do back home. It seems to be working, which is the important thing, because that wee girl is not bothered one bit about doing extra PE. In fact, she is absolutely bouncing about it—literally bouncing. What a tremendous way to encourage young boys and girls to be involved in exercise that is interesting and exciting.

My eldest granddaughter, who is 12 coming up 13, was never very sporty; she was more into her laptop and contacting her friends. This year, everything changed. She attends Strangford Integrated College in Carrowdore, and she is on the girls football team. She has lost weight, which is tremendous to see. I was quite surprised, but she is enthused by the sport, including the training.

Sport is another way for children to engage with their friends, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said. The strategy of my granddaughter’s football team seems to be all or nothing. Her team lost their first match 7-0, but they won their second game 6-0. They go all out to score goals or all out to prevent them.

We must make sure there is exciting, inclusive exercise in school to tackle the sedentary lure of the computer and tablet. Get children away from those things and give them a physical focus. The days have changed from when mums and dads threw their children out to play in the streets until the streetlights came on, as happened to me. Parents are now understandably concerned about not knowing where their child is, so things are slightly different today.

Additionally, most parents who work all day are unable to take their children to the park to play, as they have to make dinner, do the housework and help the children to do their homework. The natural thing is that kids stay safe inside, playing their games. However, if we can engage children through the schools or local sports clubs, we can make them be energetic and keen—as they are naturally—and then I believe that we can move in the right direction.

Although children playing indoors is completely understandable, it is not ideal. Thankfully, the schools are stepping up and putting on additional physical activity. Primary schools are doing it, too, for very young children, which I am glad to see. The children in my constituency now start their day with what is called the daily mile, which the hon. Member for Eddisbury mentioned. It is incredible, because all the kids want to do the daily mile. They walk with their friends from school—they can chat the whole way round—but they do their daily mile and it has almost become an everyday occurrence. They walk at a pace set by the teacher, who sets a pace the children are able to cope with. This enjoyable form of exercise teaches our children that we can make exercise a part of daily life.

The staff in the Chamber and the security guards sometimes ask me, “Are you doing any running over the weekend?” I say, “No, there are three stages: running, walking and dandering.” I am a danderer. I take strolls at my leisure, as I am well past the other stages.

Time is of the essence, so I conclude by saying that obesity is an increasingly common problem in Northern Ireland, as it is across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One in every five children aged two to five is classified as obese, so we have a real problem but we have a way of addressing it, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury and others have said. We have to change the story. The sugar tax on smaller chocolate bars is a good step, but exercise is how we want to achieve this. Schools have a vital role to play by providing more PE with interesting exercises. Hobbies would also be a wonderful step for each region in the UK to prioritise.

I am pleased to support the hon. Member for Eddisbury and I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister and, more importantly, the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for securing an important debate on an issue that I believe is vital to the future of young people and our country.

It is clear from today’s contributions that Members on both sides of the House agree that physical education and sport are an important part of the curriculum, and this has been a good-spirited debate. The hon. Member for Eddisbury spoke passionately about the importance of physical education, and I thank him for his efforts and his leadership in the task group. He described how some people perceive PE to be a “nice to have” rather than an integral part of the curriculum, and he spoke about the impact of PE on health and wellbeing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) showed her usual passion and energy, which she demonstrates on every issue she raises in Parliament. She has huge experience of the education sector, and she talked about PE needing greater priority and about the skills it gives young people so that they can succeed, flourish and make friends.

We know the pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to children’s academic learning, but it is also important to recognise the impact of the lack of opportunities pupils have had to participate in organised team sports and physical education. I am sure colleagues on both sides of the House will share my concerns about the combined impact that the limited opportunities for sport and exercise and being locked indoors for the past two years has had on our young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Sport England’s survey, published in December, showed that only 45% of children and young people—equivalent to 3.2 million pupils—achieved the chief medical officer’s guideline of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more a day. Worse still, 32% averaged less than 30 minutes a day. Crucially, the guideline is similar to the ambition of the Government’s 2019 school sport and activity plan

“that all children should have access to 60 minutes of physical activity every day”.

The Government had stated that they would publish an update on their plan this year but, despite their targets, it is still nowhere to be seen.

Even with the Government’s record over the last two years, the state of children accessing exercise prior to the pandemic cannot be forgotten and simply swept under the carpet. According to a Taking Part survey covering the period of April 2019 to March 2020, just 65% of five to 15-year-olds had participated in competitive sport in school during the previous 12 months, and only 58% of five to 10-year-olds had played sport at school in organised competitions. Will the Minister commit his Department to publishing an update on its school sport and activity plan? What specific action will he be taking to address the Government’s failure to meet their own objective of all children having access to 60 minutes of physical activity every day?

The pandemic has caused widespread disruption to children’s learning, including PE and sport, but the Government cannot use covid as a smokescreen to shroud a decade of failure to provide proper access to physical education and sport that students need and deserve. If Ministers will not deliver for our children, the next Labour Government will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for securing a debate on this very important subject. I am aware that it is close to his heart and I am grateful to him for his efforts thus far, including, of course, as chair of the Association for Physical Education taskforce, to promote the importance of this curriculum subject. In addition, this is the first opportunity that I have had at the—metaphorical—Despatch Box to thank him for all his work as one of my predecessors as the Minister responsible for children and families.

I also thank all hon. Members for their constructive and passionate contributions to this important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury mentioned, we run together most Tuesday mornings and we have therefore had the benefit of discussing at great length this and many other issues. He knows that I am a relatively new convert to running—in truth, I am a relatively new convert to exercise full stop. But both running and exercise have now become a passion. In truth, I was not keen on playing sport at school. I did not enjoy it. People did not encourage me to play sport in school. I was one of the children picked last, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned in his speech. I was not very good at sport, and the main reason was that I lacked confidence. However, PE, sport and physical activity have significant importance in keeping children healthy and for the positive impact that they can have on a child’s health and wellbeing. I mention my own personal experience because, importantly, sport builds confidence. Schools should be aware of the difference that high-quality PE can make to a school. That is why PE is right at the heart of the national curriculum. In fact, it is the only foundation subject that is compulsory across all four key stages of the national curriculum.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury shares my passion in this area and a desire for us to go further and faster. Why? Yes, because health, fitness and physical wellbeing and mental health and wellbeing are really important, but also because this is about confidence, as I said, about camaraderie and teamwork, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) pointed out, and about leadership skills. They all come with taking part in competitive sport.

Why now? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, we have an obesity crisis. We know that there is a growing issue—pardon the pun—with childhood obesity. Obesity is now a bigger cause of cancer than smoking and although sport is not the only solution to obesity, it is a part of it. PE, sport and physical activity can and should play their part in tackling that. Equally important, of course, are diet and nutrition, but setting behaviour and habits around physical activity early in life and, importantly, as part of family life is vital. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury talked about what we see our parents doing, and about doing things with our parents. That is vital, because children take that with them into adult life. These habits and behaviours stay with people, and then they are seen by their children, so they develop them too and they are seen as normal. High-quality PE at the earliest age at school is key to allowing children to learn and develop key skills that will—to come back to this point—give them the confidence to take part in physical activity and competitive sport. My hon. Friend mentioned this, too. I genuinely believe, and there is evidence to suggest, that it also enhances academic performance.

I could say, “Everything is rosy. This happens for all children and they get excellent PE teaching at primary school.” But the truth is that that is not the case. I know that from my own experience and from the experience of many young people I have spoken with. The teaching of PE is done very well in many schools up and down the country, but it is inconsistent and, particularly at primary level, there is an issue with teachers lacking the confidence to teach PE effectively. Too often, it is outsourced, as we know. As great as rugby and football coaching is in and of itself, that is not PE; it does not give children the confidence and life skills that will lead them to take part in competitive sport. I am determined to address that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury has called for PE to be made a core subject. He rightly pointed out that no curriculum review is under way, but I am very sympathetic to the case and the arguments that he makes and I will raise them at length with the schools Minister.

At the heart of the debate, notwithstanding the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, is the challenge to ensure that PE as a subject is taken seriously by all schools and that it is done brilliantly and consistently across our country. That is vital so that all children have the chance to develop the fundamental physical literacy that they need to go on to live an active, healthy life and to experience different types of sport, so that they are enthused and have confidence. That is why I am clear on the importance of PE as a curriculum subject. As I say, it is the only foundation subject taught across all key stages, making it a requirement for children of all ages. I assure all hon. Members across the House that the Government place significant importance on the delivery of PE lessons.

Notwithstanding that, given the challenges facing schools, as alluded to by the spokesperson for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), and with the recovery from covid under way, we remain wary of making technical changes to the curriculum now. That could place additional burdens on teacher workloads and training requirements by introducing changes, which is particularly relevant as schools start to recover from the pandemic.

That said, however, as referenced in the taskforce report of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, PE and sport are also vital to recovery. We want to focus on what we can do to build on what is already in place to ensure that PE is taught really well in schools. I therefore confirm that we remain committed to our manifesto commitments to support the effective use of school sport facilities and to invest in primary school PE teaching and the promotion of physical literacy and competitive sports.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out the £30 million a year for opening up school sports facilities in England, as well as our measures to promote and improve the quality of teaching of physical education in primary schools. We will build on that £10.1 million that has supported schools to reopen their sports facilities after the pandemic, increasing opportunities for children and young people across England to take part in sport.

What have we done to improve PE so far? To help primary schools make improvements to the quality of PE and the support that they offer, we introduced the primary PE and sport premium in 2013, during the tenure of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. The funding for the premium since its introduction is £1.6 billion, with the funding having doubled to £320 million a year since 2017. We are considering arrangements for the primary PE and sport premium for the 2022-23 academic year, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North.

I desperately want to give that long-term certainty of funding. All I can say is that I am working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to enable us to do that as soon as possible. We are considering a series of approaches to bring together the evidence of what constitutes really good PE, how that can be delivered practically and how to support schools to identify and take the steps necessary to make their provision as good as it can be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the school sport and activity action plan. We remain committed to the ambitions that we set out in the plan and we will publish an update to it later this year, to align with our publication of the new sports strategy. That action plan update will not only cover ground lost during the covid-19 restrictions but boost momentum to deliver an action plan for all pupils, regardless of their background.

Notwithstanding what I have said, which I appreciate is lukewarm and complex, I assure my hon. Friend that I am ambitious about what we can do in this space and about going further on PE, school sport and physical activity in schools. I am ambitious about expanding the holiday activities and food programme, to which we have committed £200 million per year for a further three years as part of the spending review. Some 600,000 children up and down our country have taken part in those activities over the past year.

I am exploring whether we could be a daily mile nation, and I warn hon. Members that that will be not just for schools, but for everyone. I think we can do that, and I am pushing in the right direction. I am exploring a summer activity challenge—similar to the summer reading challenge—so that we get kids moving and taking part in sports and activities over the summer holidays.

The ambition is there and the work is ongoing. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and Members throughout the Chamber are assured that we are determined to achieve the same thing, which is every school teaching PE well and every pupil benefiting from that, wherever they are, up and down our country. We will work with Ofsted, schools, sporting bodies and PE teachers on the further steps that we will take to achieve exactly that.

I thank all hon. Members who contributed to this afternoon’s debate. Although I cannot speak for the Labour party, a one-line Whip has been circulating for an hour or two, which may explain why some very enthusiastic Members who would otherwise have been here have found some more pressing engagement. However, if nothing else, the quality of the debate has been extremely high, and has ensured that we have brought to the fore the key aspects of what makes PE such a crucial part of school life.

My hon. Friend the Minister underplayed his hand a little by saying he was lukewarm in his response when he was actually very enthusiastic. He has given me a lot of hope for what is to come, both in schools and in the communities that surround them. I say to him—and to Her Majesty’s Government in their entirety, because I appreciate that other Departments are involved in some of these decisions—that moving PE to core status is not just a technical change, but would change the whole way in which it is seen in the schools system. It will no longer be able to be an afterthought as every school will have to engage and think hard about how to deliver the high-quality physical education we want to see right across the board.

I am pleased that the Minister shares my ambition to go further and faster and is sympathetic to the arguments we have made today on making PE a core subject. I acknowledge—as I did in my speech—that there is still some work to do in order to satisfy not just ourselves but everyone who needs to be party to that decision that all the building blocks are in place so it becomes a plausible, effective and long-term change that we can rely on within schools. To that end, I would be pleased if I could continue to work with the Minister and his Department on how we build capacity within the system and develop some of the assessment and accountability measures that will be necessary to satisfy everybody with a vested interest that the children we are putting through our school system are reaping all the benefits that that education can provide. We know that this is already happening in the very best schools —it has been happening for a long time—and I still come across some very inspiring leadership within physical education, but it is not happening everywhere often enough. Off the back of covid, we have a real opportunity to shine a light on a part of the schools system that has been kept in the dark for too long.

PE has a huge part to play in moving our country forward, both in ensuring a happy, long and healthy life for more of our citizens and making sure that our education system is performing at the highest possible level. Ultimately, it is not just about making sure children come out healthy at the end of their schooling, important though that is; we want to make sure they reach their potential, emotionally, mentally and academically. PE can tick all those boxes, and whenever in their life a person discovers the benefits of exercise, they never turn back. Let us make sure that more children find that out much earlier.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered physical education as a core subject in schools.

Sitting adjourned.