Tuesday 29 March 2022
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
General Practice: Large Housing Developments
I beg to move,
That this House has considered general practice capacity for large-scale housing developments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this important debate and to colleagues who have come along this morning and who clearly have the same issues in their constituencies.
Every one of our constituents hugely values the ability to get a timely appointment, without too much hassle, at their local surgery. General practice is the front door of the NHS and all GPs, practice nurses, clinical pharmacists and the whole primary care team do an amazing job under enormous pressure. I express my profound gratitude to them.
In parts of England a third more GP appointments were delivered between September and November 2021 compared to the same period in 2019, yet many of our constituents regularly tell us of the difficulties they have getting a timely appointment at their surgery. GPs and primary care staff are exercised about the strain on the system. In addition, there is considerable variability in the numbers of GPs, practice nurses and people in direct patient care roles per 10,000 registered patients. I think there should be a recommendation as to how many patients a GP should have. I accept that different populations in different parts of the country will have different demands, so a number of indicative levels would be required. We have requirements in relation to the number of children who can be in a class, so why is it different for patients in GP practices?
I have analysed the numbers of GPs, practice nurses and direct patient care staff per 10,000 registered patients in each of the three primary care networks that cover my constituency and, with one exception for GPs in one primary care network, the whole of my constituency has fewer GPs, practice nurses and direct patient care staff per 10,000 patients than the averages for England and for the east of England. From the plans I have seen from my clinical commissioning group, the projected increases in primary care staff will not be enough to bring my constituency up to the average, and I am told that no figures for future GP recruitment are available from the CCG because GP recruitment is left to individual practices.
As a country, we know that we need to build more homes. and I want everyone to be decently housed. Too many people still do not have a decent home. As elected representatives, we also know that new housing development is often vigorously opposed by existing residents. That opposition has some merit to it if the existing services in that area are already under strain and are going to be put under even greater strain.
A constituent wrote to me on Saturday to say:
“Leighton Buzzard has expanded massively in the last 20 years, however the investment in infrastructure and facilities has in no way kept pace with this and access to healthcare is inadequate leaving the GP surgeries under great pressure despite the best efforts. I dread to think what the situation will be like when the massive building programme is completed.”
That is spot on. Everyone pays taxes, and those new residents will make their contribution, so it is essential and only fair that the services in an area expand as the population rises to meet that growth.
I am told that in Norwich North, the seat of my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is not here to speak for herself, wave 4b CCG funding will provide an extension for one local surgery, but that will accommodate only a small fraction of the population increase and no provision is being offered for another GP practice or through section 106 money.
I understand that in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), who, as Leader of the House, is a member of the Cabinet, 6,000 new homes are planned for Hucknall, a town where the GPs are already oversubscribed and there is no commitment to a new Cavell health centre to meet the needs of existing and new residents.
I have rarely found children without a school place to go to. However we plan for additional school capacity when massive new housing schemes come along, the system seems to work reasonably well. The classrooms get built and the teachers employed to welcome those new children and to give them a good-quality education. That is not my experience with general practice capacity, however. I represent an area that is due to have about 14,000 new homes built and that already has, before those new residents arrive, below-average numbers of GPs and primary care staff.
My hon. Friend made an important point about the planning on education places. What we need to see from Government and local authorities alike is a much more robust approach to developers, to ensure that they are paying for what is required and that they are not leaving it to the NHS and local communities pick up the bill. We need to see that strong lead from Ministers, for them to be standing up for communities and not for developers.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend and I defer to his expertise on education. I would add that an element of retrospection is needed, because many of those new housing estates have already been rolled out in our constituencies. The new infrastructure levy cannot be just going forward; there is an immediate deficit that we need to remedy.
The system is broken, and that is the reason I have been campaigning on the issue and have called this debate. Contributions from section 106 funding or from the community infrastructure levy often go to provide other facilities rather than for health. The guidance states:
“It is helpful if the Director of Public Health is consulted on any planning applications (including at the pre-application stage) that are likely to have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of the local population”.
I do not think it is “helpful”—it is absolutely essential. It should be a requirement that leads to a clear outcome of additional ring-fenced health funding to employ and accommodate the necessary GPs and practice nurses that the area’s population requires.
I have good support in my request. When I put that point to the Prime Minister on 5 January this year, he replied:
“Yes...my hon. Friend…is completely right: we cannot build new homes without putting in the infrastructure to go with it.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 20.]
I can quote no higher authority, Minister.
My argument is that no new infrastructure is more important than looking after the health of the existing and new population in an area. At the moment, the system is fragmented and uncertain, in that we might be lucky and be funded through section 106 money or we might be lucky and get it from the community infrastructure levy. Again, we might be lucky and get what is needed from the housing infrastructure fund. If we are fortunate, the local authority might come to the rescue, or it could be that Treasury funding to the Department of Health and Social Care will do the job. My CCG tells me, however, that capital funding from the Treasury for new general practice capacity appears too late to be of any use in making a sensible forward plan, and disappears equally quickly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that while developers sometimes offer to create new premises for additional GP practice, that does not resolve the problem? The shortage is of people, of qualified GPs, so even if there are brand-new premises, without the doctors to see the patients, the problem he is talking about is not solved.
This is the benefit of having former members of the Cabinet in a debate such as this: they know what they are talking about. My right hon. Friend is completely right. We are talking about capital and ongoing revenue funding. Those new residents come with a stream of tax revenue—their council tax, their income tax and the tax from their businesses, which they will pay—so we are not asking for anything unreasonable; it is about an equitable allocation given where people live, when there are big increases in the local population.
In my local authority, there were proposals to build four health hubs. The original commitment was that those would be built by 31 March 2020, then by 2024, and we have one being built, another progressing, and complete silence on the other two. Initially, the funding was due to come from the primary care infrastructure fund, then the primary care transformation fund, with the CCG and the local authority due to make contributions at various points—but none of those routes has led to the delivery of two much-needed health hubs in my constituency.
I propose that there should be guaranteed primary care health funding for each 1,000 new homes, allocated at the time planning permission is granted and delivered as the new residents arrive, although smaller developments must also be catered for.
The current capitation figures, based on the Office for National Statistics population figures, always lag. Therefore, the infrastructure always comes too late, leaving unacceptable strain on local primary care services. We will, in the end, pay for the primary care services needed but, instead of always doing it too late, let us get ahead of the curve and stop the anxiety and upset that our constituents and primary care staff experience as a result.
I observe that the process is often shrouded in secrecy, with very little engagement with local Members of Parliament and councillors. We are the ones who feel the anger of our residents when these facilities arrive too late, but there is limited local accountability from those taking the decisions, and a confused and uncertain national funding process. We could learn from the way education funding is allocated to accommodate significant population growth. I recommend that the Prime Minister urgently convene a Cabinet Sub-Committee between the Treasury, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to deal with the issue once and for all.
I repeat the point I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). I understand that the new infrastructure levy may come to our rescue, but if it just looks forward and does not deal with these vast new housing estates—14,000 homes being built in my constituency and many thousands in the constituencies of colleagues here—we will have let down our constituents. Our country generally does public administration well; we are better than this and can fix it. I implore the Minister to go back to his Secretary of State to have a focused, cross-Government effort, led by the Prime Minister, to get this right once and for all.
It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate in Westminster Hall, and today I basically support what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has put forward. I always give the perspective from Northern Ireland. What is happening there mirrors what the hon. Gentleman has introduced, and I thank him for setting the scene so well.
Access to GPs would probably make a debate on its own. I think we could all give myriad examples of where the system is failing. I know that Northern Ireland is not the responsibility of the Minister, but I want to add weight to what the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said. I am convinced that others, including the shadow Minister, will also mirror that. We could all speak for ages about access to GPs, but I will fight the urge to spend my time discussing the disgraceful routine that too many practices have adopted of withholding face-to-face appointments, and the problems caused, including with house calls to vulnerable patients.
One of my constituents, who uses a wheelchair, was the only family member to have covid. Her carers and the district nurse expressed concern about sores on her legs, because she is a type 1 diabetic. Her GP refused the call-out and asked an 80-year-old woman to WhatsApp a photograph. My goodness, how ridiculous! Not to be disrespectful, but the lady has no idea what a WhatsApp photograph is or how to take one. That says more about the GP, who has not understood the issues. It seems I did not resist the urge well, but I remain infuriated at the abject dereliction of duty that GP practices continue to hold fast to. That was one example, but many other GPs, as referred to by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, do it right and do their best to help people, as they should.
I will not say any more about that at this stage, because it is not the purpose of this debate. I want to talk about the other part of the debate, which we need to take steps to address. We need to ensure that enough thought is put into not simply whether the roads can handle the additional pressure from large-scale housing developments but whether community GPs and pharmacies can handle it as well.
My GP cannot take another patient without expanding. I have been with that practice for all my life. It has expanded once and will expand again—a planning application is pending—within its property because there is room to do that. It is not the same in every case, but we need flexibility for that in the planning process. To back up what the hon. Gentleman said, I will give an example of where the process fails badly—I know that my area is not the Minister’s responsibility—and there does not seem to be any vision or idea of how to do it the right way.
I live in a village between Greyabbey and Kircubbin and patient numbers in the GP surgeries in Kircubbin are growing, so an extension has been accepted by the trust and will go ahead. There is money to invest in that surgery as well. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but this ties in with what the hon. Gentleman said: we need funding from the Minister’s sister Department in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health, to ensure that moneys are there to help with those extensions.
A local doctor’s surgery in Newtownards has a wonderful idea, similar to that described by the hon. Gentleman and what he wants to see for his constituency. It is currently based above a pharmacy, and its vision is to expand. It put in an application to build a further three rooms for a physiotherapist, a nutritionist and a mental health nurse so that, when someone goes to their clinic to see their GP, they can do almost everything. That would take the pressure off the NHS—or the HSC as it is in Northern Ireland. It is important to have a strategy in place. I was incredibly impressed by that vision and drive for my constituency, which is like the vision to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That could address the needs of the adolescent having difficulty with their relationship with food, the needs of the grieving widower by giving them something other than anti-depressants and making sure that they always have a face-to-face consultation, and the needs of the overweight working mother who needs an adaptive plan to help her achieve her goals in her busy life. That is not a criticism but a fact of life—it happens sometimes. However, the planners turned the application down.
The planners did not have the vision or the strategy to see how important it was to have a better surgery and a better clinic, so a project that could provide a benefit was turned down. Where is the planners’ vision? Where is the co-operation between the health departments and the housing and planning departments? I do not see that in this application and I feel greatly aggrieved. I will fight the issue—I intend to take it as far as I can, along with others—because it infuriates me. The planners look at it as a tick-box exercise and think, “It doesn’t do this and it doesn’t do that,” and yet this is the place for the project. There is room to do it on site, so why not let it take place?
The choice for the GP service is to move out of town or simply to carry on as it is, which will not meet the needs of the practice, with the growing numbers coming. We need fully serviced practices and must be able to host them. We must also ensure that large-scale developments recognise that integral need of the community and address this issue. It is no longer enough to tick the box and build a play park when people need access to GPs in their areas. To continue to ignore that will only move concerns down the line.
I see the Minister in his place and know that he is consistently interested and committed to the change that the hon. Gentleman is asking for and that others will ask for. I am confident that he will respond positively—he always does, as that is in his very nature—so I will be pleased to hear his response.
On 2 November 2021, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care acknowledged that the Government were not on track to meet their plans to recruit an additional 6,000 GPs by 2024—that is not a criticism but an observation of his comments—and the Government had a manifesto commitment to expand the number of other primary care professionals by 26,000. How can we entice young people to be doctors when they go for work experience in poky offices and are inundated with unsafe patient numbers, and when GPs tell them to run? The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) referred to that and to some of the issues.
That situation will only continue, and the Minister can respond in a positive fashion only if he has co-operation from the Health Department to make things happen; we need a two-pronged attack on this one. Do we, as I would like to see and as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said, invest in practices now and entice medical students into seeing that the dream of holistic general practice is a reality? That vision of a future in which we can do better and look after more people in a focused way is what I would like to see and what I think everybody else wants to see as well.
Having specifically designed facilities is key to that aim. That is why the application in Newtownards addresses a number of things, which are all part of what comes to a GP every day. That GP surgery and clinic is in the centre of Newtownards. It is accessible; there is car parking. It is right in the middle of the town. It makes more sense to let it do what it wants to do within the room that it has on site, but the planners do not want that to happen. There is no vision, no strategy, no co-operation with the Health Department and no helping to address the issue.
Therefore I find myself fully supporting the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, and I implore the Minister to make this initiative—although it is not his responsibility—UK-wide. What starts here can ripple out, like when a stone hits water, and when it gets to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we can have some vision as well. I will send a copy of the Hansard record of this debate to the planning department in Newtownards and make it aware of my plea on behalf of the GP surgery there. Planners and healthcare commissioning groups alike should be legally obligated to abide by this initiative. They should have a strategy, a vision, and do it right. The future of our NHS depends on change, and this change is fit for every area. We must move on this need now, before the implosion of general practice that is on the horizon and becoming ever clearer.
I again thank the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire. I look forward very much to other contributions and I look forward especially to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Order. We have seven more Back-Bench speakers. We will start the winding-up speeches no later than 10.38 am to give Mr Selous time for a two-minute response. There is no formal imposition of a time limit, but if colleagues could keep to about six minutes maximum, that would be best.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for securing a debate on this important issue this morning.
The Mayor of London wants 2,364 new flats and houses to be built in the borough of Barnet every year for years to come. I did a rough calculation for some of the bigger developments recently built, approved or pending in the planning system in my constituency alone, and the figure is nearly 4,000 units, with another 691 rejected but liable to come back on appeal or possibly with a revised proposal. That could mean anything up to about 9,000 people trying to find a place on a GP’s list of patients. I pay tribute to all the GPs in my constituency. They are the bedrock of our NHS. We all depend on them, and they have done magnificently in so many ways during the pandemic.
It is clear that rising healthcare need is already placing great pressure on our national health service, including general practice, as we grow older as a society and as our frail elderly population gets larger. But at the same time, council planning committees are finding it harder and harder to turn down planning applications even where it is clear that the area does not have the GP capacity to service the population increase that the proposed new flats could involve. Elected councillors are increasingly advised by officers that they should not turn down an application even if it contravenes long-established planning principles on matters such as character, conservation, height, density or pressure on local services and infrastructure, because their decision could be overturned on appeal, on the grounds that housing targets are not being met. To compound the pressure, elected representatives are threatened with high costs being awarded against councils if they lose planning appeals. That is forcing councils to produce long lists of development sites to meet the requirement of a five-year land supply, many of which may be wholly inappropriate for new housing—certainly high-density new housing. Even where developers offer to build facilities for a new GP practice as part of their plan, that does not solve the problem, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, because it is a shortage of doctors, not premises, that is causing the greatest pressure on primary care.
My hon. Friend clearly articulated a solution in his speech, but I would like the Minister to consider a threefold solution. First, housing targets should be advisory, not mandatory. They should not be taken into account in planning decisions or appeals. Secondly, whether or not a local authority has a five-year land supply should no longer determine planning applications. Thirdly, we need to accelerate efforts to train, recruit and retain more family doctors. The Government take the expansion of the NHS workforce very seriously, and it is a proud achievement that there are more doctors in hospitals than ever before in the long history of our national health service. The Government have ensured that there are more GPs in training than ever before, and five new medical schools have opened. That good progress is all welcome, but as the Health Secretary has admitted, plans to recruit 6,000 additional GPs by 2024 are not on track. We need to turn that situation around if we are to tackle the covid backlog and ensure that, where new homes are built, all residents—existing ones and new ones—continue to be able to access the GP appointments they need.
I hope the Minister will set out the care improvements delivered by the £250 million package announced last year to relieve immediate pressures on GP practice. I hope he will also give us the latest numbers on the recruitment of other professionals, such as nurses and pharmacists, to support GPs as part of multidisciplinary practices. Will he commit the Government to redoubling their efforts to plan effectively for the future workforce needs of our national health service?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing a very popular debate. I declare that I am still a borough councillor for Charnwood Borough Council, which I will refer to. I am also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for district councils.
As the Minister can see, he has many friends on the Government Benches, but we suffer some frustrations, and I look to him for advice and assistance. We have two main frustrations: one he can clearly do something about, and the other we need his help with in tackling it with the Department for Health and Social Care. We have GP contracts and the related health profile, and we have planning law—and never the twain shall meet, it would seem. I would like to do something about that.
I would like to be able to support housing developments where they are appropriate and needed and of the size and type required for the local area. More importantly, I want local communities to be created. Three thousand houses in one place is a village, not a housing estate, and I would like to create communities with proper infrastructure. I would also like to support my GPs and constituents. I have had many meetings with GPs in my constituency over recent months. They have worked incredibly hard, particularly during covid. We talk about going to see “our GP” an awful lot, rather than going to see a medical professional in a medical centre, perhaps run by a GP. There is something that needs to be done there.
In my constituency, I could talk about the village of Sileby, which has grown hugely, or about Loughborough or Mountsorrel, but I will talk about Shepshed and west Loughborough. The town of Shepshed has grown enormously over recent years, with the addition of thousands of houses. In the Garendon estate, right next door in west Loughborough, 3,000 homes are due to be built. There are two GP surgeries in the whole area and so, whatever they try to do, the situation is completely unsustainable.
I have talked to the clinical commissioning group and the local health service. Everybody is keen to do something, but there is a definite reluctance, because of the risk factor. There is less incentive to run a GP surgery than to just work in one or be a locum; there is a lot of risk involved. We need to take that into account; we need to consider the cost and the risk of extending a GP surgery or starting a new one.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) spoke about the lack of a five-year housing land supply. That is absolutely crippling my constituency. We need to stop indiscriminate development that has no forward planning. Planning staff in the council work hard on local plans—they are looking forward to 2036—and on delivery, but without a five-year land supply, it is impossible. The intentions are good but in practice we are not delivering in Loughborough.
The Conservative manifesto stated:
“Infrastructure first: We will amend planning rules so that the infrastructure—roads, schools, GP surgeries—comes before people move into new homes.”
We must do that. The housing infrastructure fund has not created the atmosphere and the momentum we were expecting. I would like to see more.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire on the recommendation as regards the number of patients per GP. I also ask the Minister to consider age profiles. The people who live in the Shepshed area have an older age profile and, generally speaking, older patients need GP surgeries more.
We need cultural change—a shift towards seeing a nurse or another professional in a medical centre, not necessarily having a face-to-face appointment with a GP. We absolutely must start five-year land supply. I would also like to see feasibility studies and infrastructure funded up front, either by the developer or through the fund, so that feasibility studies of GP surgeries do not require GPs to stump up the money first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. He and I got talking a few weeks ago because I asked a question at Prime Minister’s questions too. In it, I gave some figures about the growth in my constituency. The largest town, Didcot, is set to be 42% larger in 2027 than it was just a decade earlier. Wantage and Grove, the second largest area, is set to be 59% larger than it was just a decade earlier. Thousands of houses are also being built in the other two towns, Faringdon and Wallingford, and in the 64 villages I represent. My hon. Friend and I decided we would be better combining forces and working with other colleagues, as the issues we face are similar.
People know what the growth figures mean: it is harder and harder to get a GP appointment. It is a separate issue to the post-covid debate on face-to-face, telephone appointments or an e-consultation. This issue is much longer running. It is also distinct from the 6,000 GPs and 26,000 other primary care staff that the Government have committed to recruiting, which I warmly welcome.
It should go without saying—although I will say it anyway—that our GPs and primary care staff work incredibly hard. They want a solution to the problem as much as anybody else, because they are working flat out and are presented with more and more patients. I have a surgery in Wallingford that actually closed its books recently because it simply cannot take any more patients.
Depending on what measure we look at, different parts of my constituency look the worst, but Didcot ranks lowest on the measure of permanent qualified GPs. Didcot is a good example, because we have had a development there called Great Western Park, which is 3,500 houses. On the basis that 2.4 people live in every house, 8,400 people have been added to the constituency, and they have now been waiting seven years for the GP surgery that was promised with the development. There is still no sign of it, but what they do know is coming is Valley Park right next to them—4,200 more houses, and a further 9,600 people. That is 18,000 people just in those two developments, but there is no prospect at the moment of additional GP surgeries.
Who is accountable? Part of the problem is that it is very unclear. Many people think it must be the Government, and of course it is partly down to the Government and the rules for infrastructure not keeping up with house building. As hon. Members have said, there is a difference between what the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Treasury want. Of course that is true, but the provision of GP surgeries is also down to councils and what they do with the section 106 money and community infrastructure levy that they are given. It is also down to the developers and the promises they make, the CCGs and how they plan for things, and the national planning bodies such as NHS England and Health Education England. Part of the problem is that there is no directly responsible body that can ensure that people get the services they need.
There is no shortage of people wanting to be medical students. I used to work in social mobility, and studying medicine is one of the most popular things that young people want to do. The issue is partly the diversity of the people who get into it: only 6% of doctors are from a working-class background, and someone is 24 times more likely to be a doctor if a parent is a doctor. I cannot help but feel that we are missing out on a talent pool of people who want to be doctors, yet we do not have enough GPs.
A number of Members have made important points about the things we need to do. Of course, it is not just about GPs. Lots of things I campaign on are about infrastructure—reopening Grove station, improving the A420 and A34, having more school places and so on—but there are three things that I would draw attention to. First, we need the infrastructure before the houses go in. In this case, that means knowing precisely who will run the GP surgery and having them signed up with the contract to do so before we start. We recognise that most GP surgeries are private businesses. It should not be as difficult as it is to get somebody committed and to know what we will do with the money.
The second point is that I am not persuaded that we should not have a limit on the number of patients that a GP or practice should have. It would be extraordinary in other fields if we did not have a limit on the number of people that we thought was suitable. I totally accept that areas are very different, but surely we can have an upper limit that triggers additional services once it has been reached or exceeded, as it clearly has been in my constituency.
The third point is about the talent pool. We have shortages of all sorts of things in this country, but a lot of people want to study medicine and we are not using them. We could be much better at recruiting people.
We will not solve this problem today, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but if we want people to not feel that houses are a curse on their local area, they need to know that their quality of life will not decline. That means putting in the right infrastructure, particularly GP surgeries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my county colleague and hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. He will know that this is a particular issue for Bedfordshire.
In my own constituency over the course of the last decade, the town of Biggleswade, the village of Stotfold and the newly parished area of Fairfield Park have been dramatically transformed by housing growth. In many instances, that has created very welcome, happy communities and neighbourhoods for people, which have grown and become a natural part of the environment; but we cannot ignore the pace of growth and the impact that it has had on those residents new to the area, and on the existing residents who have accepted the additional growth in their areas.
Two issues make for happy communities. First, is the pace of growth sustainable and are the services there that people come to expect from the Government, in terms of school places and, as we are discussing today, of GPs?
My constituency is growing at a rate of about five times the national average. Between 2015 and 2020, the population of this country grew by about 1.9 million people. If all constituencies grew at the same pace as mine, there would be over 5 million new people in this country. I ask the Minister, when it comes to housing, could we please consider an absolute cap on what local communities are expected to have in any long period of time? If we do not have that pressure against market forces, I fear that we are building some concerns for the future.
I know that Conservative colleagues—replete in their number here today—have a large number of questions about planning reforms. I would just say this to the Minister. The previous Secretary of State focused, I think rightly, on the efficiency of the process of planning: how do we get more houses built? That is important. Will the Minister also focus on how effective the planning is for the communities where those houses are built? If we have that slight nuance in the approach on planning, I think that would be helpful.
Of course, I come today not to bury the Minister, but to praise him; because he knows that his colleague in, I think, June 2021, in response to a debate that I called on housing growth in my constituency, killed the 1 million housing target that was in the Labour peer Lord Adonis’s housing target for the Ox-Cam arc. The Minister also knows that his Department, under the new Secretary of State, has said that it wishes to de-emphasise—to flush away—the Ox-Cam arc, which Lord Adonis, the Labour peer, was using as his Trojan horse to build a million houses in the play spaces of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. It is welcome that those changes were made, so I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister and ask him to make sure that we follow through to ensure that unreasonable targets are not placed on councils in the Ox-Cam arc area.
The Minister also knows that his colleague said that he would arrange meetings for me with the Department for Education for school places and with the Department of Health and Social Care on GP places. I am grateful to the Department for allowing that meeting to take place with school places; we had a very good meeting with the Department for Education, but I am interested to learn more from the NHS. I am completing a survey of GPs and around June this year will have the opportunity to present a report. Will the Minister follow up on that with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that I get access to the Secretary of State when that report is ready?
I just want to make a couple of points on GPs, if I may. As many colleagues have said, I know that people are frustrated that they cannot get access, but they should know that their GPs are working very hard. I would make this point: abuse is never acceptable when people contact their GP surgery. People should hold back. Don’t go all Will Smith, right?—don’t go all Will Smith when you call your GP surgery. Make sure you take that extra breath when you talk, because the people you are talking to are under considerable pressure.
We need to look at the GP partner model. I know there are many who would like to say that that model is an oddity in the new world. No, it is not. Entrepreneurship and the idea of running your own business has its place in primary care. We need to make sure that we open up and broaden the way in which we give people access to primary care. We have to recognise that GP access is a bottleneck in the system. I fully support infrastructure first, but the answer is not always more people. Often, it is more efficient processes with the existing people, or new avenues for people to access the care.
Will the Minister go back to his colleagues, as he considers GP practice and housing growth, and say, “Please make more progress on giving people the power to understand how they can access primary care”? We are making good progress with the NHS app, but it is an NHS app designed for us that actually looks like it was designed for doctors; it is very hard to make effective consumer decisions using the app. I ask the Minister to broaden the access for people to get into primary care through chemists and other facilities, and to please move forward with diagnostic centres.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this important debate. The provision for affordable housing and access to good healthcare are among the top issues raised with me by constituents in Truro and Falmouth in Cornwall. Those issues must be tackled in conjunction. I thank all the GPs and primary healthcare professionals in my constituency who have been working so hard over the last few years—as they always do.
I recognise people’s concern about the impact of large-scale developments on local services. That is why we must increase the provision of affordable housing while keeping in mind that for local communities to accept the new housing developments, new developments must be supported by health infrastructure. In the right place, large-scale developments can not only ease the housing crisis but act as a catalyst for reforming and tackling health issues and inequalities. We need to ensure that large developments can provide those opportunities.
Primary care delivery always requires funding, a physical site and willing providers. Those providers are GPs, which are generally private businesses and differ in their capacity. They will also differ in the demographic that they serve. Large-scale developments should be able to assist with that funding, and we must continue to ensure that local planning authorities can enforce that through mechanisms such as section 106 and the community infrastructure levy. I am pleased the Government have committed to further reform in that area, including proposals in the levelling-up White Paper for a new infrastructure levy that will enable local authorities to capture value from development much more efficiently. However, I echo the call of others that co-ordination with the Department of Health and Social Care is an utterly sensible way forward.
Developers can also provide physical sites by reserving land to deliver health services. I am pleased that developers for the controversial Langarth Garden Village in my constituency, which will eventually provide up to 10,000 new homes, are committed to doing the right thing and have secured, through the planning system and with the council’s involvement, permission to develop a new health infrastructure. I would like to thank, since he is in the Chamber, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) for providing a new free school on the north coast of Cornwall that will, in part, deliver school places for that very controversial new estate in my constituency.
The health infrastructure plans include a new health and wellbeing centre embedded in the Langarth community, a state-of-the-art health hub to provide a one-stop shop that includes GPs and primary care treatment as well as other health facilities that have been mentioned today, such as a dentists, a pharmacy and diagnostic services to reduce pressure on existing local services. However, it is important that we remember that GPs are a private business, and as such the Government must create the right conditions to ensure they can supply and maintain that service.
In Cornwall we have a housing crisis and a health and social care crisis. We have mentioned today that solutions to the two crises come together—one absolutely affects the other. GP surgeries in Cornwall frequently report that they are short-staffed; they have offered jobs across the entire health service in Cornwall, but people cannot take the work because they cannot find housing. That applies to any kind of healthcare worker, right up to consultant level, but certainly applies to GPs and dentists. We must ensure that key workers from both the public and private sectors can buy and rent affordably in the area. I would like more key worker housing to be set aside in the Langarth development.
Key workers are vital, but they tend to earn less than the national average, have fewer assets and have more limited choices about where they can work. That means that they find it harder to get on to the property ladder or to rent decent homes close to where they need to work. It is worth mentioning that the Langarth development is very close to our hospital. I would also like to see more one-level, one-front-door properties in the development for our growing elderly population. Let us create communities where they need to be. I am pleased that the Government have already taken several steps to ensure that we meet the needs of key workers in local communities, including the 30% discount under the First Homes scheme or the assistance available under Help to Buy. However, even with those schemes in place, many key workers struggle to get on the housing ladder, and there is a huge shortage in Cornwall.
There are various options available to the Government; I will mention a few. In areas with key worker staff shortages, local authorities and housing associations should consider giving greater priority to local key workers in their respective allocations and lettings policies. In addition, the Government’s future affordable housing funding programmes should prioritise allocating grant funding to affordable housing schemes in which a significant proportion of homes are reserved for key workers. It is especially relevant to places such as Cornwall, where we are on a peninsula and cannot borrow key workers from other local authorities.
It is clear that new housing developments must be supported by the appropriate health infrastructure. Developers can help to provide funding for sites, but GPs and other health providers supply the service and we must do more to ensure that those workers can afford to buy or rent near their place of work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for securing this really important debate.
Being able to access GP services is an incredibly important issue for my constituents. In fact, I receive almost as much correspondence on that issue as I do any other topic, and my constituents have expressed a real frustration with the difficulty of being able to secure a local appointment with their GP, as well as not being able to see their GP face to face as much as they would like. I appreciate that this is no fault of the GPs themselves, and I would like to put on record my thanks and pay tribute to all the GPs across my constituency, who have done an extraordinary job over the past 24 months—and indeed also worked incredibly hard before that, and continue to do so.
I recently met some GPs from the Modality Partnership, who told me that much more needs to be done if we are to deliver the level and provision of service that the public so desperately want. It is clear that approving large-scale housing developments will only make the problems worse, when we allow the housing developments to take place with no thought to increasing healthcare services by providing physical facilities and revenue expenditure for employing and recruiting more GPs. That is currently a big concern for many of my constituents, right across Keighley and Ilkley.
Only last year, the Labour-run Bradford Council proposed in its draft local plan to increase the number of houses to be built right across my community by 3,000. That includes 314 new houses in Ilkley and Ben Rhydding; 181 new houses in Addingham; 188 houses in Steeton and Eastburn; 191 houses in Riddlesden; and 204 houses in Haworth and Cross Roads—I could go on. In the context of this debate, those proposals will have a damaging impact on the numerous GP services and facilities that many constituents are still finding it very difficult to access.
We can look at Long Lee, a small community on the outskirts of Keighley, where Bradford Council proposes in its local plan to build an extra 236 new houses. That will have an extra damaging impact on the local GP practice, which is already at capacity. Luckily, a recent housing application for that area was postponed; I can only hope that local healthcare provision will be a vital consideration when that housing application is put forward to the committee again.
In Silsden, the town is currently facing many housing developments, including from Barratt Homes, Linden Homes, Skipton Properties, and Countrywide, with an application that has recently been put forward. More recently, a 140-unit proposal has been put forward by Persimmon Homes, which is a live application. The town is being inundated and services just cannot cope. The town is being asked to put up with too many houses when the local healthcare provision cannot cope as it is already at capacity. It is completely wrong, and something must be done.
I commend the work being done by Silsden’s District Councillor Rebecca Whitaker, who is leading the fight against these proposals and standing up for our local services. I am supportive of the work being done by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who has, as the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, launched an inquiry into local GP provision. I wholeheartedly hope that that inquiry looks at how we can make sure that expenditure is put into both capital and revenue in order to get better facilities put in place, and also that recruitment for GPs and GP services is given as much emphasis as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire made the important point that when planning applications are being considered, local healthcare service providers should have a statutory duty and responsibility to have a say in those applications, so that we can ensure that capacity is delivered for healthcare at a local level. When local authorities put forward their draft local plan, there should be an onus on them to have at least a conversation, but also to explore the facts about where capacity lies beforehand. In my area, when Bradford Council put forward their draft local plan last year, it had not even looked at the capacity available within local healthcare facilities. That cannot be acceptable.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), I make the point about where accountability sits and whether it lies with the Government, local authorities, GP services, local communities or housing developers when applications come forward. In summary, it is vital that we acknowledge these issues, as we cannot continue this endless cycle of allowing large-scale housing developments or additional housing to be built in small communities, producing a dramatic impact, without any acknowledgment of general practice capacity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this incredibly important debate. The debate brings together two of the biggest categories of complaints that I receive in my constituency: housing development and GP services.
The town of Aylesbury has been expanding for more than 50 years. Indeed, the area of Bedgrove, where my parents had their first home together and where they took me home as their newborn son, more than 50 years ago, was built on the site of a farm, and many more farms and green spaces have been subsumed by housing developments in the ensuing half century—Walton Court in the 1970s, Quarrendon and Watermead in the 1980s and Fairford Leys in the 1990s and early 2000s. All have attracted many more people to make their homes in the proud county town of Buckinghamshire. With each new development, new pressures have been placed on existing communities and the infrastructure that serves them. Key among those services is the provision of healthcare, especially GP surgeries.
I want to be clear that neither I nor my constituents are opposed to development. We recognise that the next generation needs somewhere to live, and Aylesbury is a fine place to choose. However, since 2000, more than 16,000 homes have been added to the town. The newly approved local plan will add that same number again. The people who come to live in those new homes need excellent local services. They need road and rail connections, such as the Aylesbury link road and the Aylesbury spur. They need schools with enough spaces for all the children living locally. Crucially, they need sufficient healthcare provision, particularly at primary level. Yet GP surgeries in my constituency are already at breaking point.
Like other hon. Members present, one of the most familiar refrains I hear from residents is that they simply cannot get an appointment to see their doctor. In recent months, I have visited several GP surgeries not only to thank the hardworking doctors, nurses and, crucially, receptionists for their incredible work during the pandemic, but to hear first hand about the challenges they are experiencing. Top of their list is that there is simply not enough capacity to deal with all the patients who need care.
Meadowcroft surgery is a good example of the pressures that population growth can have on towns like Aylesbury. The surgery opened in 1964 to serve what was then the new Quarrendon estate. It moved to a new site at Jackson Road in 1992, with 8,000 patients on the list. Today that list stands at more than 16,000, and will grow to more than 26,000 when the surgery moves to another new site in Paradise Orchard later this year, following a merger.
For more than a decade, residents in the south of Aylesbury in Stoke Mandeville and Weston Turville have been opposed to a new development on a greenfield site called Hampden Fields. The Hampden Fields Action Group is extremely concerned that the development will have inadequate healthcare provision. Their fears are completely understandable, given that another area—Kingsbrook—is yet to have a new surgery 10 years after its construction.
It is just plain common sense that new housing developments need to include healthcare provision. GP surgeries and all that they now include—such as paramedics, pharmacists and, of course, nurses—are absolutely critical to that provision. We must ensure that buildings for these facilities are core to the design and planning of large-scale new housing developments, and we must also remember that we do not just need the premises; we need the people as well. So we need to ensure that we have enough young people training to join the health service across the full range of its professions, with courses such as those at Buckinghamshire New University, Buckinghamshire College Group and Buckinghamshire University Technical College all providing that critical first step.
We must consider retention as well as recruitment, so that people living in those housing developments will still have excellent healthcare provision in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time. And we must not forget that primary healthcare can result in referral to secondary healthcare. GPs send some of their patients to hospital, and that route must not be neglected either, when we consider housing development on a scale such as we are seeing in Aylesbury.
It cannot be left to a random soup of acronyms— section 106, CIL and HIF—to make all of that necessary provision. What we need is a strategic, considered plan that can be delivered fairly and transparently. And within that plan, we probably need to consider novel ways of financing infrastructure, so that we get it at a much earlier stage—before all the houses are sold and when the developers are prepared to pay.
Today’s debate is an important and welcome opportunity to highlight how crucial healthcare is to the British people as we tackle the burgeoning demand for new homes. I hope that the Minister’s response will serve to reassure existing and future residents of Aylesbury that the Government understand the challenge and are set to meet it head-on.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd.
I genuinely think that this has been a valuable debate about an important issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing it and on the typically clear and powerful remarks he made in opening it. He has been raising concerns about this issue for a considerable period, and the fact that he felt compelled to secure this debate today only serves, I am afraid to say, to highlight the startling lack of progress on the part of the Government in addressing those concerns.
The concerns are not the hon. Gentleman’s alone; indeed, this issue is not confined to his corner of Bedfordshire. His concerns are widely shared across the House. As the attendance for today’s debate makes clear, they are keenly felt among Government Members in particular. I thank all the Members who have contributed this morning.
Having heard today’s contributions, we can only hope that the Minister will at least be convinced of the need to go away and revisit the fundamental aspects of a planning system that routinely fails to produce the necessary social infrastructure for new communities to thrive. We have heard lots of complaints and points of contention today, but it is within the Government’s gift to take action on many of the issues that have been raised. I hope that the Minister will go away with renewed vigour to address them.
The focus of this morning’s debate has been on the provision of primary care services for large-scale housing developments. I add my praise to the general expressions of support that have been conveyed today to GPs and GP practice staff. That we face significant challenges as a country when it comes to primary care capacity is not in dispute. The reasons for that shortage are complex, and when it comes to problems such as the recruitment and retention of enough GPs to accommodate rising patient demand or how local health services plan for population growth in service provision, those are obviously the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care. However, there is no question in my mind but that the planning system is exacerbating the crisis in primary care, particularly in areas experiencing significant development, by failing to deliver new facilities in places where the needs of large-scale new communities cannot be met simply by the expansion of existing sites.
The particular concern of the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and others who have spoken this morning is general practice capacity, but the national failure to ensure that all new large-scale housing developments have adequate primary care provision is mirrored in other forms of infrastructure, whether that be school places or transport, as the hon. Members for Wantage (David Johnston), for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and others have remarked upon. Having that infrastructure is absolutely key to gaining local consent, which is an essential part of the planning process.
I do not think that this issue is primarily one of housing supply. There is a housing crisis and we need to address it, but the crux of this issue is the need for up-front infrastructure investment before or at the point that a large-scale residential development completes and new residents move in. However, the planning system as it currently operates—and I think Conservative Members will accept this—is simply not geared up to facilitate that infrastructure-first approach on all major sites; all too often, no one has overall responsibility for place-making.
The importance of master developers was clearly identified in the Letwin review: they strategically assemble land, secure the necessary permissions, co-ordinate the delivery of the infrastructure and de-risk the development process as a matter of course. Without those developers, the system incentivises volume house builders to build often poor-quality housing in inappropriate and often entirely car-dependent locations, in a way that frequently leads to intractable disputes about how core infrastructure and services will be delivered and who will pay for them. Ultimately, the fact that the planning system lacks many of the features necessary to support effective large-scale housing growth stems from the failure of central Government to take a clear strategic role in the delivery of new large-scale communities.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and others drew attention to the inadequacies of the housing infrastructure fund, and they were right to do so. The fund can and does support the delivery of infrastructure on sites where viability is an issue and address the need for up-front infrastructure and the problem of risk on a limited number of sites. However, because it distributes funding on a competitive, ad hoc basis, it is not a general solution for the infrastructure needs of all large-scale housing developments.
Homes England could play a far larger role in providing local authorities with support and assisting local partners directly with delivery, land acquisition and the master developer role. It has extensive legal powers that allow it to take on that role and obtain land by means of compulsory purchase. It could be the instrument the Government use to support large-scale growth with the necessary social and transport infrastructure. However, that would depend on the Government having a strategy; at present, I am afraid, they do not. Although there are exceptions, in general terms it is simply a fact that central Government in England do not play a clear strategic role in site identification or the delivery of new large-scale communities.
The national infrastructure strategy sets out a range of investment priorities, but it does not provide a framework that makes clear which areas are preferred for long-term priority housing growth and their relationship to infrastructure investment. National planning policy on delivering sustainable, large-scale housing developments is incredibly vague and provides little in the way of encouragement or guidance to local authorities contemplating meeting local housing need in key strategic locations.
The Conservative Administration of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) changed the law in 2018 to encourage locally led development corporations to act as master developers. However, to the best of my knowledge—the Minister may correct me—none has yet been designated.
In many ways, the root cause of the infrastructure challenges on sites such as those that have been mentioned today is the issue of land value capture. Aside from direct Government grant, development of those sites is reliant on developer contributions in the form of section 106 or the community infrastructure levy to meet essential infrastructure needs. However, those contributions are often not sufficient to provide all the infrastructure needed on those sites. I am surprised that this has not been mentioned today, but that is at least partly a direct consequence of the impact of viability rules set out in the 2012 national planning policy framework, which allow developers to game the system and drive down section 106 contributions. Although in some cases local authorities could be more robust with developers, the national planning policy framework ties their hands behind their backs in terms of what they can extract as public gains under section 106.
The Minister will no doubt point to the Government’s proposals, mentioned most recently in the levelling-up White Paper, to introduce a new infrastructure levy. However, at present, we have no idea how it would apply to large-scale development or deal with areas of low demand, how much it would yield or the date by which we can expect it to be implemented. There is an immediate deficit, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire said in his opening remarks.
Given how heavily the Government appear to be leaning on the new levy as a means to secure affordable housing and the infrastructure communities need, perhaps the Minister might give us a sense of what the new levy will look like, what form it will take and when it will be brought before the House for consideration. Indeed, he might even go so far as to give Members a straight answer to the more fundamental question of whether the Government still intend to legislate for a reform of the planning system in this Parliament.
To conclude, this debate has highlighted a problem that is not confined to a handful of sites or to particular parts of England, but is the inevitable outcome of the current planning system, which does not provide the necessary social and transport infrastructure on major sites as a matter of course. Addressing that problem requires a fundamental change of approach on the part of the Government, not just tinkering around the edges with individual infrastructure funding streams.
Real benefits can be gained if the Department is willing to grapple seriously with the problem, not only in delivering a marked increase in housing supply but in terms of the quality and sustainability of the new communities that could be created. The alternative is that we continue to see more poor-quality housing in inappropriate locations without the necessary infrastructure that residents need to flourish. Members across the House do not want to see that outcome, and I suspect the Minister does not want to see it either, but do the Government have the political will to re-examine the flawed system that they are currently presiding over?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I cannot think of a better way to start my day than by spending it with my colleagues. I offer my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) my congratulations and thanks for securing this important debate. As the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) said, it has been useful and wide ranging. Hon. Members will understand that I may not be able to answer a number of questions about health here and now, but I will address some of the points that have been mentioned.
My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner for increasing access to GPs for his constituents. I know that he and everyone here wants our constituents to have timely appointments when they need them, and I am sure that everyone will agree that waiting weeks to see a GP is simply unacceptable.
When there is a growing population and a growing supply of new homes, it falls to Government to ensure that local services are not overburdened. Part of the problem is that in the past new development has not always been accompanied by real-world improvements in local infrastructure to serve the new community. When new homes are built, roads feel busier, schools appear to be over-subscribed and appointments for local surgeries and other healthcare provision are harder to book—I see that across my own constituency of Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough. It is an issue that often pits communities against new development because, too often, people feel that planning is something that happens to them, not something in which they are engaged. That needs to change and I say to all colleagues here that I get it.
We need to ensure that new homes automatically translate into new infrastructure, whether that be hospitals, GP practices, schools or parks and play areas, because they are all things that we rely on. I offer my praise to GPs who have worked incredibly hard in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) mentioned being kind to the staff at GP practices, which is an important message to relay.
It is important to say a few words about what should be happening, in order to reinforce the message to those who may be listening. Local plans are a way for areas to develop the communities they need. They are key to driving investment in the local area and securing the housing and jobs that our communities need. None the less, those plans should involve all the providers within those communities to ensure they are providing services to match the demands that new housing will bring.
My right hon. Friend is a thoughtful, considered and diligent Minister, and I hope he will be able to answer my question. If he does not have the answer, perhaps he can look for inspiration from his officials to his rear. Is he able to inform us how many planning applications have been turned down over the last year, two years or whatever timescale the records cover, as a result of lack of provision for health capacity and the needs of GPs? My guess is that the answer is probably zero, and that in itself sends a message to developers that they can get away with not having to bother with this.
I thank my right hon. Friend for asking such a specific question. I do not have those figures to hand, but I will ensure that I get them to him. He makes a very valid point, and I will come on to some of the things that we are looking at to address exactly his points.
I was talking about local plans, which provide certainty for communities, businesses and developers. An effective and up-to-date plan is essential not only to meet an area’s housing requirements, but to create well-designed and attractive places to live, with the services that people need on their doorstep. We are already helping councils to put in place such robust and up-to-date plans. That includes encouraging visits from the Planning Inspectorate and specialist advice from the Planning Advisory Service to provide a range of specialist planning advice to councils throughout England.
Plans should be shaped by early, proportionate and effective engagement between plan makers and communities, local organisations, businesses, infrastructure providers and operators, and statutory consultees. They should seek to meet the development needs of their area, and that includes facilities that will be needed across health, schools and other areas. We recognise, however, that more work is needed. We want all infrastructure providers, including healthcare providers, to be much more engaged in the plan making right from the outset, because that is clearly not happening enough, as we have heard in the evidence of colleagues today. We will come forward on how we will do that as part of our reforms in due course.
Local plans are not the only means of improving services and building that vital infrastructure. There are clear regulatory frameworks for local authorities and developers to follow. The national planning policy framework, for example, states that local plans should aim for sustainable development, which means that new schools, hospitals and local services such as GP practices should be factored in from the outset. Proposed development should be shaped by effective engagement with the local community, so that planners and developers know what is really needed. In some areas, it might be new roads, bridges or bus depots, but in others it will be new nurseries or GP surgeries. That engagement should extend to relevant health bodies too, such as NHS trusts and the clinical commissioning groups, to ensure that any development helps rather than hinders local strategies to improve health and wellbeing.
Local healthwatch organisations have a role to play. They have a firm grasp on the concerns of people who use health and social care services. My Department strongly encourages planning authorities to consult them when new homes are being built, so that they can raise those all-important questions on the number of GPs needed. Equally, to some extent local plans should head some of that off before houses are actually built. I have, however, listened to what colleagues have said—I hear it loud and clear. Put simply, if a GP surgery is right in the centre of town and a new development is on the outskirts, it is obviously better to ensure that a new surgery is built closer to the homes it will serve.
We have touched on some of the funding. Hon. Members are aware that councils obtain contributions through a community infrastructure levy on new development and by negotiating section 106 planning obligations with a developer. That helps to create funding not just for housing, but to address local infrastructure needs. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, about £5.5m has been allocated to healthcare provision through such funding, and that should be spent on helping to provide GP practices.
I recognise, however, that there is an issue here about which we need to do more. We hope that part of the effective planning reforms that we are to introduce will answer some of that. Our ambition has always been to simplify the system and to ensure that development becomes synonymous with improved services, and healthier and happier neighbourhoods. That is why we are exploring the introduction of a new infrastructure levy to replace the existing system of developer contributions.
At the moment, we plan for that new levy to be payable on completion of development. That will replace the negotiation and renegotiation that we keep seeing happen. The new levy will not be negotiable and will maximise land value, so we get more for local communities. It will also bring much greater certainty on costs, on factoring expenditure into the price paid for land and, in turn, on delivering more vital infrastructure. Under our proposals, local authorities would be allowed to borrow against infrastructure levy revenues so that they could bring forward vital improvements to services, including expanding GP capacity, before the first spade of a new development even hits the ground.
That said, I recognise that we need to test the policy. Many issues have been raised. I cannot at this moment commit my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to a meeting, but I will raise with him the suggestions and comments made today, and I will meet my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to raise the points made, to ensure that we are prioritising, gearing up and keeping focus, so that we can see what more can be done, and so that we do not miss the opportunity provided by the new fund to get the necessary infrastructure.
The hon. Member will not have to wait too long before hearing which vehicle will be used; I hope it will be in a couple of weeks.
I want to touch on the issue of transparency. We have introduced infrastructure funding statements, which give people the opportunity to see what councils have done, but we can and must do more to give confidence to residents. That brings me on to community engagement.
As hon. Members will know, changes to the levy system are by no means the only improvement we want to bring to our planning system. One of the reasons why new development has not always been matched with tangible improvements to schools, nurseries or GP practices is that it has not always been easy for local residents to scrutinise applications or to make their voices heard. We need a faster, more responsive planning system, fit for the modern age. That means embracing digital technology and encouraging more residents to voice their views on what is being built in their community, and where.
I know that some of our previous proposals generated significant debate, to say the least, and it is therefore right that we paused for thought and took stock of different voices from across the planning sector and beyond, but on this ambition we are determined to make headway because we believe that it will result in more real-world improvements to services, which hon. Members all want to see.
My ministerial colleagues and I hope to announce a way forward soon so that the planning system supports our wider mission to level up communities in Bedfordshire and right across the country. The key point is that, at its heart, communities must be involved. Communities and neighbourhoods should be shaping the places in which they live, so that we have beautiful places with the necessary infrastructure and a democratic system that also considers environmental improvements. Neighbourhoods should have a big say in all of it.
Colleagues raised a number of other points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) never misses an opportunity to raise housing targets with me. She knows from our conversations and meetings that I understand the issue. If she will allow me, I will come back to her in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) has also been quick off the mark to come to see me to discuss the issues in his constituency. Again, I understand them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough talked, quite rightly, about wanting to support new housing but that we should be building places where people want to live, not just huge dormitory estates. There has to be a sense of community. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) asked me to double up with the Secretary of State after his report—I will make sure that I do that for him.
I will see my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) later today to discuss the issue of second homes and its impact on those working in the public sector. I hope we will have a constructive meeting. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) talked about towns I know well. My mother-in-law lives in Addingham, so I will get an earful from her if I do not get this right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) talked rightly about the stark increase—from 16,000 to 26,000—in the number of patients at his surgery. That is absolutely an area we need to look at carefully. He also talked about all of the different funds that are available. I think that that is one of the most confusing issues, and it is something that I would like to address as we go forward.
The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich talked about the new levy. We are currently working with local authorities, providers and industry to ensure that the levy works for everybody.
In closing, I reiterate that I have heard loud and clear the concerns of hon. Members. The frustration of our constituents when large-scale new developments are green lit and local services become increasingly congested is palpable for us all. I hope I have clearly set out what we have already done to address that, through local plans, NPPF and section 106 agreements. I have also reiterated that we intend to go much further, by creating a more streamlined, smoother planning system, which levels up infrastructure and local services in every part of the country. I say to my hon. Friends that I am committed to working with all of them to ensure that we can make that vision a reality.
Let me start by offering my huge thanks to all colleagues who have taken the time and trouble to come here and be incredibly articulate on behalf of their communities, because this is clearly a common problem. We have heard from Members representing areas from Keighley to Cornwall and all points in between, and I know that colleagues from the north-west, Oxfordshire and many other places were not able to be here to tell the stories of their constituencies.
I have been reflecting on what the Minister has said. When he described the current system, I heard the word “should” a lot, but in moving to the new system of the infrastructure levy, that word must change to “must”. In far too many cases, “should” simply has not resulted in delivery. At the heart of it, I think we can do this according to the numbers. A GP and primary care team should be able to expect a safe limit based on the population in their area. A younger, healthier population could have a larger limit, but a smaller patient load may be required in an area with an older, more disadvantaged population.
If we agree that there is a safe number of patients for a primary care team of GPs and practice staff, we can simply do it on the numbers and raise up those affected. When many more houses are built, we must have the additional capacity to serve those extra residents coming to the area. I hope that the infrastructure levy will provide everything we need, but when the Minister has that conversation with the Department of Health and Social Care, could he please invite the Treasury to that meeting as well? Quite frankly, if the infrastructure levy does not do the full job, we will have to go back to the Treasury. We will pay for this eventually, but we need to do it in a timely manner.
My final point is incredibly important. What the Minister is about to bring in must not just be future-looking. We all now have massive estates that are under-provisioned. He cannot just look to the future; he must deal with the current problem, which the existing system has allowed to get into a terrible state.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered general practice capacity for large-scale housing developments.
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered gambling-related harm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am delighted to have secured this debate to talk about the urgent need for reform of the gambling laws. After two and half years of debates, reports and evidence sessions and, sadly, years of harm, addiction and ultimately loss of life, I was pleased to hear the Minister last week confirm that the publication of the long-awaited White Paper is not just imminent, but “very, very imminent”.
I urge the Minister to keep his word. He knows that the longer we wait to bring outdated and ineffective gambling laws into the digital age, the more people will fall victim to insidious online gambling products. For years, colleagues across the House and I have faced an onslaught of opposition from the gambling industry, for which the status quo is the perfect mix of outdated legislation, weak sanctions and limited scope. The reforms that we propose would fix that broken state of affairs.
Last week, GambleAware, a charity linked to the industry, reported that an estimated 1.4 million people suffer harms related to gambling, and that gambling has returned to pre-pandemic levels. According to the Gambling Commission, there are 55,000 problem gamblers aged 11 to 16. A Public Health England report found that 0.5% of people are problem gamblers, 3.8% are at risk and 7% are negatively affected by others’ gambling. The same report estimated that the cost of gambling-related harm is £1.27 billion annually.
Online gambling in particular must be addressed. The majority of online gambling revenue is derived from those classed either as problem gamblers or as at risk. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Gambling Industry found that 60% of gambling industry profits come from the 5% experiencing gambling harm. The University of Liverpool found that for online gambling that is even higher, with 86% of profits coming from that small cohort.
Rather than enter into a proper dialogue with those who are looking to reform and improve our gambling laws, the industry has come forward with very little in the way of remedies. It has resorted to playground name-calling, labelling those who are seeking improvements and reform as prohibitionists and, in my case, a Methodist. As a Welsh woman, I do not consider that an insult. That response is simply not good enough.
People having a bet on the Grand National, placing their Saturday accumulator, or enjoying a night at bingo or in the casino, are not—I repeat not—the focus of our reforms. We are fighting against people being seriously harmed, families being destroyed and lives being lost through gambling addiction and disorder. We cannot, in good conscience, stand by and see any more gambling-related suicides. Nor can we see people turn to substance abuse or crime as a way out of their addiction.
The playbook that the industry uses is very similar to the one it used during the debate on fixed odds betting terminals. We must not be fooled by that narrative. The industry says that the problem is historical, yet just a few weeks ago 888 was fined to the tune of £9.4 million for multiple failings. The industry says that reforms will harm the economy and result in job losses, which is exactly the same argument it used ahead of the reduction in the stake on fixed odds betting terminals. Despite warnings from the industry that 4,500 of the 9,000 betting shops would close as a result of reducing the stake to £2 a spin, 8,000 betting shops are still open today, and many are still clustered in some of our most deprived communities.
Last year, Peers for Gambling Reform commissioned a report, which was carried out by NERA Economic Consulting and concluded that
“industry profits are likely to exceed”
any financial costs associated with proposed reforms. The report stated that
“diverting expenditure by the public to other sectors which are more labour intensive than the gambling sector could create up to 30,000 new jobs, and employee earnings could increase by up to £400 million.”
Proposed reforms would see a
“net increase of £68-£87 million in tax revenues”,
rather than a net loss to the Exchequer. The industry argues that any reform at all will drive people to the black market, but the Gambling Commission has already said that the industry overestimates the existence of the black market, and it is not an argument to hold back reform.
What improvements are needed in the upcoming White Paper? Most importantly, the case for a centralised and independent affordability assessment is overwhelming. It cannot be right that online operators permit customers to deposit and lose hundreds of thousands of pounds, despite those customers having no regular source of income and often using money that is funded by crime. There has been a lot of debate about the level of a soft affordability cap, by which I mean the point at which an open banking check would kick in. Putting a limit of £100 a month on net deposits is a sensible, proportionate and, more importantly, evidence-based position, especially when we consider that the average level of disposable income in Britain is £450 a month, and that 73% of slot players and 85% of non-slot players lose £50 or less a month. A soft cap at £100 is therefore low enough to enable the vast majority of gamblers to continue without any checks whatever, as the vast majority of gambling activity occurs below this level. A £100 check would kick in only for those who gamble well above the average amount each month. Moreover, it does not preclude gamblers spending more than that. It just means that they would have to have an enhanced affordability check, which—surprise, surprise—many of the industry operators already carry out.
I also want to mention several banks that have been supporting their customers by providing gambling blocks. Monzo and Starling were among the first to do so, and I cannot understand why many banks do not offer the same support. It should be mandatory. There are now loopholes whereby gambling companies can accept non-card payments or the information available to the block is not accurate. I ask that Ministers work with the banking industry to ensure that all banks provide a comprehensive blocking facility.
I wonder what the answer is. I fully understand what the hon. Lady is proposing, but look at the hard evidence from Norway. Norway has done exactly what the hon. Lady is proposing, but 66% of all gambling stakes in Norway are done on the black market or dark web. How does the hon. Lady propose that that does not happen in this case?
Doing nothing is certainly not the answer. I know little about the Norway study, but just because Norway has not been successful, it does not mean to say that the UK Government would not be successful. We cannot afford to have any more of the issues that we have encountered for the last 17 years. Enough life has been lost, and doing nothing is not an answer.
I would like to pay tribute to Annie Ashton, who bravely started an e-petition when her husband Luke sadly took his own life after being lured back into gambling by relentless operators. I strongly back her calls to end the poisonous inducements that the industry uses to hook people on its addictive products. There is no such thing as a free bet.
It is not just inducements that are a massive problem. Gambling advertising has proliferated in recent years. We are now bombarded with gambling adverts on TV, online, at football matches and on billboards. I know that colleagues are particularly concerned about the impact that that has on children. If we look at recent published data, we can see the scale of the problem: 96% of people aged 11 to 24 have seen gambling marketing messages in the last month and are more likely to bet as a result; 45% of 11 to 17-year-olds and 72% of 18 to 24-year-olds see gambling advertising at least once a week on their social media, with one-third of young people reporting seeing it daily; 41,000 under 16-year-olds—children—are estimated to be followers of gambling-related accounts on social media; and 1,200 hours of gambling ads have been played on the radio during the school run hours over the last year.
Does the hon. Lady welcome the whistle-to-whistle ban on advertisements for gambling, which has seen a 97% reduction in the amount of adverts that children see? Would she support what Bet365, a company in Stoke-on-Trent, is supporting, which is that only branding should be advertised, mainly on the pitch side, not any actual odds or free bets that, I agree with her, can be too inducing and, therefore dangerous?
The whistle-to-whistle ban is not worth the paper it was written on. As for supporting anything Bet365 has done, I am sorry, I could not possibly do that. My experience of it does not allow me to do that.
That is a fraction of the alarming statistics that come across my desk each day. We know from research by Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling that regular exposure to gambling promotions can change perceptions and associations with gambling over time and impact the likelihood that young people will gamble in the future. That advertising is a catalyst to risk and problem gambling in secondary school-aged children as a result, according to the Journal of Gambling Studies.
How can we let gambling companies spend more than £1.5 billion a year on advertising to the extent that in one single televised football match over 700 gambling logos were visible throughout the game? That is insane.
Does the hon. Lady think that kind of answers the last intervention? If the gambling companies that are businesses did not think the advertising was successful in capturing more people, would they put £1.5 billion into it, or would they stop advertising now?
The right hon. Gentleman will know my answer. I was surprised when I saw the comment from the industry that advertising did not affect people’s behaviour. I thought if that was the case spending £1 would be ridiculous, but to spend £1.5 billion beggars belief.
I am going to make progress. Economic research has already proven that a ban on gambling advertising in sport would be unlikely to significantly harm sports leagues and teams. The non-gambling sponsors exist and are ready to fill any gap created. With our proposed carve-outs for sectors such as horse racing, we can ensure protection on all sides.
Next is the need for a statutory levy. Chronic underinvestment in the gambling treatment system has led to a scenario in which treatment is unregulated, unaccountable and fails to use the evidence base in the treatment strategies. Between 2% and 3% of people with gambling problems enter the treatment system and nearly all of them enter it through self-referral. A 1% smart levy on industry revenue would provide £130 million, which would be an increase of over £100 million on what we currently receive. That would significantly reduce the UK’s disparity with other nations that spend far more per gambler on treatment than the UK does, increasing funds for improved and—most importantly—industry-free education. That would put the UK at the forefront of research on an issue that affects millions of people across the world, would improve our understanding of how gambling is developing in this country and would inform future regulation.
There should be stake limits for online gambling, to give parity with land-based venues, including a maximum £2 stake on harmful slot content. Given the rapidly changing nature of both land-based gambling and online gambling, it is essential that limits on stakes and prizes, and potentially other factors, are renewed on a triannual basis.
A gambling ombudsman must be set up to ensure fair representation for those who experience problems with operators. Although the Gambling Commission receives complaints as the basis for possible enforcement action, it does not act on behalf of customers in pursuit of redress. That has allowed operators to withhold winnings unfairly and to use obscure terms and conditions to require customers to wager their deposit dozens of times before they are allowed to withdraw their money.
I know that the Gambling Commission has already introduced very welcome identity and age verification requirements, banned the use of credit cards, acted in relation to speed of play and length of time spent on a game, taken measures to require customers to have information on their winnings and their losses, and required all operators to sign up to GAMSTOP. However, there is far, far more to be done.
It is not just my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on gambling-related harm or the Peers for Gambling Reform group who support these measures. Recent polling commissioned by YouGov confirms that the British public are also on our side. Of those surveyed, 78% believe that gambling advertising should be completely banned on all platforms before the watershed and 67% also think that sports clubs should no longer have gambling sponsors on their kits or around their stadiums. In addition, 79% of those surveyed believe that under-18s should not be exposed to gambling advertisements in any form and 72% agree with me that affordability checks should be in place to help to prevent people from losing more money than they can afford to lose. Also, 69% of those surveyed think that online slots should have a maximum stake of £2. Finally, 76% of those surveyed think that the gambling industry should not get to choose where funding for treatment for gambling addiction and research goes. For me, that is a bit of a no-brainer, because doing otherwise is letting the gambling industry mark its own homework; the gambling industry gives the money, so it gets to say where it is spent. It is the people who are damaged the most who lose out; this industry only cares about its profits.
The hon. Member is making the most impassioned contribution. I hope that I will not interrupt the stream of useful statistics that support her argument, but I will just give an example of—I had better be careful in my description—a senior medical person in the highlands who was well-off and well-paid. They committed suicide and it was discovered afterwards that they were a gambling addict.
The point I am making, and I am sure the hon. Member will agree, is that it is a mistake to think that gambling is something that just affects one particular sector of society; it is a problem that can hit anyone. And the local community in the highlands has never quite got over that person’s death.
I will conclude my remarks by saying that it is worth remembering that gambling is all over the place; it is found at every level of society.
I will not name names either. I will just say that there are people in this room at this very moment who have made the greatest sacrifice of all, having given their children to an addiction, with little done to support them.
It is clear that the British public, the evidence, and the momentum are all on the side of reform. All we are asking for is effective protections to be put in place for customers, and for an industry that is all too often shamelessly exploitative to be reined in and regulated effectively. If we tackle the question of affordability, ensure restrictions on advertising and introduce stake limits to help prevent harm, we can tackle gambling disorder and addiction at its very core. If we push to introduce a statutory levy on the industry to properly fund research, education and treatment, along with a gambling ombudsman, we can at least try to help those who are already stuck in the depths of exploitation.
This is a once-in-a-generation chance to update our laws and, most importantly, save lives. It is now in the hands of a few people who I pray to God are listening to this debate, because the time for talking is done; now is the time for action. The gambling industry has run amok for 17 years. It cannot be allowed to be so destructive any longer.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I will be reasonably brief, as the hon. Lady—in this case, my hon. Friend—the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) has laid out all the criteria. I want to emphasise a couple of points, and then appeal to my colleagues to think carefully about what their arguments really are.
It is worth reminding ourselves that this is a very cross-party affair. Across the political parties, we all campaigned for reform back in 2019. Recent polling shows that 70% of existing Conservative MPs agree that people should be protected from losing more than they can afford, so straightaway my own party is very strongly in favour of the changes that the Minister, who will be answering in due course, is looking to make; and I encourage him in doing so. Some 64% of Conservative MPs agreed that the industry needs greater regulation, and 68%—I know these figures have been given already—agreed with stake limits for online gambling. That is my political party, but this is very much a cross-party issue, and I know that Members who represent other parties will make similar points. This is not party political; it is about harm, and how we control that harm.
We have been told frequently by the gambling companies—I remember the debates on fixed odds betting terminals and so on—how they would all do self-regulation very carefully and responsibly. The industry simply did not take the big and early decisions that it should have taken; in a way, it has brought this on itself. I happen to think that many of these companies are very greedy. They have resisted regulation because they have been making such handsome profits out of the way that the industry works right now—excessive profits, in a way—which should be the giveaway. Failing to have self-regulated early means that it is simply not feasible to trust those companies to do what they should do.
As I understand it, the public agree that these changes need to happen and, as I say, parliamentarians are also in favour. If any colleagues have not done so, they should meet those who have suffered enormously as a result of gambling-related harm. Proportionately, a very high number of the British public—7%— are involved in serious gambling harms. That is to say that their families, family members, children, husbands, wives and partners also get sucked into their situation, because an individual or individuals have got themselves sucked into terrible debts, spending more than they can afford and becoming more in debt than their family can afford.
I want to draw attention to one element of the issue about which I have been particularly furious, which is the existence of VIP rooms. The gambling companies persisted with those rooms until they finally started explaining that they were somehow not going to do so anymore, but this has been going on for years. VIP rooms target the most vulnerable people—the people who, as the hon. Member for Swansea East said, the gambling companies make their money off—who are seriously caught up in gambling, often spending much more than they can afford. They are encouraged and incentivised to gamble more, getting special tickets to events, meeting celebrities, and being told what wonderful and clever people they are. All of this is a vortex of debt to them.
We know something about debt that is really important, and the Centre for Social Justice did a lot of work on this: debt is the single biggest cause of family breakdown. It is a dramatic and damaging process that destroys lives. It has led, as we know, to embarrassment, shame and eventual suicide—although in some cases people are caught before they get there. The truth is that debt is damaging, and for many people gambling is a real cause of serious and unregulated debt.
I do not believe in constantly regulating everything, but at time industries need to be regulated to shape the market. The gambling industry was deregulated far too much. At the time, I made a speech saying that I thought it would lead to serious problems, and that speech was right. It is not about the fact that the Labour party did it at the time; the reality was that it was wrong, whoever did it. Now we have to try to make that better. To improve the situation is not about being against gambling. It is about the gambling harms that come from an unregulated and unsupported process, and it is about not allowing people who do gamble to fall into the deep trough of debt.
My final point is about black markets. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told, when any reform or change is planned, that there is going to somehow be a black market, and that people are going to go off and use it. A gambling black market is a pretty specialised area. If we are worried about that black market, we should simply seek to reform it; we do not stop doing something because we think it will somehow plunge people into debt. I appeal to colleagues, and those who may not be here today, to accept that the time is long overdue.
The hon. Member for Swansea East is quite right that we must move now and swiftly. I urge the Government to come forward and not to listen to the shrill voices that surround them at times, telling them, “This is going to destroy and damage an industry, and it is going to lead to huge hardships and problems.” Given the level of profits and the private money that is taken out of the industry, frankly, if it had common sense it would plough that money back in and then not need to suffer anything at all.
The time is overdue; the Government are now in the right place, although the Minister will no doubt explain that further. The Minister responsible for this issue—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp)—has already explained his intentions. It is time for the gambling industry to recognise that the time is up, change is coming—it has to come—and it is not too soon, given the lives that have been lost and the damage that has been done to families. I say to my colleagues, do not continue to defend bad practice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate, and for the typically passionate way in which she set out the case for the Government to act faster on combatting gambling-related harm. I declare my interest as a member of the APPG on gambling related harm.
As we know, the Government’s review was completed a year ago this week, and it received 16,000 submissions. Gambling-related harm is an issue that I care passionately about. Why? It is not because of the statistics and the facts, although they are compelling and I congratulate colleagues on reminding us of them. The reason that I care is closer to home: I see the impact of gambling-related harm in my constituency on a regular basis, as do so many of us through our work with constituents. Faced with those stories, I cannot fail to see the case for reform. I share the view that problem gambling in the UK should be treated as a public health issue. Gambling harm is happening every day. It destroys lives, damages health and mental health and, at worse, can lead to the loss of loved ones. There is also the cost to society in lost tax receipts, benefit claims, welfare, and the cost to the NHS and the criminal justice system. Above all, the impact on the health of those affected and the families around them should concern us most, and should be the focus of the Government as they prepare to release the White Paper.
The publication of the gambling White Paper cannot come soon enough. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in Government to take the opportunity to deliver meaningful change where the industry has not. Others across Parliament, in the media and beyond will say that the industry has already introduced significant reforms. Although change is welcome, the stories that so many of us continue to hear demonstrate it is not enough. The time for action is now, and our message is that we do not need to wait; so much can be done before we reach for primary legislation. I hope that the Government will grasp the urgency of the situation and announce changes that can be delivered as soon as possible.
The case for reform is not only mounting; it is overwhelming. However, I and my colleagues across Parliament who have campaigned tirelessly to stop gambling harm face a common challenge. With alarming regularity, we are now told that reform will stop the average punter spending a few quid or that it will prevent people from enjoying themselves. That narrative has to stop. Reform is not about prohibition. It would not stop people doing something they have enjoyed without harm for many years. Reform is about preventing harm and stopping an out-of-control industry from taking advantage of people who are suffering. I have heard several times that gamblers will be driven to the unregulated black market. My response is simple: I do not believe it. The Gambling Commission has previously said that the risk is overstated.
Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves, if harm is already taking place on a vast scale through licensed operators today, why would we not want to regulate so they act more responsibly? There is no reason for us to be caught in a regulatory race to the bottom. As the publication of the White Paper comes ever closer, I hope that the Government have listened and acted on the many concerns raised in order to prevent gambling harm across the country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East highlighted, it is estimated that in excess of 55,000 children in this country between the ages of 11 and 16 are gambling addicts. The gambling industry spends more than £1.5 billion a year on advertising, and 60% of its profits come from the 5% who are already problem gamblers or at risk of becoming so. On average, a problem gambler commits suicide every day. A recent report from Public Health England showed that the annual economic burden of gambling harm is estimated to be more than £1.2 billion, with the greatest risks occurring in the more deprived areas of the country. That is not levelling up, but levelling down.
There are many actions we need to take, but I add my name to the calls for four key reforms, several of which can happen now as we begin to deal with this terrible problem in our communities and societies. First, to underline what others have already said, we need to an online system that ensures that people cannot spend more than they can afford. Secondly, I cannot understand why online gambling is not subject to the same stake limits as fixed odds betting terminals and in-person gambling. That has to be changed. During lockdown, people were at home more and restricted in their movements, with access to mini casinos on their laptops or mobile phones. That easy access to online gambling is dangerous and puts vulnerable people at much greater risk. Thirdly, there should be a smart statutory levy on the gambling industry to pay for education, treatment and research. Finally, we should remove gambling advertising from sports and sports team, especially sports to which children are exposed.
The Gambling Act 2005 is outdated and has often been described as analogue legislation for a digital age. It was in place before the advent of mobile smartphones that provide access to the mini casino in our pockets and before the internet provided an even larger platform for gambling advertising. The asks that I and many others have outlined are a foundation to build on in creating a society where the risk from real harm and gambling is not acceptable. The evidence is there, the harm that is being caused is well documented, and the time for action is well overdue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and it is also only right to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that before I came to this place, I was employed by Bet365 between 2006 and 2019. I have not come to this place to be a spokesperson for the gambling industry, but I hope that my experience can be used to inform the House in such debates. Bet365 is a major employer in Newcastle-under-Lyme—I see two colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent here as well—and contributes a huge amount to the local area and to skilled jobs there. I will come to that later.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her tenacity and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), and to everybody who has pushed the subject of gambling-related harm, which we all want to see reduced. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) in his place. The Gambling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), visited Bet365 last week, and I know that he shares that ambition. I want to share my experience and understanding of how the industry works to respond to some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Swansea East in her opening remarks, and to say that I do fear the impact on the black market. I will come to that in a minute.
The hon. Lady is right to have held the industry to account for so long. It has been too slow to adapt in the past, but has made some big changes in recent years, such as the whistle-to-whistle ban and the code on high-value customers, as referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. High-value customers are not just addicts; some are seriously wealthy, so have been treated as VIPs in the past. They are big customers that any capitalist firm would wish to have. However, I accept that VIPs have gone wrong in the past.
Points have already been made about advertising, but I am pleased that 20% of TV adverting by the industry now promotes safer gambling and that we are tackling problem gambling. Figures published by the regulator the Gambling Commission, covering the period to December 2021, showed that the problem gambling rate was down from 0.6% to 0.3%, and that the number of those at moderate risk has fallen from 1.2% to 0.8%. In countries such as Italy, Norway and France, those rates are much higher and there are more black markets, either because online gambling is illegal, there is a state monopoly or there are such high tax rates for the companies registered there. I accept that the black market is not a big problem in the UK at the moment, but that is because we have a well-regulated structure for gambling. We can regulate it better and I hope we do so through the review, but we must be mindful that that risk is out there.
I will now talk a little about Bet365 and what it is doing. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I visited Bet365 last week. The company has been at the forefront of the industry in trying to address the issue, and has gone above and beyond current regulatory guidance. As I have said, it is rooted in north Staffordshire and did not offshore its sports betting to Gibraltar when most other firms did in order to avoid tax. It has always paid its fair share of taxes, and Denise Coates has always paid her fair share of income tax and not sought to avoid that, despite the headlines that come with that every year.
I am glad to hear that. The fact that she has paid her tax and has not sought to keep that money in the company or do anything else with it is admirable.
Bet365 pays a huge amount of tax and is a British company with huge export success. A lot of its revenue comes from abroad, and any bet taken from abroad improves our balance of payments as an export success. Denise Coates has donated a nine-figure sum to the Denise Coates Foundation, which funds charities locally, nationally and internationally. Bet365 also owns Stoke City football club, so it is rooted in that community.
The hon. Member for Swansea East rightly raised a number of issues, but Bet365 has already gone above and beyond regulatory and industry guidance, by setting deposit limits, picking up on red flags, and having a huge team for responsible gambling proactively contacting people believed to be at risk. The hon. Lady said she wanted a net deposit limit of £100 a month, but I hope she will understand my genuine concern that the process of asking people for data, such as mortgage and bank statements or pay slips, is very intrusive.
In the experience of Bet365 and other firms that I have spoken to, people do not want to provide that information and at the point at which they are asked for it, they stop betting with that firm. We do not know where they then go. Do they go to another firm, elsewhere or stop gambling all together? We do not have enough information, but lessons from the industry tell us that asking people for pay slips and mortgage and bank statements stops them engaging with the firm that already knows their behaviour best. I am not against deposit limits, and neither is Bet365, but we have to get the level right and have lower levels for young people, and so on. Equally, Bet365 has set slot stake limits lower than previously and is prepared to look at feedback.
Change is necessary. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East for her campaign. I hope that in the course of the review the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport can learn from firms that are at the forefront of the sector, such as Bet365, which is a major local employer that is setting standards for responsible gambling within the sector that I believe we can learn from.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on her passion and her commitment. I fully support her. I like to think that I am equally passionate when it comes to this issue and I am very keen to see the changes that we all desire. On the whole, I believe people should be entitled to live and let live and make their own mistakes, but only in so far as that mistake does not harm others. Unfortunately, gambling does affect others and, as the hon. Lady said, it affects entire households, including people I know and will speak about, without mentioning any names.
In Northern Ireland, an online survey identified 2.3% of the population as having a gambling problem. Although that percentage is likely to underestimate the number of problem gamblers, it is still more than four times higher than that recorded in mainland Britain and almost three times higher than in the Republic of Ireland. Again, that illustrates my concerns. I can think of one lady in particular in my constituency, whose husband would often come home on a Friday night with no money to pay the bills. It put her and her children in a desperately difficult position. It almost drove the couple apart and ruined their marriage, lives, health and wellbeing. That is just one example.
Some 4% of suicides among 20 to 24-year-olds are gambling-related. There are 250 gambling-related suicides per year in the UK. A Swedish study found that the suicide rate for those with a gambling disorder was 15 times that of the general population. I give those figures because that is what we are looking at: lives that could be saved by a change in legislation. I understand that the gambling sector has done a lot, but it has not done enough. I ask the sector and the Minister to engage with gambling organisations and those who are trying to make lives better and save lives. It is clear that the damage to the community at large is not met with an equal amount of regulation. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to take every step to make the changes.
Gambling with Lives is a charity that was set up in Fermanagh in Northern Ireland by grieving parents who lost their son by suicide after a gambling addiction. They are putting their time, money and effort into raising awareness to ensure that no other parent will know the pain they feel from their loss. They began an initiative in schools because they know that is where it begins for many gamblers, and never more so than now when the world is at our fingertips through our smartphones. I take my hat off to their drive and determination to bring good from loss. Can we say in this House and in this debate today that we are approaching the matter with equal drive? With respect, are the Minister and the Government also involved in pushing hard on the issue?
I would like to see the introduction of regulations that would require operators to pay an annual levy to the Gambling Commission, to create a joint advisory levy board with oversight over the levy paid to the Gambling Commission, to reallocate the £60 million pledge to GambleAware for 2023 to the Gambling Commission under the oversight of the levy board, and to implement the targeted findings into the smart levy. That is why this debate is important. It is about changing lives and saving lives. Lives and families depend on this, and I believe the Government’s approach is not dependable. With that in mind, it must change, and I look to the Minister to assure me that it will change and for the better.
Everybody here understands the damage caused by addiction, not just to the individual but to families, marriages and communities. Nobody doubts for a minute the challenges that the Government face in trying to regulate, in this case, the gambling industry to protect the most vulnerable, while at the same allowing the vast majority to enjoy their hobby or, in some cases, profession without it becoming an overburdened, bureaucratic straitjacket or without imposing a nanny-state solution on the majority. I say that because if the industry is restricted too harshly, the evidence shows that it just forces people on to the black market or the dark web, where there are absolutely no checks or balances in place to protect people. No, it is not difficult to access for someone who wants or needs to use it.
The reality is that problem gambling rates in the UK, at 0.3%, are low compared with our neighbours: in Italy, it is 2.4%; in Norway, 1.4%; and in France, 1.3%. Despite what the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) says, a big part of that success is down to what industry in the UK has embraced, with programmes like “BeGambleAware”. That is not just a saying or catchphrase, but something tangible in every regulated high street betting shop with human interaction, as well as their online presence. The large industry players in this country have pledged contributions of over £100 million for research, education and treatment in this area.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that for the money the industry has given, it says where it is spent? It has influence over how that money is spent and therefore it precludes people from accessing services because they feel there is industry interference.
I was trying to highlight the fact that the hon. Lady said earlier that the industry was doing nothing, and the reality is that it is not doing nothing. It is actually part of why we have a much lower gambling problem in this country than our neighbours do. The industry is also spending a further £10 million on safer gambling education for all 11 to 19-year-olds throughout the country. As we have seen during the pandemic when we were all working from home, advertising on safer gambling is a much larger proportion of the money spent on gambling adverts.
That does not mean that we do nothing more. Of course there is more to do, and anyone who has experienced living with a problem gambler knows how potentially life-damaging it is for everyone around them. It is therefore right that any review of gambling has the most vulnerable at its heart.
Let us briefly look at what happens when we abandon a balanced, competitive, regulated market, which is the only way to deter the hugely increasing black market. I mentioned Norway earlier, which introduced restrictions on stakes, strict affordability checks, and curbs on advertising. Instead of protecting the most vulnerable, it drove them to the black market, where 66% of all gambling in Norway now takes place. There is no human interaction on that market, no checks on affordability, and no lifelines available, either. So Norway’s 1.4% problem gambling figure is much higher because it does not know where the problem gamblers are.
On the black market, my hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the lack of protection for problem gamblers, but there is also no protection for people to ensure they get paid if they have a winning bet. They do not have any of the security that we have here in the United Kingdom that ensures people will be treated fairly by the operator, nor all the problem gambling measures that we have.
I draw the Chamber’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. There is a further point that has not been mentioned. I represent the Cheltenham racecourse, and 45% of horseracing’s income comes from bookmakers. It is extremely important that we tackle problem gambling. One problem gambler is one too many, but is not that statistic very important when the Government consider how to take a balanced approach? The entire sport of horseracing is very worried indeed about the potential loss of income in what is not a well-funded sport.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we see that in snooker and darts as well, which rely on funding to ensure they remain popular.
I mentioned Norway and I will highlight a similar story in France, where online gambling is illegal and 57% of all gambling is done on the black market. In Bulgaria, it is 47%. In Italy, 23% of all money staked now goes to the black market. Here in the UK, although the figures are low in comparison, we have seen a large rise in online unregulated gambling, from 2.2% to 4.5% over the last 18 months. In unregulated, black market gambling—
Of course. The average stakes are much higher, with billions and billions of pounds involved.
Let us be careful what we ask for. Although the scourge of addiction is a problem that we need to address, we have to be very careful that an act of good intention does not make the problem far worse than it currently is. The evidence is there if the Government are keen to look. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Government need to work closely with the industry on solutions and not destroy good intentions by imposing on the industry rather than working with it.
I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who secured today’s debate. My biggest challenge is perhaps for the Minister, because we do not have a public health Minister sitting in his place and we are talking about a public health issue. I am pleased that in York, after much persuasion, we have now got somebody from our public health team appointed to look at the problem, but they are starting with a blank sheet of paper because we do not have the local data that they need to drive the health initiative.
As a country, we were shocked to hear that 55,000 children had a gambling addiction. Some 14% of young people aged 11 to 16 had spent their own pocket money to gamble in the week before the report was carried out, spending an average of £16 a week. The report also found that, over the year, 39% of children had gambled, with 6% using their parents’ online account to do so.
The next generation of gamblers are being drawn in by not only the gambling industry, but the gaming industry. That industry has not been mentioned today, but with 31% of gamers opening loot boxes, it is causing equal harm. One young constituent was thousands of pounds in debt from gaming—what a way to start their life. Young people are really at risk.
The behaviour of the gambling industry is to groom young people and put them in a place of harm. We see the lobbying that takes place in this place—the gambling industry just does not hold back. We see the intrusive behaviours online and the grooming techniques. We have heard so much today about the advertising, the free bets and those luxury days out that are offered to lure people into that space and draw them into debt. The industry has the data—it knows what it is doing. It is therefore a deliberate act. We have to approach that with an equal and opposite bold approach and not be fearful of the industry.
I am really grateful for the work that people are doing across the health sector to take this issue seriously. Matt Gaskell, who runs the northern hub of the NHS gambling service, is exceptional at the work that he does.
We have to break the links through which the gambling industry thinks it can control what health interventions are made. Yes, we should tax the industry up to the hilt, but we should use that general taxation to fund proper investment in the public health measures that are now being put in place.
The treatment provided by the service is 92% effective. However, only 8,500 people have accessed it, while only 6% have accessed the helpline provided. We know that it is not effective intervention. It expects very vulnerable people to be able to access those services.
We need to open up the conversation and the dialogue. It is really important that we start talking about this issue and open it up, so that people feel they have a safe space in which to talk about their debt problems, as opposed to feeling at risk.
Thank you for calling me, Ms Rees. Like all Members present, I recognise the real importance of addressing problem gambling. However, I think it important that we put this issue in context, especially given that the latest Gambling Commission figures show a drop in problem gambling from 0.6% to 0.3% in the 18 months up to December 2021. Those figures compare with far higher rates of problem gambling among many of our European neighbours.
The vast majority of people in the UK gamble responsibly and safely. EY has suggested that the sector supports 119,000 jobs and contributes £4.5 billion in tax and £7.7 billion in gross value added to the economy. In Stoke-on-Trent alone, the industry supports 4,500 jobs, predominantly at Bet365, many of which are highly skilled. We have very few of those high-skilled jobs in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, which is still on the journey towards the levelling up of opportunities.
It is also important to recognise the significant investment by the sector in sport and wider charitable causes, such as through the Denise Coates Foundation, which most recently gave more than £1 million to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. More than £40 million is provided annually to the English Football League alone—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) mentioned, includes Stoke City Football Club, which is based in my constituency at the Bet365 Stadium. Most of the investment in the club and the Stoke City community foundation comes from Bet365. The community foundation, in particular, does fantastic work to engage young and vulnerable people in sports. Without the investment of the gambling sector in such causes, much of that work simply would not be possible.
Most recently, we have seen many in the sector lead the way by improving standards, including investing in improvements in safer gambling education and in efforts to address problem gambling. The action that industry has taken, including to introduce a whistle-to-whistle ban on sport advertising and almost entirely removing gambling ads seen by children, has resulted in a significant reduction in problem gambling. Those standards should be implemented across the sector. I have met Bet365 and I know it has led the way on much of the work, including significant measures for those who need that support and flagging concerns where they exist.
It is important that these actions are further rolled out throughout the sector, but there is a significant risk that if we do not get this right, we will just encourage a growing black market industry. The number of people accessing unlicensed betting websites doubled between 2019 and 2020. I urge the Government to be very cautious and to fully understand the implications, to ensure that we do not see unintended consequences that would only further gift those criminal black market operators. We want proper action focused on those who really need help and support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate. Ultimately, what she said is important. No one here is in denial of the fact that reform needs to happen or that we need to go further.
In Stoke-on-Trent we have Bet365, which is acting impressively to make sure that we see improvements in what they are doing, such as the age verification policy, a deposit limit, advice and the ability to set. If someone wants to change their deposit limit, it takes 24 hours and a cooling-off period before they can do so. Behaviour algorithms monitor that behaviour, which means that someone could be picked up by the early risk detection system, which leads to safer gambling messages. There are on-site messages signposting tools, sharing with the customer information on their behaviour, mandatory problem gambling self-assessment, phone calls with customers, affordability assessments being trialled at the moment, and tailored net deposit limits. Those things are in place. The gambling industry is working hard to improve and to find solutions. Although reform is needed, it must be done sensibly.
I must say, I am pleased that people have come here to talk on behalf of the gambling industry. Too often, we talk in a silo and do not hear what other people have to say. I am glad they have come here, spoken out, expressed themselves so eloquently and read their Bet365 briefing so beautifully.
The hon. Gentleman refers to a briefing that I was reading. I was, indeed, reading a briefing that was presented to the Minister when he visited to explain what the industry was doing, which is forming part of the gambling review. I do not see why it is bad to get a briefing from companies sharing what they are doing. What the hon. Gentleman said is ludicrous.
We will cover that in a minute; we are wasting time.
It is simply not true that 66% of Norwegian gambling is on the black market. I am not trying to replicate Norway. In Norway, gambling is state monopolised, and because of that they use the internet a lot to gamble. In fact, the 66% relates to people using online gambling. It is not black market gambling as we understand it.
On whether the whistle-to-whistle ban works, Stirling University carried out a survey during five football matches with a whistle-to-whistle ban and recorded 2,000 gambling marketing references. It is clearly not working or protecting the people it is supposed to protect.
The all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm has spoken to all the chief executives of the big gambling firms. We have listened to what they have to say. We have spoken to gamblers who gamble every day and do not have a problem with gambling—we are not trying to step on their toes. If they want to gamble and they are comfortable, they can gamble. We are not prohibitionists. We have spoken to people who control the provision and support for people with addiction. We have spoken to academics, to addicts and to people whose lives have been destroyed by the gambling industry. That is the rounded, responsible way to go about forming a view on this topic, not to sit here and read a briefing from a gambling firm. A number of figures have been chucked around, and they came straight from the PoliticsHome article by Michael Dugher, chief executive officer of the Betting and Gaming Council.
I am not accusing anybody in this room—absolutely no one—but I do know that among those who support the gambling industry, a number of elected MPs are well funded by the industry to do so, while among the people who are fighting to reform gambling and make it a safer environment for all our constituents, no money changes hands.
The film “Erin Brokovich” tells the true story of a campaign against the practices of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which had illegally dumped hexavalent chromium—deadly toxic waste—and poisoned the residents in the area. For most people, it is inconceivable that directors sitting in the boardroom of a large and successful company would allow such damage or behaviour in the full knowledge of the harm that they are doing, but that case is not unique. Large corporations have a history of putting profit over people, be they the tobacco giants, which have a long history of denying the health risks of smoking, or the logging companies that ruthlessly exploit the Amazon rainforest for personal gain.
In that respect, industry and politics share the same dynamics. The power to make decisions that affect the lives of many are often made by a few people who sit at the heart of the process. Just like Prime Ministers and senior members of the Cabinet, chief executives and company directors make choices that can have huge impacts on people’s lives, for good and for bad. When they act in their own self-interests, they can heap misery on many others. The damage that they cause may not be apparent to them—they can confine themselves to their ivory towers—but plenty of people who witness that harm are prepared to testify if listened to. Throughout history, a catalogue of people have been willing to turn a blind eye to injustices in return for the opportunity to feather their own nests. When chief executive officers are driven solely by the pursuit of massive personal wealth and the privilege that it brings, the plight of others can easily be ignored or underestimated.
The gambling firms must be today’s equivalent of the tobacco firms. They have taken vast amounts of money, generated massive profits and paid their elite employees huge salaries, while ruthlessly pursuing punters and squeezing every penny out of them. The health and welfare of their customers is not a priority. Games are designed to be addictive. The exponential growth of online casinos has removed the human touch, and punters are reduced to being part of the machine.
Gambling online can be done 24/7—cooling-off periods no longer exist, and chasing losses goes unchallenged. People who have self-excluded are often approached and tempted back to gambling. Free bets in VIP rooms are lures to hook often vulnerable people and draw them back into the fold. People have turned to crime to feed their addictions, families have been left broken, and people have committed suicide. In attempts to divert criticism, the public relations departments of the gambling industry are quick to point out the charitable organisations that they support. In fact, if those who run the gambling industry paid themselves less and their employees more, that money would be spent in local communities, where the benefit would be felt—less charity, more fair distribution of wealth.
The gambling industry also funds research into addiction and support for sufferers, and picks up the tab for the Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, but it is not right that those who cause the harm have financial control of the research, education, treatment and regulation. The link between industry money and those services must be broken, and funding must be channelled through the NHS in the form of a smart statutory levy. The UK gambling industry employs more than 45,000 people and directly contributes more than £4 billion to the Exchequer. Those are impressive numbers, but the money spent on gambling does not yield as much tax revenue as money spent in the retail or food sectors, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that some of those jobs and much of that profit are the result of gambling-related harm.
I am not a prohibitionist, but I recognise that the gambling industry has to change; it must take responsibility for its products and its punters, and it must recognise the damage of addiction and play a part in reducing it. The industry has run amok since 2005, but in this digital age it is now time to grow up and act responsibly.
It is really good to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. May I start by paying tribute to my hon Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this debate and, more importantly, for her work over the years. She has been a brilliant campaigner on this issue and set out the problems very clearly in her speech, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who gave powerful speeches. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, particularly the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). It is not often that I agree with every word he says, but I did today.
We have had a variety of contributions, but there is something that shines through—namely, the wide recognition and consensus that reform is needed. As we know, the Gambling Act 2005, which is the basis for regulation of gambling in the UK, has not been updated since it was passed. Today’s debate is a reminder of how unfit that legislation is in meeting the demands of the digital age. As we have heard today, the mental and physical health consequences of harmful gambling can be devastating in many ways. Many of us have met people who have been damaged, and whose families have been damaged, by gambling.
Aside from the cost to individuals, the Government’s own gambling-related harms evidence review showed that the cost to the Government is, at a minimum, at least £340 million each year. Despite that, it has now been two years since the Government committed to publishing a gambling White Paper. Meanwhile, someone with gambling-related problems dies by suicide every day. Government action is long overdue.
The experiences, the stories and the numbers speak for themselves, particularly when it comes to the rapid increase in online gambling practices. I want to particularly focus on that area, as many others have, given that it is the source of many of the harms that we have heard about today,
Among women in particular, online gambling is growing at an alarming rate. According to research by GambleAware, it almost tripled during the pandemic. We need only look at the data for 202-21 from GamCare’s national gambling helpline—it shows that 84% of calls made by individuals related to concerns about online gambling habits—to get a feel for the scale of the problem. It is a problem that we did not appreciate in 2005, but we must now address it and treat it as a public health issue. We need to do more to protect individuals against addictive and easily accessible games, and those protections must include safeguards and affordability checks, particularly for online slot and casino games, where the Government have been slow to act.
As I have said, change is long overdue. Only last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) led an Adjournment debate on the tragic death of his constituent Jack Ritchie, who was driven to take his own life after battling a severe gambling addiction. Jack saw his addiction begin at his local bookies at the age of 17 before moving onto online gambling. That kind of addiction can come very quickly and have devastating consequences.
Jack’s story is a familiar one. I met a group of former gambling addicts about a month ago and they were from a wide variety of backgrounds; as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central pointed out, gambling addiction can hit anybody. They had all followed that same pattern: starting to gamble and then getting into online gambling, and it destroyed their lives. Unbelievably, at the time, banks were prepared to give them loans to fund their gambling habit. It is a problem that we must get a grip on. The whole aim of gambling adverts, incentives and VIP schemes is to maintain or increase the spend of their so-called valuable clients. Those harmful schemes are addictive in nature and offer supposedly free stakes—as my hon. Friend said, there is no such thing as a free bet—to lure customers in. We need to do everything we can to make sure that people like Jack who are aware of their addiction have the tools and support available to help them through their problem.
Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thoughts on imposing a mandatory levy on all gambling operators? A levy would help to fund educational resources and treatment services for people suffering as a consequence of their gambling. Colleagues will, I think, be aware that there is already the legal power to impose a levy on the gambling industry; it is already there in legislation. The Government have always insisted that the industry should support harm-reduction work on a voluntary basis, but the current, voluntary system lacks consistency, transparency and accountability. The big five gambling companies have committed to paying 1% of their gross yields towards safer gambling initiatives by 2023, but the variation between online casinos and their donations is a concern. As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, many of us do not trust that all the gambling companies will act to do the right thing. Labour believes that operators can and must do more to support vulnerable people.
I hope that the Minister will also reflect on the huge increase in online gambling advertising, especially during live sporting events. That can lead to a normalisation of gambling among young people. I am keen to understand the Government’s thinking on how to tackle that—how they can create the evidence base to understand how that advertising affects gambling addiction and how that can inform future policy.
As the online space continues to develop—we are now looking at the issue of gambling in the metaverse, with the potential for virtual reality casino experiences and other experiences—we need to be looking ahead. I am keen to know what the Government are thinking in terms of plans to tighten up safeguards, with a view to the future and gambling in the metaverse. Obviously, we have the Online Safety Bill coming up. That is a matter for another day; we need the Minister to be clear and gambling-focused in his response today. There is currently a discrepancy between the regulation of physical gambling and the regulation of online gambling, with lower-harm games such as bingo being subject to tighter restrictions in some areas than addictive online betting. We need to know the specific steps that the Government are taking to ensure that there is parity. We have concerns that without action and a proper licensing process, the online space will continue to develop as a wild west when it comes to gambling products.
Most importantly given the extent of the issues and the problems that we have heard about, we need to know exactly when the gambling review is due to be published. With respect, we need a date. We have been waiting for a date for a long time now. What we need to see is a plan to tackle problem gambling that is fit for the modern age. There is clearly a political consensus on the importance of getting this right, on the need for reform, so the Minister can be assured of widespread support if the Government act effectively, listen and get the balance right.
On a point of order, Ms Rees. I am very grateful to you and to the Minister for agreeing to allow me to do this. I do apologise. Because my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) kept the clock ticking down on me, I was unable, and forgot, to draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the £540-worth of match tickets to Stoke City versus Fulham at the Bet365 stadium in January. I do apologise to Members for that.
I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for correcting the record; that is absolutely appropriate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this very important debate and all those who have contributed, in generally a very constructive manner.
I know how committed the hon. Member for Swansea East and many other Members—in fact, I think this applies to every single person who spoke today—are to gambling reform. I thank her and other parliamentarians for the many meetings that they have had with Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Ministers in recent months. Their perspectives and evidence on the issues that we are considering through the review of the Gambling Act 2005 are very valuable indeed. She and all other hon. Members who spoke today are quite right to make the case that reform is needed. It has been 17 years since the Gambling Act was passed, and it is clear that the risks of harm and the opportunities to prevent it are very different now from when legislation was introduced. We must act to recognise that in our regulatory framework.
In recent years, the Government and the Gambling Commission have introduced a wide variety of reforms to help to protect people from gambling harm. Those include the ban on credit card gambling, the FOBT stake limit reduction, and reform to VIP schemes. The review is an opportunity to build on those changes and to do more to ensure that we have the right protections for the digital age.
As the hon. Member for Swansea East will appreciate, I cannot pre-announce what will be published in the White Paper—much as she may wish to prompt me to do so—but we are in the process of finalising it. However, I absolutely recognise the severity of the harms that gambling disorder can cause and why we all have a duty to prevent people from being led down such a dark path.
The voice of people with personal experience of harm was thoroughly represented among the submissions to our call for evidence, and I, the gambling Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp)—and all our successors have met a number of people who have suffered because of their own addictions or those of people whom they love. They have all made clear how enormous and lasting the effects of gambling disorder can be, not only in the obvious financial losses but in relationship strain, family breakdown, mental health problems and, of course, suicide in extreme cases.
As my opposite number, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) mentioned, just last week the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) secured an Adjournment debate on the coroner’s finding that gambling contributed to the tragic death of Jack Ritchie. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister said then, the findings are an important call to action for our Department, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. We are considering the prevention of future deaths report carefully and will respond in due course on the actions being taken.
The causes of gambling-related harm are inherently complex to unpick and address. Individual circumstances play a role, but it is essential that we also look at the products, industry practices and wider factors that can contribute to or exacerbate them. Understanding the drivers and taking preventive action where it is needed is at the heart of our public health approach. Of course, understanding where it is needed is part of the challenge for the gambling review. About half of the population takes part in gambling each year, and the vast majority suffer no ill effects at all. The population “problem gambling” rate has been broadly stable since before the 2005 Act, with some recent signs of a decline. The White Paper’s measures will be based on the best available evidence to target risk proportionately. We want to prevent unaffordable losses and industry practices that exacerbate risk. We will also maintain the freedom for adults who choose to gamble to do so, and for a responsible and sustainable industry to service that demand.
Technology and data are central to developing effective and proportionate protections. As my hon. Friend the gambling Minister has said, there is huge potential in data-led tools, which can stop and prevent harmful gambling while letting the majority, who spend at low levels with no signs of risk, continue uninterrupted. There has been particular discussion in recent weeks—this was mentioned in the debate—about the role of so-called affordability checks, where a customer’s financial circumstances are considered as part of assessing whether their gambling is likely to be harming them. Such assessments are undoubtedly a key part of the toolkit for preventing the devastating losses that we have all heard about, but, to be workable and prevent harm, checks need to be proportionate and acceptable to customers. We are keen to explore the role of data such as that held by credit reference agencies or that already used by operators to facilitate frictionless checks.
I am pleased that the Minister mentioned credit reference agencies, because the current state of play is that bookmakers can get only the basic data—the credit score—and cannot use the credit reference agency to find out whether people can afford their proposed levels of stake-in. Would he and the gambling Minister be receptive to a change to the law to allow bookmakers to get more granular data about someone’s affordability—it would need to be done carefully—so that we do not have the intrusive checks that, as I mentioned, drive people away from licensed operators and potentially to the black market?
As I said, I will not pre-empt the review’s findings, but my hon. Friend makes a key point about the responsibility and role of the financial services sector in the review. The Government will continue to work closely with the Gambling Commission on this issue in the run-up to publishing the White Paper.
Another much discussed issue is data-led protection in the form of single customer views, where operators share data to protect people most at risk. That is increasingly necessary given that the average online gambler now has three accounts, and those with a gambling disorder typically have far more. I am pleased that the Betting and Gaming Council’s trial of a technical solution has been accepted into the Information Commissioner’s Office sandbox process, which will mean close scrutiny from both the information and gambling regulators to ensure that the trial proceeds with appropriate safeguards in place.
Let me turn now to a few other items raised by hon. Members. On the statutory levy proposals, we called for evidence on the best way to recoup the regulatory and societal costs of gambling. We have also been clear for a number of years that, should the existing system of taxation and voluntary contributions fail to deliver what was needed, we would look at a number of options for reform, including a statutory levy, and we will set out our conclusions in the White Paper.
The horse-racing industry was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). The review is not looking directly at the horse-racing betting levy, but we are certainly aware of the close relationship between racing and betting. The main area of concern from the horse-racing industry is the affordability checks. As I said, these are important, but they must also be proportionate, and we are carefully considering the impact of all our proposals.
Many hon. Members mentioned advertising, and gambling advertising can help licensed gambling operators differentiate themselves from the black market. It also provides financial support for broadcasters and sport, but operators must advertise responsibly, and we are committed to tackling aggressive practices. We have called for evidence on advertising and sponsorship as part of the review.
Protections are already in place to limit children’s exposure to advertising—for example, the whistle-to-whistle ban mentioned by hon. Members. That led, for example, to about a halving in the number of adverts at the Euros last year compared with the 2018 World cup. Gambling adverts must not be targeted at children or appeal particularly to them. The Committee for Advertising Practice will soon publish more on its plans to tighten the rules in this area.
On the gambling black market, again mentioned by many hon. Members, we have called for evidence as part of our review, and we are looking at the Commission’s powers as part of that process. On customer redress, which the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, operators must be held accountable for their failings. The review will assess the current system of redress, and we will set out our conclusions in the forthcoming White Paper.
The hon. Member for Swansea East also mentioned the clustering of betting shops. She will be aware that local authorities already have a range of powers under the planning system and as licensing authorities under the Gambling Act to grant or reject applications for gambling premises in their areas, and we encourage them to use those powers as appropriate. We have also been reviewing the powers local authorities and other licensing authorities have in relation to gambling premises licences as part of the review.
On the issue of treatment, which was raised by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and others, the Government absolutely take a public health approach to gambling. Gambling is a regulated sector, and we have protections for the whole population, with rules to keep gambling fair, open and free from crime. We also have specific protections for vulnerable people. The DCMS works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, which leads on treatment and health issues. She will be aware the Government are committed to strengthening treatment and support for gambling disorder. This will build on changes and reforms that have already taken place in recent years. The NHS has committed to opening up to 15 specialist problem gambling clinics by 2023-24. Five of these are already in operation and more will follow soon.
The hon. Member for York Central also mentioned loot boxes, and we are delivering on a manifesto commitment to tackle the issue in video games. We ran a call for evidence last year to understand the impact and received over 30,000 responses. We are reviewing this evidence and continue to engage with the industry to determine the most robust and proportionate solutions to the issues identified. We will also be publishing our response and next steps in the coming months. If she is patient, we will report on that soon.
In conclusion, I absolutely recognise that we have an important responsibility to get reform right. We will build on the many strong aspects of our regulatory system to make sure it is right for the digital age and the future. The White Paper is a priority for the Department and we will publish it in the coming weeks.
I would like to congratulate Bet365: it has mobilised speakers well today, and I hope that its protection of vulnerable customers is as tenacious as its ability to get MPs to come and speak on its behalf in a Westminster Hall debate.
The word I would take from today is “protection”. Some of us have spoken about how we want to protect vulnerable people, but others may be more inclined to protect the profits of the industry. I know which side I am on: I want to protect the lives of vulnerable people who are, on a daily basis, being exploited by this industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered gambling-related harm.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress towards a smoke-free England.
I will start by reading a couple of paragraphs from an excellent Government document published in July 2017, entitled “Towards a smoke-free generation”. I will not detain the Chair too long, but there are a few sentences that I want to read into the record. The document says:
“Over 200 deaths every day are still caused by smoking…Smoking rates have remained stubbornly higher amongst those in our society who already suffer from poorer health and other disadvantages. Smoking rates are almost three times higher amongst the lowest earners, compared to the highest earners…Smoking accounts for approximately half the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in society. This injustice in the variation in smoking prevalence can be seen across England; from places where adult smoking is as low as 5% to others where smoking remains above 25%. The prevalence remains even higher in people with mental health conditions, where more than 40% of adults with a serious mental illness smoke. We want to address this. Our vision is nothing less than to create a smokefree generation…the government will provide leadership and guidance on the most effective interventions.”
There we have it: a bold statement of intent. So what does a smoke-free 2030 look like? First, it is not smoke-free. When we talk about a smoke-free 2030, we are actually talking about 5% or less of the adult population smoking—that is recognised by The Lancet. Currently, more than 14% of the adult population smoke, and it could actually be higher than 14%, because lockdown may have increased the prevalence of smoking as people turned to cigarettes as a way of releasing and relieving stress. Cancer Research UK is not optimistic about the 2030 date, which will not come as a surprise to anyone here. Its best guess is that 2037 is when we will achieve 5% or less, and I am afraid the general view is that 2037 now looks optimistic.
To put it in context, what is 200 deaths a day? That is 75,000 deaths a year and, on top of that, 500,000 admissions to hospital every year for smoking-related illnesses. Over 10 years, 750,000 people will die from smoking. That is approximately the population of Birmingham every 10 years, and 5 million people will be admitted to hospital.
The Government touch on the huge disparities in smoking between richer and less well-off areas. In some of the most deprived wards in seaside towns in the north-west, smoking rates are above 22%. In the leafy parts of Surrey, they are less than 5%—in essence, parts of Surrey have achieved smoke-free status. What does 22% versus 5% look like? That translates into about an eight-year differential in life expectancy. Of course, not all that eight-year differential will be linked to smoking but, as the Government identified in their report in 2017, about 50%—four years—of that differential will be linked to the fact that more people smoke in more deprived areas than wealthier ones.
Look, the Government have made great strides. I will not be churlish with the Minister—I would not be churlish with her, because she is a very nice woman and she is very committed to this cause, which is more important than being nice.
I understand that a pack of cigarettes now costs more than £10, although that is not something I have bought for 17 years. Some might be pushing £14, so this is becoming an expensive habit. Even at that price, 14% or more of the population are smoking. We are down to some really tough nuts to crack, if we want to reach that 5%. I remind the Government of the part of the report entitled, “Backing evidence-based innovation”:
“Despite the availability of effective medicines and treatments to support quit attempts, the majority of smokers choose to quit unassisted, by going ‘cold turkey’. This has proved to be the least effective method…The best thing a smoker can do for their health is to quit smoking. However, the evidence is increasingly clear that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than smoking tobacco. The Government will seek to support consumers in stopping smoking and adopting the use of less harmful nicotine products.”
I congratulate the hon. Member on this Adjournment debate. He may know that I have never smoked, but I am a strong advocate of vaping. Does he agree that, if the Government are serious about reducing smoking prevalence, they must ensure that medical professionals have access to the latest evidence on e-cigarettes and are encouraged to signpost patients to appropriate guidance about harm reduction, as well as information about how to switch successfully, if they cannot quit?
Of course, I agree with and endorse what the hon. Lady said—on this occasion, let me call her my hon. Friend—because what we are talking about today is harm reduction.
Let me read two more sentences, from page 15 of the report, which I am sure will be of interest to the hon. Lady:
“The Government will therefore continue to evaluate critically the evidence on nicotine-delivery products, providing clear communication about what is known and unknown about the short and long-term risks of using different products relative to smoking and the absolute risk to children, non-smokers and bystanders.”
Remember that that was written five years ago, so there has surely been time to do this.
What I do not understand is why the Government are so squeamish when it comes to looking at harm reduction. The hon. Member for North Tyneside talks about vaping, but there are nicotine pouches, “heat not burn” products and something called snus, which I understand is used in parts of the world. Before we cast these alternatives aside, let us remember that they reduce the harm caused to the user. There is nothing more harmful than smoking burnt, lit, combustible tobacco—nothing. Sweden has taken an enlightened approach. It has embraced science and looked at harm reduction. Smoking rates are now well below 10%, and some independent experts reckon they are nearer 7%. It looks like Sweden is going to be the first country in Europe to meet the magical 4.99% and be a smoke-free European country.
I am concerned that we are not going at this problem as hard as we should as a nation, but there is hope, which I am sure the Minister will refer to in her speech. There is the independent review of smoke-free 2030 policies, led by Mr Javed Khan OBE. The review offers reasons for optimism. In its objectives it states:
“The review will make a set of focused policy and regulatory recommendations in 2 areas, and will consider…the most impactful interventions to reduce the uptake of smoking, particularly among young people.”
It will also consider
“the top interventions to support smoking cessation, particularly in deprived areas of England where there are significant health disparities”.
That sounds like a call to arms. On outputs, the review says:
“The review will provide a far-reaching report focused on the key policy and regulatory recommendations that give the government the best chance of achieving the Smokefree 2030 ambition and addressing the health disparities associated with smoking.”
Can I make a plea to the Minister and her Department? This issue is harm reduction. It is about reducing the 75,000 deaths a year. It is about reducing the 500,000 people who go into hospital. It is not about banishing nicotine.
In a perfect world, nobody would even chew nicotine gum, but the fact is that they do. We do not live in a perfect world. People become addicted to nicotine, and it becomes part of their day. It is far better to consume it in a way that offers a much lesser chance of either shortening someone’s life or putting them in hospital. Let us use the regulatory and tax environments to differentiate harms, so that the highest harm is combustible tobacco and we can gradate the level of harm going down. We can use the tax system to signpost people to the least harmful nicotine product.
I would like to conclude by saying one thing. Levelling up has to mean reducing the disparities in people’s life expectancy. One of the greatest disparities is in those who suffer from a diagnosis of psychosis/schizophrenia. By the Government’s own reckoning, 40% of people with the diagnosis—possibly more—smoke. I know about this because I have been deeply involved in the issue of mental health since I entered Parliament 17 years ago. Smoking is often linked to the treatments used to help people with psychosis/schizophrenia—sadly often still called the chemical cosh. The treatments tend to enhance appetite, so people experience massive weight gain. They also tend to depress the person in receipt of the medications, which drives them to smoking. On average, if someone has a diagnosis of psychosis/schizophrenia, their life expectancy is reduced by 15 years—the Government say in their document that it is between 10 and 20 years. This is a real issue for so many people. This is not a “nice to have” harm reduction; it is an absolute necessity. I thank you, Ms Rees, and the Minister for allowing me to make the case for harm reduction today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Rees. I am not sure I can be as passionate as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), but I am convinced that we in the UK are standing on the brink of a huge opportunity to get this right in the very near future. Some 3 million people vape today, which is wonderful compared with 3 million people smoking, and approximately 6 million, maybe 7 million, continue to smoke. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, that leads to 75,000 deaths a year, or 200 people every single day. The number of people who have died from vaping is zero. So when we look at the plain stats on this, we can ask, “Do we want 200 people per day to continue to die through smoking rates continuing as they are, or do we want to have zero people dying per day?” My answer to that is pretty clear.
There is some good news, which I will come to in a moment. I have great respect for the Minister; I know she has heard these arguments many times before, and she always takes them with such grace, but I will go through a couple of negatives before I come to the positives—I am equal to my hon. Friend in my optimism for the future.
I chair the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, a fantastic, impartial organisation that produces science briefings for parliamentarians and their research staff. We produced a POSTnote on electronic cigarettes,. In 2013, only one in 20 people thought that vaping was as harmful as smoking. That was really encouraging, but in 2016 we observed that about one in four people thought vaping was as harmful as, if not more harmful than, smoking. We have been going backward, and today about 53% of people think that vaping is as harmful as smoking. Something is very wrong when the information flow has reversed in such a short space of time for something that was only introduced to the UK about 15 years ago, so we really need to get a handle on that problem.
There is a simple test when it comes to smoking. Lots of people say, “Oh, I like smoking. I wish we had the freedom to smoke,” and I agree entirely: you can kill yourself with your own poison, and that is fine by me. However, when a smoker is asked, “Would you like your children to smoke?” the answer is always, “Oh gosh, no. I would want them to have them the freedom to do it, but I would really rather they didn’t.” I have tried this, and it says an awful lot. It says that smokers—I was one—do not want to smoke; they stumbled into it in their youth or at a time when they thought they would be able to escape from its clutches. The truth of the matter is that nobody really wants to smoke.
With vaping, snus, and non-combustible tobacco, which may be more harmful than vaping, but is nowhere near as harmful as smoking, we have a huge opportunity to embrace newer technologies and approaches, and I know the Minister is keen to do so however she can. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne that harm reduction is the key here. Why have 200 people dying per day when we could have zero dying per day? Why hold on to the idea that anything we can do to move people from smoking to vaping, snus or one of those other products should be slowed down in any way?
On balance, I am quite optimistic for the future. I am optimistic because the Minister is in her post, but also because the Javed Khan review appears to be going in the right direction. It appears to recognise that we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the very near perfect, which vaping appears to be at this stage. Also, whether we voted remain or leave, we are now outside the strictures of the European Union and its directives. We have full autonomy and full power to head in any direction we choose, and I ask for that direction to be informed by the evidence, the data, the science, Javed Khan’s review, and what is self-evident before our very eyes—that people do not die from vaping, full stop.
I am also optimistic because we have a couple of other opportunities. We have the opportunity as a Government—the UK Government—to direct a little bit of funding at research, because there are some unanswered questions about the long-term effects of vaping and these other products. We could direct or nudge a little bit of research funding in that direction. It would not cost a fortune. A small amount could be dedicated to a longitudinal study of the outcomes. I think that such a study would put the final few sceptical academics’ minds at rest—or not, as the case may be—when we got the results.
This morning I was at a meeting on this subject with Demos, which is producing a study of this issue and some recommendations for policy. One message that came through loud and clear from the healthcare professionals was, “Give us the opportunity to try this, at least in a limited way, maybe in a limited area or perhaps just with pregnant women, because it is very clear that vaping is far better than smoking during pregnancy. Give us an opportunity, maybe in a restricted location, a particular area or with a particular demographic, to try the approach of switching people to vaping, and let’s see if that works better than trying to get them to stop smoking during pregnancy or in any other circumstances that they are in.”
There is another wonderful opportunity here. This is bizarre—absolutely bizarre—but I love to say that, bizarrely, the tobacco industry in the west is behind switching to vaping. I say to the Minister that actually the industry is ready to put its hands in its pocket and pay for a lot of this work, which is absolutely extraordinary. I think the industry recognises that its business model will not continue to succeed in the west, including in the UK, and we should be mindful that it is prepared to put its hands in its pocket to help the transition—not for altruistic reasons, of course; it will be because the industry is switching its business model more towards non-combustible and vaping products. It may also be because some of the cigarette manufacturers would like to look in the longer term at these inhaling systems as a way to deliver medicine—not smoking or vaping, but delivering all sorts of other products. The tobacco industry has a profit motive, but this is the first time that I have known it to be potentially aligned with UK policy and we should certainly take advantage of that.
I could go on for ever, but I will not do so. What I would say in summary is this: do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is a really good thing to do to push in this direction. There is very little pushback from anywhere. I plead with the Government to consider the information flow as part of the judgments that they will make in the near term, because if more people today than in 2016 think that vaping is more harmful than smoking, then clearly something is very seriously wrong with the information processes.
I have a last question, which basically is: how do we get to smokers? We might think, “Oh, we don’t want to advertise these things online and on television.” Well of course not; we have to keep children and advertising to children out of the mix when it comes to these products. There is a really simple way to get to smokers though: every single smoker has to open their box of cigarettes, so have something inside the box. It is really simple and it only targets those people who continue to smoke, so let us get on with it.
Minister, thank you very much for listening. Sir Charles, thanks for calling this debate, and thank you, Ms Rees, for calling me to speak.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) for calling this important debate. I am grateful to him for his contribution and I am grateful to other Members who share the Government’s ambition for Britain to be smoke-free by 2030. My hon. Friend is correct when he says that that means 5% of people smoking, but it would still be a great achievement to get from where we are now to just 5%. The UK is a world-leader on tobacco control and we now have one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. According to my records, only 13.5% of people in the UK smoke, but that percentage is still too high. As he stated so passionately, the Government know there is still so much more to do.
We know that there are still around 6 million smokers in England and that smoking remains the single biggest cause of preventable mortality; two out of three long-term smokers will die from smoking. We also know that smoking is one of the largest drivers of health disparities and that the burden of tobacco harms is not shared equally. Smoking rates are far higher in poorer areas of the country, as my hon. Friend said, and among lower socioeconomic groups. We can see smoking rates of 23% in more deprived areas, compared with rates of 8% in wealthier ones. In addition, one in 10 pregnant women still smoke, increasing the risk of health problems for their babies. Smoking prevalence among people with long-term mental health conditions is also far too high, at over 25%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) raised the issue of smoking during pregnancy. The decline there has not fallen in line with other groups, so we know that more needs to be done. We continue to explore options to support smoking cessation in pregnant women; those options will be set out in our tobacco control plan and they are also part of our NHS long-term plan. We know that it is not just the woman who needs support; it is her partner as well. We must continue to help those groups in all the ways we can.
What are we doing? In 2019 the Government set the bold ambition for England to be smoke-free by 2030. To support that, we have been building on the successes of our current tobacco control plan, and later this year we will publish a new plan with an even sharper focus on tackling health disparities. The new plan will set out a comprehensive package of new policy proposals and regulatory change. To help push those ambitions forward, the Government have commissioned an independent review of our tobacco control policies, led by Javed Khan, the former CEO of Barnado’s. The review will assess the most impactful interventions to help us achieve our goal of being smoke-free by 2030. I know that Javed Khan has some really ambitious ideas that I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne will welcome.
More needs to be done to prevent young people from taking up smoking and to protect our future generations from its devastating harms. More also needs to be done to support current smokers to quit, especially in deprived communities and among the priority groups. Smoking, and the grip it has on our society, must become a thing of the past. I am confident that the Khan review will give us the focus and political support to do so. I encourage all hon. Members to contribute to the review so that we can hear as wide a range of views as possible. We are open to bold new ideas about how to reach our smoke-free ambitions. Hon. Members have talked about the role of reduced-risk products. The Government are supportive of smokers using less harmful nicotine delivery systems to quit or switch away from the most harmful form—combustible tobacco.
This week is the beginning of VApril, which is a campaign run by the industry to support smokers who are looking to quit. Would the Minister support efforts to encourage adult smokers to quit by speaking with local authority stop smoking services, this month in particular, and highlight the role of e-cigarettes in reducing harm?
The hon. Lady—I will call her my hon. Friend—speaks passionately about vaping, and we have had those conversations before. We know and acknowledge that reduced-risk products are not risk-free, but vaping is a way to help people stop smoking and it has been proven to be effective. We must continue to ensure that the products do not appeal to young people and non-smokers—that is really important. However, we need to get the message out that vaping is an effective way to stop smoking. Balanced and proportionate regulation is required as we shift to different products. We have an innovative and varied nicotine market in the UK, as has been mentioned; vapes are by far the most popular alternative source of nicotine, but there are also patches, gums and, more recently, nicotine pouches.
We want to see more smokers using vapes to quit, which I know is in line with the wishes of the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon). She mentioned earlier the possibility of vaping and e-cigarettes being available on prescription, and the Secretary of State has spoken of his desire to see those products routinely prescribed by the NHS. That is something that we need to move forward with. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor raised the important issue of the perception of vaping and how it has changed. That is something I will take away and consider.
The Minister talks about the range of alternative products, such as vapes, “heat not burn” and other things that already exist, and about the statistics on people’s perceptions of the health impacts of those products. We know that those products are less harmful, so does she agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said about the importance of getting that information our to people—even if it is as simple as a slip of paper in a cigarette packet? I like to think that a Conservative Government, rather than seeking to ban things, could empower people to make that choice through information. We could certainly do more to get that information out there.
My hon. Friend is quite right. It is important that we communicate the other ways people can stop smoking and, as the hon. Member for North Tyneside said, do so in such a powerful way. As Members of Parliament, we all have a role in getting those messages out, and I am sure that everybody in this room will be doing their bit in VApril to get that message through to the public. It is about messaging and about people understanding the impact smoking has, not just on their lives but on other people’s lives as well.
I am also aware of the desire to bring snus to the UK market to give smokers further choice of less harmful alternatives. Considering the range of alternative nicotine products that can be accessed by smokers, the Government are not currently minded to introduce a new tobacco product to the UK market. Current alternative products such as nicotine pouches deliver nicotine in an identical way to snus but do not contain any tobacco. We will continue to consider the evidence around snus and we welcome additional non-tobacco reduced-risk products to the UK market.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne again for calling this important debate and for hon. Members’ interesting contributions to the discussion. We have packed a lot into 30 minutes. I hope to be able to tell the House more in the coming months about the specific policies that will deliver our ambitious agenda for a smoke-free England. The end is in sight through a sustained and multi-pronged approach. I hope we can look forward to a future for our children without the death and misery that is caused by smoking.
Question put and agreed to.
Great British Railways Headquarters: Crewe Bid
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Crewe’s bid for the headquarters of Great British Railways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am proud to be here today on behalf of the people and businesses of Crewe, and to have this opportunity to showcase and explain to the Minister all the reasons why Crewe should be the home of Great British Railways’ new headquarters.
Crewe is at the heart of rail, and rail is at the heart of Crewe. Today I will talk about how Crewe’s heritage, local rail industry and connectivity, combined with the value for money it can offer and the opportunities to level up for Crewe’s people, make it an unbeatable choice for the GBR HQ.
I strongly support my hon. Friend’s enthusiastic bid on behalf of Crewe. When considering a property, three matters are important: location, location and location. Does he therefore agree that Crewe’s geography makes it ideally suited to be the home of GBR? It is centrally located, with direct rail links not only to the south, the midlands and the north of England, but to Scotland and Wales.
I agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for coming to give her support today. It is about Crewe’s 360-degree connectivity, which is unrivalled when it comes to towns and other places seeking to become the home of the new GBR HQ.
Crewe was born from the railways. The decision by the Grand Junction Railway Company in 1837 to invest in a new station, which connected the Liverpool and Manchester railways and the London and Birmingham railways, transformed the village of Crewe into the railway town it is today, and the town’s growth has been linked to the railways ever since. The station was built alongside the Crewe Locomotive Works, which went on to become the largest locomotive works in the world. The first locomotive produced at Crewe Works was rolled out on 20 October 1843. The first locomotive produced at Crewe was given the number 32 and the name Tamerlane. The outline of the engines was very different from all previous designs and became known generally as the Crewe type, which lasted for many years. By the time locomotive production came to an end in the 1990s, more than 8,000 locomotives had been built in Crewe, with the site employing more than 20,000 people at its height. From speaking to constituents, I have met countless people whose families worked in the railway industry. Often multiple generations of the same local families have done so and continue to this day, with the Crewe Works site still active.
This rich heritage is to be seen all over the town. Opened in 1888, the beautiful Queen’s Park in the heart of Crewe was a gift to the town from the London and North Western Railway Company, to mark the joint occasion of the Queen’s jubilee and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the grand junction railway. The Crewe Heritage Centre was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on 24 July 1987 to mark the 150th anniversary of the first train to arrive at Crewe railway station in 1837.
From steam trains to electrification and diesel programmes, Crewe’s rail connections, combined with its engineering workforce, has bound Crewe to the railway industry for generations, so it is no surprise that I can talk confidently and proudly about the amazing modern railway industry sector, built from this legacy, that now inhabits the town. Some 7% of the English railway workforce are based in Crewe, despite Crewe having just 0.1% of the population. The workforce is spread across an amazingly diverse range of businesses. Avanti, Arriva TrainCare, Train Bits and More, Jacobs, Freightliner, DB Cargo, Direct Rail Services, Alstom, Unipart Rail, Locomotive Services Ltd, Keltbray and more all operate in Crewe, and it is the headquarters for many. Alstom recently won the contract for the production of the bogies for HS2 at the original Crewe Works site. Freightliner has invested millions in a new maintenance facility for freight locomotives, while the Avanti West Coast partnership has established its nationwide talent academy in Crewe.
Crewe has retained and attracted many of the rail and rail supply chain businesses as they have innovated and evolved, meaning that it is well positioned and ready to be at the centre of rail reform and innovation throughout the 21st century and beyond. Looking to the future, the presence of the Crewe Engineering and Design UTC and the Institute of Technology at Cheshire College creates an opportunity for Crewe to be known as a centre of excellence for rail skills, capturing existing rail expertise and wider complementary skills to teach the next generation. All of this is placed at the most well-connected railway hub in the country. Crewe is a connector to major cities and towns across England and the Union, with six railway lines offering 360-degree connectivity. It is the only station on the main line that is connected to all the regional capitals, with direct connections to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and connections across Wales, allowing a GBR HQ based in Crewe to play its role in strengthening the Union.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent and compelling case for the GBR HQ to be based in Crewe. He will appreciate that I am also aware of the deep pride and passion that the people of Crewe have for their railway heritage, and they want a future for that important part of our transport infrastructure. Does he agree that one advantage of have the GBR HQ in Crewe is that officials and the great team that will be assembled there will become very familiar with the integrated rail system in and around Crewe, including between Crewe and Chester and other parts of Cheshire, and we could have something that is fit for the 21st century, not least a new station at Beeston Castle and Tarporley?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his support for the bid to have the GBR HQ in Crewe.
More than 3 million people live within a 45-minute commute by road and rail and there are 12 major universities within an hour’s commute of Crewe. Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham are all within an hour’s commute by rail, reducing to less than 30 minutes when HS2 arrives. There are up to 40 services between Crewe and London each day and journey times as fast as 90 minutes, reducing to 55 minutes when HS2 arrives.
I fully support that ambition, because we all know how important local railway connections are, alongside the big intercity connections. I see on the roads in and around Crewe that challenge of freight and transport. The more we can get on to the railways, the better.
Crewe has connections to three international airports, making it the perfect place for engaging with the railway industry internationally. Importantly, that connectivity extends beyond passenger connections. As we have mentioned, Crewe is also a key strategic hub for the rail freight industry, with connections to ports servicing both the Irish sea and the Atlantic. Basing the GBR HQ at Crewe will send a clear message to the rail industry that the value and importance of rail freight is front and centre of the Government’s ambitions for our railways. There is no better place in the UK than Crewe to connect with all areas of the country, north to south and across the borders.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for making such a powerful case. Crewe is a railway town, as hon. Members have said. A successful bid will power up Cheshire, so we are here, cross-party, to speak on its behalf, which gives the bid even more credibility, but it goes beyond Cheshire and the north-west. Indeed, it powers up our great nation, so I commend the hon. Member on his campaign. I hope the Minister listens and makes the correct, informed decision. The bid has cross-party support from both councils in Cheshire East and Cheshire West, and from all the local MPs, regardless of our political persuasion.
I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for his support. As he says, the bid has cross-party support from councils and Members of Parliament. It would be a benefit not only to Crewe, but to the wider region.
I want to talk about what the GBR HQ coming to Crewe will do for the people of Crewe as well as for GBR. As I have mentioned, Crewe’s growth has often been tied to the railways. As locomotive manufacturing in the UK faded, although the community spirit and heritage remained, in some respects Crewe’s fortunes faded as well. Six out Crewe’s 13 wards are in the 10% of most deprived nationally, concentrated around the town centre. There is a £5,000 gap between household earnings in Crewe compared with the Cheshire East average, and 8.4% of 16 to 17-year-olds in central Crewe are not in education, employment or training, compared with a Cheshire East average of 2.3%.
We are already seeing benefits from the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which the awarding of GBR can build on and cement. We have a Crewe town deal, funding for an institute of technology, and of course the HS2 hub. Importantly, while all of those are positives, they would not replicate the investment that GBR represents. The area around the station has been allocated as the HS2 station hub strategic employment site, providing opportunities for new investment in high-grade office space, with a hotel and amenities unlike anything else currently available in Crewe. GBR has the opportunity to become the landmark occupier, helping to cement the scheme and shape the future regeneration of Crewe.
This journey of regeneration represents opportunities for GBR as well. As the Minister will see from the bid put forward by Cheshire East Council, there are several locations where the GBR headquarters could be placed in Crewe, all within a short walking distance of the station, other railway industry offices in Crew and, importantly, the HS2 development. There are many plots that are ready for staff to move into, involving little work and making the move very straightforward. Importantly, office rents in Crewe are 84% to 87% lower than in Birmingham or Manchester and would be much cheaper than many competing areas for the headquarters.
I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his passionate campaign for Great British Railways. The GBR headquarters have sparked a tremendous amount of debate and interest from colleagues across the House. Naturally, I am supporting my campaign for Darlington, where it all began, to be the home of GBR. Does he agree that, given the level of interest and the opportunity to extol the virtues of all our respective constituencies, if the Government could find time for the Minister to respond to a debate on the Floor of the House, that would be a tremendous opportunity for all of us to tell our stories and showcase everything that the United Kingdom has to offer?
I agree with the hon. Member that it is not just in Crewe that this opportunity has galvanised communities. I am going to talk about how my community feels about it, but to give that full airing in a main debate in the Chamber would be a fantastic opportunity for so many Members to showcase the strength of feeling in their local areas.
Although there are other options, the value for money that Crewe offers will be difficult to beat. I know that the Minister will care deeply about the staff who are going to work there and want to know that they will have opportunities as well. Crewe is not only more affordable for office space; it is also more affordable when it comes to house prices, which are 39% cheaper than the UK average and 19% cheaper than the north-west average for a semi-detached house. That is not to take away from Crewe, however, as it has been ranked in the top three residential locations for the past three years by Property Week, and Cheshire East has been ranked as one of the top places to live in the north-west.
I can personally vouch for Crewe, as I live and work in the area myself. It is not short of cultural assets, such as the Crewe Lyceum theatre, Crewe Market Hall, Crewe Lifestyle Centre and Crewe Alex FC. It is also in close proximity to vibrant market towns such as Nantwich, Sandbach, Knutsford and Wilmslow. Additionally, Cheshire’s nearby Peak district encompasses nearly 100 square miles of beautiful scenery. GBR staff will be able to make a home in Crewe affordably and enjoy what Crewe and the whole region have to offer.
Taking all that into account, the Minister will understand why there is enormous support for the bid in my constituency. Crewe’s population is proud of the town’s railway heritage. From the day the competition was announced, I received emails and letters from constituents asking me to do everything possible to get the win for Crewe. The results of an online survey conducted by the Crewe Chronicle found that 97% of respondents were in favour of the arrival of GBR in Crewe. The Chronicle and Crewe Nub News are both giving their full support to the bid, alongside cross-party support from all the local party leaders and local councillors.
They are joined by cross-party support from 12 MPs from Stoke, Cheshire and Warrington. I thank every one of them for their support and those who have turned up to voice their support today. As well as Cheshire East Council and Crewe Town Council, we have the support of neighbouring Cheshire West Council in Chester and Warrington Council. The local football team and its supporters’ club, the RailwayMen, are geared up to get out the vote and, of course, Pete Waterman is continuing his long history of advocating for the railways in Crewe by being front and centre of our bid.
The Crewe town board and its chair, Doug Kinsman, have come to embody ambition for Crewe. They all support our bid alongside South Cheshire chamber of commerce and Cheshire College. We all look forward to the public vote and the opportunity to showcase that public support in full.
I hope that the Minister has enjoyed hearing about the strengths of our bid; about our rich rail heritage dating back to the 1800s; about our historical and modern railway industry locally; about our connectivity in the here and now, and in the future with HS2, connecting across our great nation and connecting for freight as well as passengers; about the opportunities to find a home for GBR that is affordable for the taxpayer and for the people who will work there, able to enjoy everything that Cheshire has to offer; and about the opportunities for GBR to help Crewe in return, as it continues to face challenges in the post-industrial era.
I finish by thanking the leaders of the political groups on Cheshire East Council and the staff and team at Cheshire East Council and the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership for their hard work on the bid, and all those in the community and industry locally who have helped to ensure that it is the best it can be. It is a bid that Crewe can be proud of, and one that I know all of Crewe is behind. On 4 July 2022, we will mark 185 years since the first train arrived in Crewe. It will be fitting for that anniversary to be marked by the announcement of Crewe becoming the home of Great British Railways.
I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), on that excellent speech. In fact, so comprehensive and passionate was his statement that he has not left much for the rest of us to say. With the greatest respect to other hon. Members, I must say that this is an obvious choice, for the very reasons the hon. Gentleman spoke about: the absolute intertwining of our railway history with Crewe’s history. Crewe is the original railway town. With the greatest respect to those areas in the north-east that might claim the first railway, the first railway town was Crewe.
I want to supplement and complement my hon. Friend’s speech with some reflections of my own, having grown up in Cheshire, and having spent lots of time at Crewe station—perhaps a bit more at the moment, since Avanti dropped most of its services between Chester and London, but more of that later. As a Cheshire man born and bred, when I arrive at Crewe from the south, whether from the west midlands via Stafford, down the London line or even across the east midlands on the route that goes over towards Stoke and Derby, I always feel like I am coming home. When I was a youngster, Greenall Whitley, the local brewery at the time, said “You are now entering Greenall Whitley land. Please set your clocks to local time.” It was to the south of the station, just by Basford Hall sidings, for many years. When I saw that, I knew I was almost home.
As a child, I visited one of the open days at Crewe railway works, which was a huge, sprawling site in those days. I have a certain sadness that it has contracted as much as it has. It now spreads along the line to Chester and north Wales on the right-hand side going out, but it is not nearly as big as it used to be. The hon. Gentleman talked about the changes in the railway structure—I think part of it is now a Morrisons, and the Eagle bridge housing estate, which takes its name from the railway bridge that went over from the old railway works over to the old Crewe electric railway depot to the north-west of the station. The diesel depot was just to the south of the station on the way out to Basford Hall and on the railway line down towards Shrewsbury and mid-Cheshire.
Just by remembering that, I am emphasising the point that the hon. Gentleman made about this 360-degree view that Crewe has of our railway system. It is great connectivity. Obviously, I am particularly interested in the line to Chester and then off to north Wales. I was speaking to the Wales Minister, and hopefully I will speak to the Transport Minister at some point about improving the services on that after the pandemic.
As I say, Avanti has been dragging its feet and it is unacceptable. Constituents are moaning—as much as they love Crewe and want to support the bid, they do not want to have to spend too much time changing at the railway station. But if they have to spend it anywhere, they may as well spend it at Crewe. It is so well connected: up to Scotland, both Glasgow and Edinburgh; down to Birmingham; across to south Wales with direct services that go through Herefordshire and Worcestershire; across to the east midlands as far as Newark and further, with direct services including Nottingham, Derby and Stoke; obviously, straight down to London; through to Birmingham and to the south-west. Again, there are direct cross-country services. The idea of connectivity absolutely makes sense.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich talked about HS2. He has been involved in recent years and he knows that we had to battle at times to get the HS2 hub for Crewe, but we think we have secured it now and we will get the services that will allow the full economic benefits of HS2 to spread out not just across the northern midlands and Staffordshire, but across Cheshire, which is why there has been a joint campaign by all Members of Parliament and local councils and the local enterprise partnership. That joint work is reflected in the current campaign, in which the hon. Gentleman is playing a leading role. The Crewe hub has political support from across the county and across political parties, as well as business support.
There is another aspect, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich did not touch upon. I support HS2 completely and think it is a great idea, but it cannot simply be a fast link between cities that allows those cities to grow. Without deviating from the subject of the debate, Crewe offers an opportunity to share the benefits of HS2 outside the cities. I make that point because I hope the Minister will reflect on the fact that there will be big cities that will bid for the headquarters of Great British Railways, but there will also be towns where perhaps benefits have not been shared fairly or which have not benefited from so much economic growth. Crewe is a perfect example of a town, as opposed to a city, where the headquarters would make a real difference and the benefits would spread out across the whole of my county, which is why we are so keen to have it. I would be grateful if the Minister could take fair notice of the idea of sharing the growth not just among the big cities, but among the towns.
Having the headquarters would be a mark of prestige for Cheshire, and this is a prestigious bid for us. However, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, it would also be a good move for Great British Railways. It would find a welcoming county that has much to offer. Yes, Crewe is a railway town but it is also a great place to live and to do business. I have no doubt that in Crewe, as well as in the wider county, Great British Railways will find a warm welcome and a real home.
We have talked about house prices and amenities in Crewe. If the hon. Gentleman will let me say so, the employees of Great British Railways could also come and live in Chester, which is only about 20 minutes down the line, when we get a connecting train. As a Cestrian and a Cheshire man myself, I would encourage the employees of Great British Railways, when they come, to look at Cheshire as a really welcoming place.
I finish by giving my warm support and using the phrase with which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich began his speech—it had occurred to me, but he put it so well. Crewe is at the geographical heart of this nation’s railways, but this nation’s railways are absolutely at the heart of Crewe. It is a town and ours is an area that fundamentally understand and are grateful for the contribution that the railways have made. I fully support the campaign, headed by the hon. Gentleman and Cheshire East Council, and I hope the Minister will give fair consideration to this fantastic bid.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees.
I commend the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) for his staunch support for his constituency and the bid that has led to this important debate. I thank all Members for their important contributions and their obvious passion and support for Crewe and Nantwich.
I know that many Members across the House share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for ensuring Great British Railways is based in their own constituency, so while the hon. Gentleman might tempt me into backing his specific bid, it is important that due process is taken to ensure the most suitable location. Indeed, over 40 separate bids have been launched across the country to be the new home of Great British Railways, including a bid in my own region of South Yorkshire. I am sure the Minister will reassure me that all bids will be carefully considered on their merits and not on the political benefits of the Conservative party, as some believe they have seen in the past.
Crewe has put forward an excellent bid. As the leader of Cheshire East Council Councillor Corcoran notes, Crewe is
“a rail town through and through”
“rail at the heart of the town.”
As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has detailed, Crewe has proud and historic roots when it comes to our rail network. It is often described as the most historically significant railway station in the world. Crewe railway station was opened in 1837 and is a grade II listed building. The grand junction railway, built to connect Birmingham to a junction with Manchester and Liverpool, opened the same year with the station taking its name from the nearby Crewe Hall. Since then, the town has largely been built by and for the railway.
Today, Crewe is a proud town with a rich and influential history in rail. Even now, Crewe is a vital interchange for our railways and will form an integral part of the integrated rail plan. It is also the birthplace of the Crewe locomotive works, which went on to become one of the largest locomotive works in the world. More than 7,000 steam locomotives were produced there prior to the expansive diesel locomotive production. In fact, the work was so influential that engine design was known as the Crewe type for many years, making it one of our proud historic British manufacturing hubs.
Indeed, British manufacturing and procurement should be at the very heart of the formation of Great British Railways and the implementation of the integrated rail plan. For example, we must ensure that HS2 is procuring British-made steel and that the new HQ guarantees local jobs. The driving force for change on our railways should be centred on benefits it can bring to local people. That is why I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that Great British Railways is based outside London, where communities have felt overlooked for far too long when it comes to funding, infrastructure and Government attention. I urge the Minister to ensure that this new HQ is not simply a token gesture but provides genuine investment and jobs in the chosen location. Can the Minister confirm today exactly how many jobs she expects there to be at the new Great British Railways HQ?
On the Opposition Benches, we want to see Great British Railways become a success for the industry and passengers. However, without the much-needed detail on this matter, I feel the Government may pull back on their promises and funding, as seen previously. The current plans as they stand are already not going far enough. As my colleagues have consistently outlined, Great British Railways will privatise the profit but nationalise the risk. The truth is that taxpayers’ money has been consistently misplaced when it comes to our railways. The Government prefer to pay extortionate consultancy fees and bleed profits into the pockets of operators, which go to subsidise the rail network of other nations at the expense of our own. We should be seeing the Government re-establishing 21,000 cut services, properly funding Transport for the North and halting the £1 billion cut from Network Rail. I urge the Minister to ensure that the promises she has made on Great British Railways are delivered in full.
The industry needs clarity on the detail of what Great British Railways will look like. Can the Minister ensure that is shared as swiftly as possible? The Government’s unwillingness to nail down the details and provide a definitive direction for the future of our railways has risked stakeholder confidence. That risks leaving a lack of leadership when it has come to vital areas of our network such as electrification, digital signalling and rolling stock, which requires decades of planning.
While it is encouraging to see such enthusiasm about the future of our railways, I wish Government funding would match those ambitions. Encouraging people back to affordable, reliable and flexible services should be the Government’s priority when establishing Great British Railways, wherever it finds its home. Crewe certainly offers an excellent prospect for the Department, but I hope its expectations of what this opportunity can offer are fulfilled by the Government. I wish Crewe the best of luck with the bid. No matter the outcome, the rich rail heritage is certainly something the people of Crewe can be very proud of, and the same can be said for the passionate support shown by all hon. Members taking part in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. Before I respond to the debate more broadly and to hon. Members, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) for securing this debate. Only a few weeks ago, I was here debating the merits of Carnforth as a potential location for the Great British Railways headquarters. This is the fourth debate on this subject, with previous bids being for Darlington, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) will recall, and for York. It has been heartening to listen to these debates, and to hear hon. Members from up and down the country engaging in an important conversation and debate about the future of our railways, supporting bids from their towns and cities. We have heard examples of outstanding work, and I know there are many others.
As I said in the earlier debate, railways are close to my heart. Both of my paternal great-grandfathers worked on the railways, one on the Wensleydale railway and the other in County Durham. I found out recently, since becoming rail Minister, that my dad was born in a railway cottage. In my own way, I like to think that I have a bit of rail heritage in my blood. I understand the importance of the railway industry and the amazingly rich rail heritage of this country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich set out, Crewe has a proud rail heritage. Indeed, the Grand Junction Railway Company chose Crewe as the site for its locomotive works, as we have heard, and a railway station. Crewe was a small village and the railways transformed it into the vibrant railway town that we know today. The opening of the famous Crewe Works in 1840 heralded an era of tremendous growth for the town. When the Grand Junction Railway Company became a part of London and North Western Railway, one of the largest companies in the world at the time, Crewe Works found itself at the centre of its locomotive construction and maintenance.
Since 1837, the historic Crewe railway station has helped transform the town, as we have heard today, connecting Crewe to the rest of the UK and the wider world. It remains an important transport hub today. From the earliest days of the railways through to the modern day, Crewe has and will continue to play an important part of the railways in this country. Of course, my mailbox is evidence that there are many other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our railway heritage, which hon. Members are equally proud to represent. The response to this competition has been positive. I am pleased to say that, by the time the competition had closed on 16 March, we had received 42 applications, which is phenomenal.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May 2021, set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services; the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets; and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener and accessible network. Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways. That will provide a single, familiar brand and strong, unified leadership across the rail network. Great British Railways will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual, reliable services that passengers deserve.
The competition for the national headquarters was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022, and closed for applications on 16 March. The GBR Transition Team is now evaluating the 42 submissions we have received from towns and cities across Great Britain, against a set of six criteria. It is important to understand those criteria: alignment to levelling-up objectives, connected and easy to get to, opportunities for GBR, railway heritage and links to the network, value for money, and public support.
The GBR Transition Team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations, which will go forward to a consultative public vote, and then Ministers will make a final decision on the location of the headquarters, based on all the information gathered.
On the issue of the public vote, some locations that are bidding have a significant population and some locations, such as mine and such as Crewe, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), have a considerably smaller population. Could the Minister outline for the House today what steps will be taken to ensure that proportionality is taken into account in weighing up those votes, so that small towns such as Darlington, which is bidding as where it all began, and Crewe, which is bidding as well, are taken into account and not swamped by those big places?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. As I set out, in this competition, it is open to towns and cities to apply, and we have seen applications come forward from both towns and cities, as we have been hearing today and throughout the relevant debates. The important thing to remember is that there will be the consultative public vote but that is only one of a number of factors that we, as Ministers, will take into account. We will base our final decision on all the information that we receive. But I take on board the point that my hon. Friend has just made.
As I mentioned, I have been so pleased by the number of bids that we have received and by the quality of the bids. They have been of a really high quality. I am sure that, whichever location we choose, the future headquarters will go to somewhere that is truly deserving.
To go back to the points about GBR, it is important to recognise that Great British Railways will bring ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network all together under one roof. It will bring today’s very fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring that the focus is on delivering for passengers and freight customers. Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus. It will have a different culture from the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) made the point about numbers, and what I can say is that the national headquarters will be of a modest size and we are not anticipating significant Network Rail relocations as a result of it, because the existing rail workforce will still have an important role to play. The new HQ will be based outside London. It will bring the railway closer to the people and communities that it serves, ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital. That is very much in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.
I want to touch on a point about regional devolution. I have mentioned that alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions that are responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities that it serves. GBR regional divisions will be organised in line with the regions established in Network Rail’s “Putting passengers first” programme, which reflects how passengers and freight move across the network today. Cities and regions in England will have greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between the regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations are starting with local stakeholders on how those partnerships can best work together.
I would normally turn now to the various points and questions raised by hon. Members, but I sensed that there was a lot of consensus across the Chamber today, with each Member, whichever town they were supporting, making very passionate arguments in support of their town’s bid. I recognise that we have had contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). I thank them all for those contributions.
To conclude, the reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. The reforms will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers and freight customers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation.
While transformation on this scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring that benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold 150,000 of our new national flexi-season tickets, offering commuters savings as they return to the railways. The transition from the emergency recovery measures agreements to new national rail contracts is under way, providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers.
GBR will be an organisation that works alongside the local communities it serves. Integrated local teams within GBR’s regional divisions will push forward design and delivery with their partners, supported by new incentives that encourage innovation, partnership and collaboration. It will be designed and have the structure to become yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up regions across the nation.
Both the Government and the GBR transition team welcome the interests and advocacy from all the respective cities and towns that have put forward bids, and I very much welcome the participation of hon. Members in the competition for GBR’s headquarters so that together we can deliver the change that is required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railways in collaboration with the sector and the communities, and the creation of GBR’s headquarters is one of many steps we are taking to achieve that.
I begin by thanking the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), for attending the debate today. If the Minister did not already have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway network, she certainly will do by the time this is all over.
I thank again the leaders of the groups of Cheshire East Council, the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership and their staff for the work they have done to produce our bid. I thank Pete Waterman, Cheshire Live, Crewe Nub News and Crewe Alexandra, as well as its supporters’ club, the Railwaymen. Again, I thank the 12 MPs who are supporting our bid, in particular the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for speaking today in support of the bid.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the key strengths of our bid one last time. Crewe could not be a better connected part of our railway network; it is at the heart of the freight industry and will be at the heart of the next generation of our railway network in the form of HS2. There is a rich, local, modern railway industry that has grown from our heritage, which means that the key players will only ever be a short walk away—and if they are not, they will definitely be a short train journey away.
Crewe has its challenges, and bringing GBR to Crewe would help us on our journey to improvement in a fantastic way. That journey represents opportunities for GBR, too: it is a place where people can live and work affordably, in an office that would represent value for money for the taxpayers. I am ambitious for Crewe; the people of Crewe are ambitious for Crewe; and I hope the Minister can be ambitious for Crewe as well.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Crewe’s bid for the headquarters of Great British Railways.