Wednesday 30 March 2022
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
British and Overseas Judges: Hong Kong
I remind Members that Erskine May states:
“Reflections on the judge’s character or motives cannot be made except on a—
I hope Members will bear that in mind when making their contributions. I call Sir Iain Duncan Smith to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of British and overseas judges in Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Ms Rees. Today’s debate was meant to be a demand from across parties that the Government should intervene and that British judges now serving in Hong Hong’s courts should withdraw. We have known for some time that the very presence of those judges has lent legitimacy to a brutal, totalitarian regime that has been prosecuting in Hong Kong against the Sino-British agreement terms and has been prosecuting people in Hong Kong whose only crime has been to cry out for freedom—the kind of freedom that we in this Chamber and in this country have taken for granted for years, and that we see the people in Ukraine fighting for. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, British judges and lawyers have been serving in and around those courts and aiding them—not that they were setting out to do so, but their very presence has lent legitimacy.
However, just before I came in for this debate, I discovered that the Government have now agreed with us and wish the British judges to withdraw. Although that is not in the Government’s power, we have heard some interesting statements subsequently from the President of the Supreme Court. Will the Minister take this opportunity to intervene and make it clear what exactly the Government have said?
I thank my right hon. Friend for calling us all together on this very important issue and for inviting me to update colleagues by way of an intervention on the decision that has been made. It was laid in a written ministerial statement last night and published this morning. The statement is as follows:
“British judges have played an important role in supporting the judiciary in Hong Kong for many years. Since 1997 judges from other common law jurisdictions, including the UK, have sat on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal as part of the continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law.
However, since Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law in 2020, our assessment of the legal environment in Hong Kong has been increasingly finely balanced. China has continued to use the National Security Law and its related institutions to undermine the fundamental rights and freedoms promised in the Joint Declaration. As National Security Law cases proceed through the Courts, we are seeing the implications of this sweeping legislation, including the chilling effect on freedom of expression, the stifling of opposition voices, and the criminalising of dissent.
Given this concerning downward trajectory, the Foreign Secretary has agreed with the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor and the President of the UK Supreme Court Lord Reed, that the political and legal situation in Hong Kong has reached the point at which it is no longer tenable for serving UK judges to participate on the Court of Final Appeal. As such Lord Reed and Lord Hodge submitted their resignations to the Hong Kong authorities today. We are grateful for their service, and that of their predecessors.
The UK remains committed to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations.”
I am grateful to the Minister for intervening on my opening remarks to make it clear what the Government have said, and I welcome that. We set up an organisation, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a few years ago. It takes parliamentarians around the world from the left and right. There are 22 or 23 countries involved, from Japan to America, and we have all—as one voice throughout, and from all sides and from different parties—cried out for this for some time, so I unreservedly welcome today’s statement. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who was himself Lord Chancellor, wants to intervene.
I am grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend has done. When I was Lord Chancellor, I worked with the then Foreign Secretary, who is now my successor, to agree a set of objective parameters that would be used in order to assess the situation in Hong Kong. That was done because we, unlike China, respect the independence of our judiciary. We respect judges’ right to sit in courts where they are not providing a veneer of respectability, but importantly, at the end of it all, the politics of the situation demanded that sort of objective test. It is a sad moment, but it is one that I am glad the Government have not flinched from, which is why I wholeheartedly support the decision made today. It is not just an important decision in legal terms; it is the United Kingdom sending a very clear message that we will not be party to giving regimes that are sliding into tyranny any shred of respectability whatever. That is why I welcome the statement today.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I know that he has privately been a big supporter of what we have been trying to do, so I appreciate his coming here now that he is no longer Lord Chancellor.
I simply say that this is a momentous decision, because right now in Ukraine—I referred to this earlier—we are seeing a totalitarian regime try to stamp out democracy and freedom in another country. In a funny sort of way, maybe we are seeing that the fight for freedom in Ukraine influences all of us to ensure that, whatever we do from the peaceful area that we live in, it does not allow other totalitarian regimes to have the legitimacy that would be given to them by our independent judiciary playing a part in Hong Kong and letting everybody believe that there is nothing wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have argued for this move for some time now. I am particularly pleased to welcome it, not least because the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, is somebody whom I have known and respected for many years. I never felt comfortable being on the other side of the argument to him, and we seem to have resolved that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this now requires a response not just here, but from all those who have perhaps taken some comfort from the presence of the British judiciary in Hong Kong? I think it was the Hong Kong Bar Association that said the presence of British judges was a “canary in the mineshaft.” That canary has well and truly fallen off its perch today, and those in Hong Kong who care about the rule of law have a responsibility to respond.
I am grateful for that intervention, because I had a meeting with the Bar Council about this issue. To be fair, its members understood the dilemma that they had. Bear in mind that Essex Court Chambers have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government, as have I and others present. I do not understand how it is viable any longer for those at the Bar to argue that they are not somehow changing, influencing or moderating what may be going on in Hong Kong.
I have in front of me the statement from the Lord President. I will not read it out, as that is for others to do. Now that he has made that statement—he was one of those who actually did service in Hong Kong, so it is an extra-powerful statement on that point—I would call on the Bar Council, barristers and other lawyers who work in corporate law, and who now have all their offices in Hong Kong, to very carefully think about their position. If the judiciary are moving, and if the Bar does too, what price their ability to lend legitimacy to an area that is essentially no longer operating seriously under common law?
That is a finely tuned decision on the Government’s part. Labour’s position has been clear for more than a year, since my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), made it clear that British judges were giving a sheen of legitimacy to what was going on in Hong Kong. I am an original member of Hong Kong Watch—like many other right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber—and we have been worried for a number of years.
Despite being the shadow Minister, I do not intend to gloat over a U-turn or the Government caving in, but to put across a hint of sadness, because there is a sense that the withdrawal closes the door on a very civilised legal system that we consider to be the best in the world—it is shared by Australia, Canada and other places. It is sad to close the door on that level of standards and trust, and that will have a knock-on effect on the business community.
On balance, in the light of the Ukraine invasion in the last month, the judgment call is that this is no time to abstain, turn the other cheek or be neutral on things. We have to force partners and friends across the globe to make decisions. That may help to inch China towards making decisions on how it relates to Russia, and partners in the Indo-Pacific on how they approach this difficult time. The violence on our screens means that we cannot but make a decision; we cannot sit on the fence in these crucial days.
The hon. Lady is quite right. As I said earlier, the shockwaves from what is going on in Ukraine will wash around the world. Most of all, the important thing that that teaches us—and why I am doubly pleased that the Foreign Secretary has made the statement today—is that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are delicate. They do not exist by right; they exist only by human endeavour.
Underpinning those freedoms is our concept of independent judicial oversight. We may argue with judges, and we may get angry with them here in Parliament, but an independent judiciary is required to oversee the very workings of a democracy, as well as its freedoms, which will sometimes be taken away from people. That is why it is so important today that we send out the signal that when a Government dismisses those freedoms and natural rights, what is left is oppression and brutality. I believe that our judiciary has finally recognised that operating in isolation from the terrible new laws bearing down on people’s human rights in such countries is not feasible.
I had prepared a speech calling on the Government to do exactly what they did just before I began speaking. As a politician, that would not normally stop me making the speech for the sake of it, but I will restrain myself.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tireless work on human rights throughout this period. Although I welcome the Government’s statement, I think it has come a little late; the Labour party has been calling for action for more than a year. The fact remains that the deterioration of Hong Kong’s legal system means that lending it a false veneer of respectability is just not acceptable. China shows no signs of slowing down its blatant attacks on human rights and freedoms, be it in Hong Kong or in its genocidal campaign in Xinjiang.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should show more commitment by sanctioning the Chinese officials who are responsible for such human rights abuses, including Carrie Lam and Chen Quanguo? Will the Minister, when she speaks, confirm the precise amount of remuneration the UK Supreme Court has received in the last year for serving there?
In this very Chamber, I and others from the APPG on Magnitsky sanctions called on the Government to sanction more people. The hon. Gentleman has listed two people who are responsible for the abuses now in Xinjiang and what I believe to be a genocide. He will note that I have tabled an amendment, which has been signed by many Conservative Members, to today’s Health and Care Bill—the only reason I did so was to send a signal to the Government—saying that we want the NHS no longer to procure a single item that could possibly come from an area that uses forced or slave labour. The fact that we say we are doing that, and now know from reports that we are buying such equipment, is anathema, and we need to end that as well.
I agree with him that there is more to be done but steps by Government are welcome. This is one step in the right direction; the President of the Supreme Court has made a matching step. I hope to hear from the Bar Council and others that they will step up.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all he has done. Today has been another step in the programme of how to combat Chinese aggression. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I concur with the right hon. Gentleman and understand, as we all do, the importance of freedom of religious views in China, for the Falun Gong, the Christians and the Uyghurs.
I noted that the right hon. Gentleman had tabled that amendment. I have asked questions on that matter before, because it is wrong that the NHS should buy any product of slave labour. We welcome the process, and I see what the Minister has said today as a proactive response. The Government have responded to the hard work. Let us be thankful for where we are going and that we are now on the same page working together. That is the message we should send, and the House should endorse that. I am sorry I was longer in my intervention than I wished to be. I just want to commend the right hon. Gentleman.
The length of the intervention matches the exceptional nature of where we are. Normally, one would make a speech asking for the Government to do something, but they have done it before I asked for it. To that extent, I am sure the Chair will give leeway to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I conclude by saying that I unreservedly welcome the statement from the Government and the action today. I unreservedly welcome the statement from the President of the Supreme Court. I hope that others involved in the oversight of law, such as the Bar Council and the Law Society, will respond in terms to what is happening, not stay as outliers, and recognise the important and vital position of independence of the courts and those who practise in them and ply their trade. I say that as someone with a son who is a criminal barrister. The job is to represent people in a free and liberal society that understands the human rights of those who may be prosecuted.
I end by saying that, in a way, this is an emotional moment, because we have campaigned for this for so long. We have taken testimony in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and Hong Kong Watch from so many who have fled Hong Kong and are now here, because they are unable to live in freedom in Hong Kong, under the rules of an international treaty signed by the British and Chinese Governments at the time. The trashing of that, the ending of those rights, the disabusing nature of the Government’s behaviour, prompts us to ask, how can common law exist in a country that does not believe in the rights and freedoms of individuals? What Ukraine shows us is that freedom has to be fought for, nurtured and protected. Today, I believe, is a step in that direction, and I congratulate the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. You must be finding this an interesting debate; it is veering in slightly different directions from the form that Westminster Hall debates normally take, but we can adapt. It is good that the Government are keeping us on our toes with statements; I think the U-turn was announced a full 15 minutes before the debate started. I will abandon my speech and instead make just one or two brief points, which probably means I will go on for longer than I would have otherwise done.
I would say a word on behalf of the judges—not that they need me to say a word on their behalf, but they have been put in a difficult position. Two statements were issued—on 17 July 2020 and 27 August 2021—by the President of the UK Supreme Court. The first ended by saying:
“Whether judges of the Supreme Court can continue to serve as judges in Hong Kong will depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law.”
The 2021 statement made the judgment that:
“At this time, our shared assessment is that the judiciary in Hong Kong continues to act largely independently of government and their decisions continue to be consistent with the rule of law.”
Members may have disagreed with that assessment at that time, and I think we all disagree with it now—the actions of the Beijing Government have been something of a moving target—but the sitting Supreme Court judges have been placed in a difficult position. They have been waiting for a steer from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for some time. I say a steer; this is about the independence of the judiciary, and it is not for the Foreign Office to tell senior judges what to do. None the less, the opinion of the Government has been lacking for some time.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, the Labour party has made its position clear, not just in debates, but in the statement made by the then shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and the shadow Attorney General, Lord Falconer. The Government could perhaps have not left the decision until the eleventh hour.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the need for the Government not to direct judges, which would play entirely into the hands of China. We have an independent judiciary. Frankly, China does not respect the rule of law. That is why the Government’s position has been very carefully calibrated. Gently but firmly, I reject the contention that there was somehow benign neglect here. There was a very careful monitoring of the situation by me and the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—precisely calibrated on respect for the independence of the judiciary, but also making sure there was a very clear political hand on the tiller when it came to the overall evidence and assessment of the situation, month by month.
I entirely respect the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s opinion and his record as Lord Chancellor, but the issue could have been handled a little better. There were signals in those statements, at least on knowing the opinion. I entirely agree with him, obviously, that the last thing we want, either in relation to China or of itself, is for the Government to be banging the table and telling judges what to do, although they do seem to do that rather a lot—presumptions seem to be finding their way into legislation rather too often, in my view. Nevertheless, let us maintain today’s harmonious spirit. We will endeavour to do that.
I think it will be something of a relief to the Supreme Court that this statement has been made today. The question, as other hon. Members have already raised, is what the consequences will be. The Minister may want to clarify. As far as retired judges and practitioners are concerned, it will still be for them to make an individual decision. There may be views expressed by the Bar or other professional bodies, but I wonder whether the Government are going to go further and say what they would wish to see—there is no element of direction there; none is possible. Former Presidents of the Supreme Court and former judges of the Supreme Court sit. There are judges from other Commonwealth jurisdictions who are even more remote, but who I suspect would also take note of the decision that has been taken here. That will be an interesting point to look at.
I think that this situation is an exception and it is right that it is judged on the individual and particular facts as to the conduct of the Beijing Government. Generally speaking, however, the ability of senior UK judges to sit in other jurisdictions is something that we should be very proud of and, indeed, encourage. I suspect that the Government will wish to see more of that happening. It does happen in many circumstances that are controversial. I am thinking of judges sitting as the final court of appeal on capital cases from the Caribbean and other very controversial matters. No doubt some people would say that they should not do that and should not associate in that way, or that British judges have no locus in doing it. I think that, whether one looks at it in terms of soft power and the reputation of Britain abroad, or whether one looks at the experience that is gained by both sides, it is a positive thing, and the situation that we are discussing is, one hopes, the exception that proves that rule. There are particular circumstances in this situation that mean that it is right that certainly the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court no longer sit in the court of final appeal.
I have had the opportunity to discuss this matter over the past few weeks with senior sitting and retired judges, but also with campaigners and human rights activists from Hong Kong, and I would like to say that their cogency, their bravery and their articulation of the view that, notwithstanding the arguments—there are arguments on both sides—it was wrong for UK judges to continue to sit there is something that we should respect. I have absolutely no doubt that, as far as they were possibly able to do so, the judges—whether sitting judges, retired judges or judges from other jurisdictions—were doing absolutely the best they could to uphold not just their independence but the rule of law when they were sitting in Hong Kong. But there is the issue of lending legitimacy to the Beijing regime and the way in which it has acted.
There is also the fact that we have moved on over the past two or three years, given not just the national security law but the intervention of the Executive. Frankly, the constant intervention by Beijing has now made the position untenable, so I am pleased that the UK Government have come to this conclusion. I am grateful, of course, for the 15 minutes’ notice before the start of this debate, and I will conclude my remarks there.
I, too, would like to express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate and for succeeding in his purposes before he even stood up to speak. I know that that success comes from considerable time spent campaigning on this and many other issues relating to human rights in Hong Kong and the concerning, deteriorating situation there. For that, I commend him and others in this Chamber, and of course I join them in welcoming the Government’s statement today.
I will make just a few comments. The UK legal community remains one of the most highly respected in the world. I am proud to declare an interest as a solicitor still on the roll. Nearly one third of the world’s population today lives in an English common-law jurisdiction or a jurisdiction with common-law features, and the fact that citizens from all over the world travel to our country to receive justice is a reflection of our leadership when it comes to protection of the rule of law. That is why today’s announcement of the Government’s decision is so important, because we have to retain that consistency in order to retain the respect that we have worldwide for our system of justice.
I see this day after day in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I work on cases from around the world, so I know that for many of us it has been particularly—my notes say “difficult”, but I would say that it has been distressing to look on at the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong over what has actually been a very few years. The speed and alacrity of that deterioration has indeed been distressing—the dismantling of rights previously protected under Hong Kong’s basic law and of not only the “one country, two systems” model, but the English common-law system.
I have curtailed most of my speech, but I will take this opportunity briefly to put on record some specific concerns and examples of why today’s decision is so important. There have been attempts to intimidate the Hong Kong legal community, such as the shameful targeting of the former head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Paul Harris SC, who was forced to flee the city after being questioned under the national security law last month. We saw judges who offered what were perceived as lenient sentences targeted by the pro-Beijing media, as was the case with district judge Sham Siu-man, who also had to flee the city in October 2021 after being attacked by the pro-Beijing publication Wen Wei Po. Like others, I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, which has been targeted even more recently under the national security law.
I recognise that some in the UK legal community endeavoured to make the case that our foreign judges could be a moderating influence on the Hong Kong Government while they remained, and could serve as a ballast against extreme sentencing and further deterioration of human rights. I am glad that the Government have wholly rejected that view today, because that moderating influence has been in severely short supply. Hong Kong Watch reports that in the past two years there were over 720 political prisoners in Hong Kong, and over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since 2019. Student activist Tony Chung received three and a half years in jail for social media posts advocating independence, and Tong Ying-kit was given six and a half years of his national security sentence for waving a flag with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
Clearly, we could not allow the Hong Kong Government to continue to use the credentials and credibility of UK judges and their counterparts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand—although this is obviously an issue that those counterparts will have to look at themselves—as a smokescreen to hide their attacks on the rule of law, democracy and basic human rights. Today, I am delighted that the Government have stood on the side of the oppressed, not with the oppressor, and withdrawn our judges from Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Rees—with a revised speech, like everybody else. It is not often that just before a debate starts the Minister announces the introduction of what we are asking for, so that is really quite good news. We all have to thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all that he does. I am a great believer, as I know he and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) are, in the power of prayer. Our prayers for this conclusion and the Minister’s announcement have to be put on the record—we have prayed for those things every day, and this is an answer to prayer.
We all know the reasons behind the announcement. For some time there has been concern about Hong Kong and all the problems there. We know about the legislation that criminalises what it deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism—violence and intimidation—and collusion with foreign or external forces. It is a suppression of the rights of the people.
We commend the work that the hon. Member for Congleton does in her role as special envoy, because there is no doubt that she does it with passion and commitment each and every day of her life, and we appreciate that very much. Like her, and as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) did in his intervention, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to speak up for people in China, where human rights abuses are rife and the persecution of religious belief is instilled and enforced by the Chinese Government.
I am greatly aggrieved about this issue. As hon. Members will know, I speak about it quite often, due to the commitment and interest that I and others in this Chamber have. Christians are unable to worship; their churches are knocked down, or they are not even allowed to build them. People sit in the back of churches, monitoring those who attend and monitoring the sermons. It is impossible for anyone to move without the Chinese security forces knowing who and what they are. Off the back of that comes the suppression of education, job opportunities and ownership of houses and cars. It is all downright suppression, and it is suffered not only by Christians but by the Falun Gong. We have all spoken about the organ transplants that take place on a commercial scale. It grieves us greatly.
This debate is about overseas judges. The reason we are saying these things is that the situation grieves us greatly, and that is why the Government have now supported our stance. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton spoke of the Uyghurs; I have a burden in my heart for them, as much as all the other groups. I am very pleased that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green brought this debate today, as I have asked many question on this subject. If it is pushed to a vote, we will certainly support it. We need to use every tool in our armoury against that suppression, and today the Government have given us that encouragement.
I am ever mindful that the situation in Ukraine has focused attention on where we currently are. It has brought NATO and the western world together. I was reading the newspaper before coming to this debate; I am not sure what credence these stories have, but the intelligence coming from the States seems to indicate that China has said it will not invade Taiwan for four years. It would be better if it did not invade Taiwan at all, or if it had no intention of doing so. However, my point is that the situation has hardened the west and the UK in leadership, with the leadership of our Government, our Prime Minister and the Minister present; it has galvanised the free west to stand firm. We have seen that today in what the Minister has said.
I will quote from the House of Commons Library briefing paper, which reinforces the Government’s statement today:
“Chief Executive Carrie Lam, now has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Beijing will also have power over how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.”
That is why the Government have made that statement today, and that is why we welcome it; it is what we want to see. The thrust of our debate was going to be just that.
I would like to gently say something to all hon. Members present. To be honest, the situation in Hong Kong seems a wee bit similar to what the EU has been doing with Northern Ireland. It is making us abide by its laws above our own, regardless of the Belfast agreement, which is not worth the paper it is written on. [Laughter.] I am just saying that for the record—I could not let it go without saying something. The Minister and I share many things, including the fact that we were born in the same town: Omagh, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. We share a fondness for that town and a fondness for Northern Ireland. I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place. I digress, Ms Rees.
I welcome the approach taken today. I am so pleased to hear it. I feel encouraged. There are other things we want to see—the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green outlined other steps that we want to take. In her reply, maybe the Minister could give us more encouragement. If she does, we will perhaps have had a debate where we got the conclusion we wanted before the debate even started.
Huge congratulations to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for all his leadership, time and commitment on this issue, and to all the other Members across the House who have made their views clear and put effort into encouraging the Government to take today’s decision.
I appreciate that it cannot have been easy. Any of us involved in human rights issues across the world are regularly frustrated with the response of the Foreign Office, because of the argument that staying there and arguing the case is better than walking away and standing up. I appreciate that the balance in that argument is a very fine one, but there must come a point at which carrying on in the hope of diplomacy is simply not the right answer.
I have a few simple points to put on the record today. We all know that the presence of overseas judges stretches back to a 1997 agreement, which aimed to maintain Hong Kong’s judiciary’s independence and credibility. However, the circumstances have changed.
The introduction of the Hong Kong national security law has undeniably restricted those rights and freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong 25 years ago, and the legal system is unquestionably compromised. Now, the Hong Kong Secretary for Justice decides the charges in sensitive national security cases; there is a pre-vetted list of designated national security law judges; the Hong Kong Government decide on the judge; and everything is held closely to account by the pro-Beijing press.
Some people—with the best of intentions, I am sure—argue that overseas judges maintain influence, and that they have some kind of sway. However, in reality they are only able to preside over trials in the Court of Final Appeal, and given that they have no influence over the cases that come before that court, it is unlikely that they would ever have been chosen for a national security law case. In fact, we were still waiting for an overseas judge to participate in a case considered under the law, because the Hong Kong Chief Executive and National Security Commission were able to hand-pick them.
I am glad that the Government have agreed that the overseas judges’ presence on the grounds of influence was erroneous at best. The simple fact is that as long as overseas judges continued to serve in Hong Kong, they would have been providing unwitting support for the Chinese Government’s crushing of the city’s democracies, rights and freedoms. That is not just the view of the Members here today, or of the Government; Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, herself noted that foreign judges have helped
“maintain a high degree of confidence”
in Hong Kong’s legal system.
I am glad that the British Government share my concerns. After all, they have already introduced the new visa route for British nationals overseas, extended the arms embargo for exports to China to include Hong Kong, and suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely. The concern was always apparent. However, when we consider the changes since those measures, the reality is that the situation in Hong Kong has not improved. The Chinese Government continue their clampdown on freedoms in the city, so the question had to be asked as to the difference made by continued support lent to the judicial system.
I recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made here. In theory, the question is whether it is better to be in the room or watching from outside. However, the longer we remained inside, the clearer it became that the ability to influence was close to redundant, and that our presence instead provided a veneer of legitimacy to a judicial system that had long since lost its democratic legitimacy.
I am glad that the Government have made their decision today. I hope that they will go further—that they listen to the amendment suggested by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green on procuring items for the NHS, and extend the number of people to be sanctioned for their involvement in the genocide of the Uyghurs.
It is a pleasure to serve, Ms Rees. I always think, when I am considering my speeches, that nobody ever criticised a speech for being too short, but I think I can excel myself today.
I am a solicitor by trade. I trained with Clifford Chance, which has significant interests in Hong Kong, so I am aware that this is complicated; it is not a black-and-white issue. However, in the 9 June 2021 debate on this subject, I said:
“Speaking of dubious legality, UK judges should absolutely withdraw from the Hong Kong judicial system. They are lending a veneer of credibility and respectability to a system that simply does not merit it.—[Official Report, 9 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 412WH.]
I did not say that lightly at the time.
I obviously welcome the UK Government's indication that the judges should withdraw, but I do so with much sadness because it is an admission that staying put and trying to be a mediating influence has failed. It sounds the death knell of “one country, two systems” and the failure of the Sino-British agreement, which is a terrible, humiliating failure of statecraft. We cannot abandon the people of Hong Kong; we remain a guarantor of their rights. So the withdrawal is welcome, in that we should not give a veneer of respectability to a system that does not merit it, but saddening in that it is an admission of defeat. This is not the end of the story.
I have been struck by hon. Members’ comments. I lend my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has been at the forefront of this. This cannot be the end of the story. We remain bound to the people of Hong Kong; we remain bound to the people of China. There are grievous human rights abuses going on in Hong Kong and in China. This is not for a second the last time that we will be discussing human rights in Hong Kong and China, but I do welcome today’s decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Like other hon. Members, I will not speak for long. It is a pleasure for us all to enjoy the U-turn made 15 minutes before the start of the debate, which was inspired by the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith); he must feel that he is getting so much done these days.
I want to mention briefly the excellent speeches that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) thanked the judiciary for their continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law. We thank the members of the judiciary who have signalled that they will no longer serve in Hong Kong, and thank them for their role to date. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) asked the Minister about further sanctions; I wonder whether she will comment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke of how the freedom of the press has been compromised. I am very aware of that, having held this brief from 2015 to 2017 and again since December 2021. It has been clear for some time that the situation has significantly deteriorated. Those of us who were involved from the beginning with Hong Kong Watch thought we were a very small group, and that there was a minor problem. Sadly, the situation has become worse and worse.
The heavy-handed crackdown on democracy and civil liberties continues apace, with the shattering of independent media outlets, the suppression of trade unions and the continued arrest of democracy activists. In a recent meeting with trade union members from Hong Kong in the House of Commons, no photographs were taken because it simply was not safe enough for them to meet an Opposition Member here in the British Parliament and talk about workers’ rights in Hong Kong. That speaks volumes.
It has been a positive debate. It would be great to be able to run the Government like this—by consensus—would it not? I look forward to hearing the Minister cover the remaining loose ends that have come up during the debate, and to continuing our combined commitment to human rights and the rule of law going forward.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the many colleagues who have taken part in this debate, which has been slightly unusual. I start by saying how grateful I am to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the debate and for all the work he has done on this subject.
The Minister for Asia and the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), would have been delighted to take part, but she is currently travelling in the region on ministerial duties. Therefore, it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to a number of the points that have been raised. I apologise, but I will take some time to do so.
Before I address the specific questions about foreign judges, I want to set out the Government’s current assessments of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I share the deep concerns expressed across Westminster Hall today. The situation is worse now than at any time since the handover. In 1984, the Sino-British joint declaration made it clear that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years from 1997. China undertook to uphold rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. It also agreed to keep in force the international covenant on civil and political rights, to maintain the independent judiciary and to maintain the rule of law. However, time and again it has reneged on that promise. The national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020 is a clear and serious breach of the joint declaration. It has since been used to systematically restrict rights and freedoms—especially freedom of expression.
In March 2021, China further breached the joint declaration by introducing radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, reducing the space for democracy. The UK believes China to be in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration. Almost all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition are detained or arrested or have chosen to leave Hong Kong. As a result, the legislator has lost all meaningful opposition, as demonstrated by the outcome of the December 2021 legislative elections. That is part of a concerted campaign by the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to remove all dissent. They have conducted a targeted assault against civil society and against pro-democracy news outlets, such as Apple Daily and Stand News. Just this month, the authorities threatened the UK-based non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch in an apparent attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights. The Foreign Secretary made it clear at the time that attempts to silence democratic voices are unacceptable and will never succeed.
Turning to the role of judges, the chilling effect of the national security law is of deep concern, and the trajectory appears negative. It is against that increasingly worrying backdrop that the Foreign Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Reed, the President of the Supreme Court, have all decided that it is no longer tenable for serving UK judges to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. It is for UK and foreign retired judges to make their own decisions about whether to remain sitting. However, it is important to remember that the national security law is not aligned with UK values. As cases under that law proceed through the courts, judges will increasingly be required to enforce Beijing’s laws—not laws aligned with the UK.
I thank Lord Reed and Lord Hodge for their work. They have submitted their resignations today and they are effective immediately. I agree with the Opposition spokesman, the spokesman for the SNP and so many others across this House that this is a sad reflection of how far the political and legal situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated.
I put it on the record that British judges have played an important role in supporting the judiciary in Hong Kong since the handover. There is no legal requirement for the UK Supreme Court or the UK Government to uphold the agreement that the UK would provide two serving judges, but they have since been provided. It was a part of the UK’s continuing commitment to safeguard the rule of law in Hong Kong. However, the UK Government have said for some time that our support for the presence of UK sitting judges in the Court of Final Appeal was finely balanced. Since it came into place, it has been very clear that the national security law violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, which was provided for in the joint declaration.
I thank every single Member in this House—across the House—for their support for the decision that has been made by the Foreign Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the judges. In particular, I thank the former Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), for coming here today, and for his wise words about the importance of the independence of the judiciary. However, the decision to withdraw sitting UK judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal should not be misconstrued as a weakened UK commitment. We absolutely remain committed to the people of Hong Kong, and will continue to call out violations of their rights and freedoms and hold China to its international obligations.
As hon. Members will recall, the UK Government responded quickly and decisively to the enactment of the national security law. That included introducing a new immigration path for British nationals overseas, suspending our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong. The visa route for BNOs opened on 31 January 2021, and by the end of the year there were almost 104,000 applications. On 24 February, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced changes to the BNO route to enable individuals aged 18 or over but who were born after 1 July 1997 and have at least one BNO parent to apply to the route independently of their BNO parent.
We have also co-ordinated action with international partners to hold China to account, including through our presidency of the G7. In December, we released two critical joint statements with G7 partners and the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, following Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections. In February, we co-led a media freedom coalition statement, signed by 21 international partners, which called out attacks on media and press freedoms, including closure of Stand News and the associated arrests of journalists. Earlier this month, we used the latest session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to call out China’s systematic undermining of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. We remain in regular contact with our international partners about Hong Kong and continue to work intensively on the world stage to hold China to its international obligations.
The hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others mentioned the situation in Xinjiang. The evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims is far-reaching and paints a truly harrowing picture. The UK Government have led international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations in Xinjiang, as well as in Hong Kong, and earlier this month the Foreign Secretary again reiterated our deep concerns about the situation in Xinjiang in her personal address to the UN Human Rights Council.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked about sanctions. On 22 March, the former Foreign Secretary announced that under the UK’s global human rights sanctions agreement, the UK posed asset freezes and travel bans against four Chinese Government officials, as well as an asset freeze against one entity responsible for enforcing repressive security policies across many areas of Xinjiang.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said, however, while welcoming all those sanctions, the problem is that we have sanctioned fewer people than the United States and other countries. I urge the Minister to take back to the Department what we have already said in the all-party parliamentary group and what has been said elsewhere here today. We are behind the curve on this now. These people are abusive and are responsible for the literally deathly imposition of slave labour and genocide. Can she please now catch up with the United States?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will certainly take that away. I noted his point regarding the Health and Care Bill, and I know that no one in this House supports the use of forced labour, particularly in creating goods for the NHS. We are fully committed to ensuring that that does not happen and will set out this afternoon further measures that we are intending to take on that issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton for his intervention on the issue of Carrie Lam and Hong Kong officials, but I cannot make any statement on that at this point.
More broadly, I return to the actions that China is taking at this incredibly important time for sovereignty and democracy across the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green reminded us of the situation in Ukraine and the fact that 24 February was a turning point for the world—for those who believe in standing up for democracy and freedom. We in the UK will continue to support the Ukrainian Government in the face of this terrible assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we will continue to stand with members of the international community against aggression and for freedom, democracy and sovereignty.
The world is watching China’s words and actions very closely. We have urged China to use its relationship with Russia to press for an end to this terrible war and to prevent further humanitarian crises, rather than condoning or excusing Russia’s actions. We are therefore extremely disappointed that China was the only country on the UN Security Council to support Russia’s humanitarian resolution.
The UK condemns any military support to Russia, and expects China to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to uphold its commitment to the UN charter. The world is watching to see whether China’s actions contribute to peace and stability, or whether it instead chooses to fuel Russian aggression and prolong this ruinous invasion, with all its civilian costs.
To conclude, the UK has very deep and long-standing ties with Hong Kong, and we want it to succeed and prosper. However, Hong Kong’s way of life relies on respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and the rule of law. We are fully committed to supporting liberty and democracy, and to defending universal human rights; and we will continue to hold China to the commitments that it willingly undertook, and to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.
Normally, to get up with almost half an hour left in which to summarise a debate would be a sheer joy for a parliamentarian or politician. [Laughter.] However, I will not take the full time on this one.
I will simply conclude by saying that today is a remarkable day. It may not be a day that people will discuss in the bars and the pubs across the country, because many of them probably do not understand or have not heard much about the issue, but it is something that we, as democrats and politicians, know about. We should be celebrating the fact that the UK Government have acted, as a result of the continual campaigning by many of us in this area—from Hong Kong Watch to IPAC, and others—for an end to the superficial legitimacy that our judiciary had been lending to a regime that had been breaking, and is breaking, many of the rules regarding human rights, the rule of law and democracy, not just in Hong Kong but more widely across China.
In my last few remarks, I want to remind everybody what this matter is all about. It is not really just about judges agreeing not to serve in Hong Kong in a common law system that has become debauched, and it is not just that those judges have taken a self-denying ordinance. It is about something much more important—shedding light on the single fact that we are seeing, as I said earlier, literally being fought out in Ukraine. For too long, we have felt that we must accommodate totalitarian regimes that have no regard whatever for the basic things that we believe in and that make us who we are: that sense of human rights, the rule of law and democracy, without which this place could not exist, and this country and so many other countries in the west could not exist in the shape that we do.
The reality, writ large, is that we now have to end that accommodation with the Chinese Government. Our dependency on them allows and fuels them to continue to believe that their form of government and their concept of the ending of these rights is the right way to go and the natural order. Democracy, the rule of law, the independent judiciary and human rights are delicate flowers; they cannot be maintained unless we fight for them, talk about and believe in them, and unless, when people end them, we ostracise them and tell them they are wrong.
I thank the Government for moving on this issue, and the President of the Supreme Court for accepting independently that judges will not serve. Following many comments on the subject, it is important for others who ply their trade in the same courts to think again about what they do. I call on the Bar Council to recommend, as has the President of the Supreme Court, that its members think carefully about adding legitimacy to these courts in Hong Kong. I know it is complicated, but I also call on the Law Society to make a strong statement about the limits of action that lawyers in Hong Kong, representing companies, should take in the pursuit of commercial interests.
Today is not the end, and, as has been said before, it is not the beginning of the end, but it may just become the end of the beginning. The action that we take today may stave off future violent invasions that could come from a country that believes it has impunity. Today we have sent a signal that freedom matters and that people’s freedoms, above all else, are critical to the very way we live our lives. On that basis, I thank the Government for having moved on this matter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of British and overseas judges in Hong Kong.
Healthcare: Carshalton and Wallington
I beg to move,
That this House has considered healthcare outcomes in Carshalton and Wallington.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. It is also a pleasure to be here, because it is just over two years since I made my maiden speech in the Commons Chamber, when the House was debating the health and social care element of the Queen’s Speech, and I made it abundantly clear that afternoon that health and social care outcomes in Carshalton and Wallington would be a top priority for me, as they were for my constituents.
I want to read out some statistics that demonstrate why the issue is so important. I am particularly concerned about four areas of health, beginning with cancer. One in two, or 50%, of us will receive a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime. The London Borough of Sutton is very lucky to be home to the Surrey branch of the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research. The plans for the London cancer hub will be truly groundbreaking in the UK and will deliver better cancer outcomes for all patients.
Dementia is another issue I am concerned about, after having my own family experience with it. There will be a predicted 25% increase in the number of people diagnosed with dementia in Carshalton and Wallington by 2030, which presents a huge challenge for health and social care services.
My third concern is obesity, which has got progressively worse—I have had my own struggles with obesity, having once been as heavy as 21 stone—so we need a decent obesity strategy to tackle the problem from a young age. My fourth concern is mental health. Throughout lockdown we saw how the rates of mental health cases spiked as people struggled to cope with isolation.
I am sure the House will be aware of my many contributions on health and social care issues, and one of the topics I raise most—unashamedly—is my local hospital, St Helier. I offer no apology for doing that, and it should come as no surprise that St Helier will feature as a major part of my speech today.
I was born at St Helier, as were most of my family. The hospital and the staff have supported my family and me through some of our darkest days and have saved the lives of people I know. They also saved my life at Christmas. It is difficult to articulate just how grateful I am, and the residents of Carshalton and Wallington are, for that local hospital and all the amazing work it does.
St Helier opened its doors in 1941, during the second world war. Despite a few bombings—and the birth of a former Prime Minister—the building has barely changed. At the time of construction it was considered a modern 1930s design, but almost a century later the way that we practise medicine has developed and improved, and the buildings are now anything but modern. Over recent years, particularly throughout the last two years of the pandemic, the limitations of that old building have become glaringly obvious. For example—this is one of the worst examples—some of the lifts are too small to fit a modern-day hospital bed, so money has to be spent on transferring patients from the back of the building to the front via ambulances.
When I made my maiden speech in the Chamber and spoke about St Helier, I never imagined that I would be serving as an MP during a global health pandemic. St Helier was hit hard by covid-19, as were all our hospitals across the country. I thank the staff for their tireless efforts and their uphill battle with the limitations of older facilities in trying to tackle the pandemic. There was a very worrying moment in the winter of 2020 when oxygen supplies nearly ran out, but thanks to the innovation and enthusiasm of the team there the situation was quickly resolved.
Over the 20th century, St Helier helped to raise our local care and health services to a much higher plane, but it is now time to take that care even higher. That is why I am incredibly grateful that the Government are using the nation’s resources to do just that by investing £500 million—half a billion pounds—in the NHS in Carshalton and Wallington. That does two things: it protects St Helier and Epsom hospitals, allowing them to make the improvements needed to become more modern medical facilities, and it allows us to have a third brand-new, state-of-the-art and built-from-scratch acute care hospital in Sutton. That record level of investment will do wonders to improve healthcare outcomes for local residents, so I am incredibly grateful to the NHS and colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care who developed the plan and allowed the funding for it to come forward.
I want to make it clear that, for the first time, the plan was developed by our local NHS services. We have heard so many times in this place about reorganisations of the NHS or plans for the NHS coming from politicians and bureaucrats, but this was an NHS-led initiative. The NHS came to the Government and asked for the funding, and I am so pleased that the Government listened.
It is therefore disappointing that my Lib Dem opposition in Carshalton and Wallington have turned their backs on St Helier and refused to support the £500 million investment. I would like to read out a statement I received only yesterday from a Lib Dem councillor, who does not want to be named but who is retiring and not re-contesting their seat at the elections in May:
“Hi Elliot, I wanted to pass this onto you as I think you’ve actually done a great job since taking over as the MP, but please don’t tell anyone I sent you this.
As you may know, I am standing down as a Lib Dem councillor. I was promised a lot by the party when I agreed to stand. I was told it would be easy and I’d be well paid, but it’s been hell frankly and the party’s been no help at all. I can’t keep asking my family to go through this.
I also cannot support my party’s u-turn on St Helier. We were all so excited when we heard the £500m was being announced for St Helier, but we were told we had to campaign against it as St Helier is one of the only reasons people used to vote Lib Dem.
This experience has not been what I was led to believe. I feel betrayed, let down and hurt.
Again, please don’t pass this onto anyone—they can be very angry and vindictive, anyone who raises any issue get shouted down, but keep up the good work, you have my support!”
That is a very striking and brave statement for someone to make, particularly to a member of an opposing party, and it demonstrates why it is so important to invest in St Helier Hospital.
I want to talk about the positives of the investment and why it is such good news. The new specialist emergency care hospital will treat the sickest 15% of patients in my constituency—those normally arriving by ambulance—and the specialist team will be available 24 hours a day to diagnose patients more rapidly, start the best treatment faster and help patients recover more quickly. St Helier and Epsom will also remain open 24/7, with updated and improved facilities. This will be absolutely ground-breaking for health and social care outcomes in Carshalton and Wallington. I cannot say how long we have waited for investment to come into St Helier. Time and again I have seen the threat of closure and loss of services, such as A&E and maternity going to St George’s, Tooting or Croydon, but they are now staying in the London borough of Sutton and can treat local patients, which is absolutely incredible news.
To reiterate, the purpose of the plans is to improve local health outcomes, which all my local residents want to see. Our priority has always been the outcomes for people’s health. Since the covid-19 pandemic hit, the NHS has slightly amended its plans for the project. It has learned from the pandemic to future-proof health and social care against future shocks. The new hospital ward designs will increase ventilation, and single room occupancy rates have gone up, which will help to reduce the risk of disease transmission.
In terms of timelines for the new project, a planning application is due to be submitted later this year. Over the next three years, some of the planned improvements will begin to be implemented at St Helier, including the building of a new pathology centre and a nursery. From 2025 onwards, the plan is to build a new main entrance to St Helier, to improve accessibility, and a new multi-storey car park, as well as to make major internal changes to A and D blocks and other improvements. As things stand, the new specialist hospital is due to open in 2026.
I have a number of quotes from local NHS professionals on why these changes are so important. When the independent reconfiguration panel last year backed the proposals for a new hospital and upgrades to Epsom and St Helier, it emphasised the need to expedite the project, stating:
“The problems facing the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust are real and require urgent attention…The Panel understands the heightened sense of uncertainty created by Covid-19 but does not believe the interests of local health services will be served by pausing—rather work should proceed on the basis that there may well be benefits should another pandemic arise in the future.”
Commenting on the confirmation of the investment, Arlene Wellman, the chief nurse at Epsom and St Helier said:
“What covid-19 has shown the NHS is that for all our communities survival rates are higher if specialist hospital staff work together in one team, in one place to care for the sickest patients around the clock”.
Dr Andrew Murray, a GP and clinical chair of NHS South West London clinical commissioning group commented:
“Covid-19 has shown that there’s no time like the present to invest in our hospitals. Now more than ever we need to ensure the right healthcare services for local people”.
Finally, Surrey Downs integrated care partnership clinical chair and GP, Russell Hills, said:
“This pandemic shows we cannot afford to delay improving and modernising our local health services for the benefit of both patients and staff—and the independent analysis of feedback shows there is clear support for this vital investment.”
It is clear that the £500 million investment in our local healthcare system is much needed and very much welcomed by the NHS.
I hope the Minister will be able to provide an update on work on the project, which should be expedited and delivered as soon as possible. As always, I am more than happy to meet her and her departmental colleagues to discuss the issue, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who have been fighting for this project longer than I have been in the House.
Unfortunately, attempts to frustrate the delivery of this record investment will no doubt continue for reasons of political point scoring. Nevertheless, I am not deterred, and I hope the Government will not be deterred. I am proud of what we are trying to achieve—prioritising health outcomes above everything else—so let us get on with the job and raise the plane of health and social care delivery, which has been almost a century in the making.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on bringing forward this important debate and on his commitment to tackling the range of health and social care issues that affect his constituents. A new hospital for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust is part of our plans to build 40 new hospitals by 2030—the biggest hospital building programme in a generation.
The new hospital programme team is working closely with all schemes in the programme on how and when new hospitals will be built across the decade. I thank my hon. Friend for his praise and support for the new hospital programme. He campaigns tirelessly for his constituents, despite local opposition on purely political grounds. I assure him that we remain fully committed to the delivery of a new hospital for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust to deliver improved local health outcomes.
The new hospitals will transform the way we deliver healthcare infrastructure for the NHS, prioritising sustainability, digital technology and the latest construction methods. This will result in outdated infrastructure being replaced by facilities for staff and patients—in his constituency and across the country—that are on the cutting edge of modern technology, innovation and sustainability. As my hon. Friend said, we can learn lessons from the covid pandemic to ensure that we future-proof our infrastructure.
The trust and the programme are working closely together on options for a new specialist emergency care hospital at the Sutton site, while general acute services remain in the current Epsom and St Helier hospitals. The programme team is in regular and ongoing discussion with the trust regarding the development of their plans, in line with the overall programme approach for delivery. This includes working closely on the trust’s expectations for the build and ensuring that those are in line with the financial envelope across the whole programme. The individual allocation for the scheme will be determined only once the respective full business case has been reviewed and agreed.
To date, the new hospital programme has approved over £31 million in public dividend capital allocation to the trust for a variety of works related to the scheme. This includes fees for design works, enabling funding for the construction of a multi-storey car park as part of the scheme, and a contribution towards the costs of a new electronic patient record system. Further allocations to the scheme will be decided through the proper process as the scheme is progressed.
The new hospital programme is working collaboratively with trusts across the programme to ensure that their plans get the most from available funding, while avoiding repetition of work and ensuring that the principles of repeatable deign, modern methods of construction and net carbon zero are met. This will maximise the potential benefits of a programmatic approach to the scheme, resulting in the best possible value for money to the taxpayer and improved health outcomes for local constituents.
I will briefly talk more widely about the ambitions of the new hospital programme and our wider investment in our nation’s hospital infrastructure. The Government have been doing incredibly ambitious work, providing substantial capital investment to support the biggest hospital building programme in a generation. On 2 October 2020, an initial £3.7 billion of funding was confirmed to support the delivery of 40 new hospitals, with a further eight schemes invited to bid for future funding to deliver 48 hospitals by 2030.
I am pleased that six of the hospitals in the programme are already in construction, including the Royal United Hospital Bath, which is the first of the 40 new hospitals to begin construction. In addition, on 19 August 2021, the Secretary of State opened the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, the first of the eight hospitals confirmed by the previous Government that now form part of the new hospital programme.
This hospital building programme is in addition to significant upgrades to over 70 hospitals, worth £1.7 billion, and a wider programme of capital investment. The commitment to fund a programme of new hospitals is an exciting opportunity to build the next generation of intelligent healthcare facilities, as well as to embed a long-term capability for future capital investments within the NHS.
While this major scheme gets under way, we are supporting Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust with other capital investments, including £6.1 million for the expansion of the emergency department and same-day emergency care unit at St Helier Hospital and the extension of waiting room space and mental health cubicles at Epsom hospital; £7.4 million for the relocation of services from the New Epsom and Ewell Cottage Hospital to Epsom General Hospital; and £11.6 million to eradicate the backlog in maintenance across the estate. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the amazing contribution our health and care staff have made during the pandemic—none more so than those serving the constituency of my hon. Friend.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he is doing to support the new hospital scheme for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. My Department and I look forward to continuing to work closely with him, and we are happy to arrange a meeting with him and his colleagues, and to work with the trust, as these important and ambitious plans continue to develop and come to fruition, and as they deliver improved healthcare outcomes in Carshalton and Wallington and the surrounding area.
Question put and agreed to.
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered carer’s allowance.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank all the Members who have taken the time to attend this incredibly important and timely debate.
It is no exaggeration to describe unpaid carers as the backbone of the social care system and of communities up and down the country. In caring for relatives and loved ones, their dedication ensures thousands of people living with disability or illness are able to live with dignity and respect. They are vital and their work is crucially important to society, but too often they are not treated with the decency and respect they deserve or given credit for their work, not just in caring for people but in benefiting wider society.
There are an estimated 11.5 million unpaid carers across the UK, with over 900,000 of them putting in the minimum 35 hours to receive the carer’s allowance of just £67.60 per week. It is a crying shame that their efforts are so poorly recognised. Meagre as it might be, the benefit is crucial in allowing carers to perform their vital service, which would simply not be possible otherwise. However, working outside those caring responsibilities not only brings home much-needed wages, but we know there are many benefits from keeping in touch with the workplace, including carers’ identities and self-esteem, and social engagement outside their full-time caring role.
Were carers not providing the care that they provide, and the state were forced to step in instead, the cost to the Treasury would be extremely high. The charity Carers UK estimates the economic value of unpaid care provided over the two years of the pandemic at more than £380 billion—that is more than the entire NHS budget over the same period. Given the vital importance of unpaid carers and the allowance that helps them do what they do, I was utterly appalled when my constituent, Mr Steve Spamer, wrote to me recently to explain the changes the Government will impose on him just a few weeks from now.
Steve is registered blind, and has been for many years. Not only does his wife provide round-the-clock care, but to make ends meet she works two jobs, up to the maximum hours permitted by the allowance’s earning threshold. She does six hours cleaning in the local pub and eight hours in the local shop, on top of providing full-time care. Working 14 hours at the national minimum wage rate comes to £124.74 per week, just under the current earnings threshold of £128.
Next month, the minimum wage will rise by just under 7% to £9.50 an hour. While this is not enough to address the cost of living crisis, an issue that I will come back to shortly, it is of course welcome. As a passionate believer in the minimum wage, I am glad to see it rise. The carer’s allowance will go up too, by approximately 3% to £69.70 per week. Again, that is a far cry from where it should be, in my view. Members across the House, especially Ministers in London, should have frank conversations with themselves about whether they could survive on that sum. None the less, we welcome the increase.
The earnings threshold will rise by the same rate. The issue for Mr Spamer and his family, who will certainly not be alone, is that the rise in the minimum wage and in the earnings threshold simply do not match up, forcing them, and many others, into an impossible dilemma. The Minister might respond that Mrs Spamer could reduce her hours so that she does not exceed the earnings threshold. That is all well and good, but this is the real world, not a spreadsheet. She cannot work just one hour less; she would have to give up one of those jobs entirely. Even if that were the smaller job—at the pub, for example, at six hours a week—that is a loss of £57, nearly £200 a month. That is comparatively a fortune to the family, and the difference between having something to eat, putting grub in their tummies, and not turning on the central heating.
The only other option is to give up the carer’s allowance, because if the earnings threshold is exceeded by just £1, 100% of the benefit is removed. That is the harshest withdrawal rate in the entire welfare system. That is the choice, though it can hardly be called that, that the Spamers and thousands of other families now face, cut back by £200 or £280 a month. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, in the face of a devastating cost of living crisis, soaring inflation, sky-rocketing energy bills, and a Chancellor more interested in publicity stunts than putting money in the pockets of working people.
It is worth bearing in mind that the £20 universal credit uplift shamefully did not apply to those on legacy benefits, including carer’s allowance. People in this position have received even less support than others. The Minister knows all of this. I was grateful to have had the opportunity earlier today to speak to her briefly about what I wished to raise, so I know this will come as no surprise.
I also wrote to her six weeks ago, to raise the Spamers’ case. I had hoped that the discrepancy between the national minimum wage and the carer’s allowance earnings threshold rises was a simple, honest oversight, rather than a catastrophic, seemingly deliberate omission, affecting unpaid carers. Sadly, the reply I received confirmed that the Department for Work and Pensions was proceeding exactly as intended, and would only consider further changes to the earnings limit
“where they are warranted and affordable”.
The Minister needs to have a long, hard think about how those words sound to families up and down the country, frankly doing the work of heroes, caring for people who are incredibly ill, some who might be near death, and saving the country an absolute fortune. In recent years, consensus has been reached in this House and the country on the need, though not the method, for root and branch reform of the social care system. A conversation on how the carer’s allowance fits in to that picture is long overdue.
Mr Spamer and his family, and all the thousands of people like them, should not be subject to a drawn-out review and consultation. They are staring down the barrel of the gun in just a few weeks’ time. The bare minimum I ask of the Minister today, without fudges and caveats, is to fix this punishing anomaly. Match up the rates and do not punish those who have done absolutely nothing but good for their family and society.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing this important debate. The cost of living crisis is affecting everyone, but the toll on unpaid carers is particularly heavy, as we have just heard.
Carer’s allowance is the lowest benefit of its kind at just £67.60 a week. Many carers are in arrears, but cutting back on what is spent is not an option when the person being cared for relies on an electric ventilator, an electric wheelchair, pressure pads, hoists or a stairlift, or that person must be kept warm due to a medical condition. Other costs facing carers are also likely to be higher and difficult to reduce, such as transport costs to attend medical appointments or food bills due to dietary or nutritional requirements. Inflation is rising as much as 10% for low-income households because a greater proportion of their income is spent on those energy costs. However, the 3% uplift in carer’s allowance next month does not begin to match those spiralling costs of food and energy.
In a survey, Carers UK has reported that two thirds of carers are currently unable to meet their monthly costs and that is before all the spiralling increases. Furthermore, a quarter of the carers surveyed are already having to use foodbanks. That means the number of unpaid carers relying on foodbanks may be substantial, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East just said, there are 11 million unpaid carers.
Katy Styles is an unpaid carer who cares for her husband and mother. She is a campaigner for the Motor Neurone Disease Association. She gave evidence this week to the House of Lords Adult Social Care Committee and said:
“It would be remiss of me not to mention carers’ finances, because that makes you invisible and impacts on absolutely everything. I went from being a full-time teacher to being a part-time teacher to accommodate my caring role”.
She then went from being a part-time teacher to
“having to give up my job because it was not flexible enough. You have to be there in core hours. You have to be there during term time. If your husband has an issue or needs a medical appointment that is out of that time, you cannot support them.
I am on £67.60 a week now, having had £150 a day. It is a very different thing. I am lucky, because I actually get carer’s allowance. There are so many carers who are not supported with carer’s allowance. That has to change. It needs reform.”
There is a recognition of that need for extra support for unpaid carers in other parts of the UK. Unpaid carers in Scotland receive the carer’s allowance supplement, while in Wales it was recently announced by the Labour Government that unpaid carers would be given a £500 payment to recognise their commitment to caring during the pandemic. By contrast, unpaid carers in England are being left to get by with only a £2 a week increase in carer’s allowance. That miserly increase would be swallowed up, from this Friday, by paying £2.50 for a single lateral flow test just to keep the person they care for safe. On top of that come the soaring bills I have already mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East has talked about the mismatch between the increase in the national living wage and the carer’s allowance earnings threshold, leaving carers, as he said, with impossible choices and loss of income. We cannot continue to leave carers without proper support. That includes carer’s breaks. Funding for respite care has dried up and is no longer earmarked for breaks as it was up to 2010. Carers UK has estimated that 72% of carers have not had a break from caring during the pandemic. Three quarters of carers say they are exhausted and worn out from that caring during the pandemic. The Government’s plan in the social care White Paper for five days of unpaid leave—unpaid leave—to care is woefully insufficient. Once again in her evidence to the Lords Committee on Monday, Katy Styles said:
“I do not know any carer that has had a break. I have not had a break or one day off in eight years. Indeed, I had surgery 10 days ago for a major eye operation. I was in the theatre at 6.30 and back home caring at 9.30, because there is no support.”
Katy also highlighted how carers who are not identified as such do not get signposted or helped to access even the support that is available. She has been a full-time carer for 10 years, but has only received carer’s allowance for eight. She said:
“If you don’t identify then you’re not signposted to any support...I didn’t know that, I’ve missed out on benefits, Carer’s Allowance, for some years, I’ve missed out on carer’s assessments for years.”
In 2012, I brought in a private Member’s Bill on the identification of carers. That would have created a new duty on the NHS to identify carers and promote their health and wellbeing. The then Care Minister in the coalition Government did not support my Bill. When the carers action plan came along, it was not so ambitious; it proposed merely a system of quality markers so that GPs could demonstrate that they were good at identifying carers. Carers organisations know that proper identification of carers by the NHS would mean that we could support carers much more effectively. Carers such as Katy Styles would have been identified as carers more quickly, and signposted to benefits and support earlier, had my Bill been supported by the Government.
The carers action plan expired at the end of 2020. The Health and Social Care Committee, of which I am a member, has recommended a number of times that the Government publish a national carers strategy. An ambitious national strategy for carers backed up by funding is essential to tackle those problems of identification and support that I have talked about. I hope that the Minister will listen and understand the seriousness of the challenges facing unpaid carers, which have been outlined in this debate and will be more so by my colleagues. I hope that she will use the input and lived experience of carers, which were sent in when the Government consulted carers in 2016 to develop a national carers strategy—something they promised but never delivered.
I will finish with the words of one unpaid carer responding to a Carers UK survey this month, which highlights the situation that so many unpaid carers are in:
“It seems everything has increased in cost apart from the money we have to live on. It means that I don’t always have 3 meals a day now. We don’t always have the heating on. Why should someone who has a terminal illness not afford to have a warm home?”
The reason I am participating in the debate is that I brought together an unpaid carers group that has been meeting over the past few months to talk about the current situation. The fact is, it is heart-rending to talk about the struggle that most of them are having. The pressure they are under is immense, and the pressure that they have been under as a result of covid has exacerbated the way in which their lives have been transformed by the altruistic act of caring for someone else.
The carers in the group are, basically, families looking after a child with a disability or a special need, or families looking after an elderly relative. What is also remarkable is the number of the children who look after others in their families. What came across in the group is that that act of caring has implications for the whole family: individuals have given up their careers to undertake caring, and siblings who have given up the opportunity of going to university to help the family out with care overall.
It is interesting that none of them asks for anything in return. They do not even ask for thanks. They just want to get by. They just want to be able to survive. To be frank, from the discussions I have been having with them, I do not think that some will survive this coming period. We call it the cost of living crisis glibly, but it is a crisis for this particular group of people in our society in a way that it is possibly not for others.
To run through some things that they would emphasise—points others have made—for example, the issue of higher energy costs is not just about heating; it is the energy that is needed to maintain basic equipment to enable the person people are caring for to survive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said. Apart from the health-support devices and the special equipment, other issues raised were the transport costs to get to appointments—again, that can become very costly—and nutritional costs, in particular as inflation hits hard a number of nutritional inputs required for the person they are caring for.
It then comes down to what those carers receive. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) raised the issue of the contradiction between the earnings allowance and carer’s allowance. It is ludicrous—we all know that it is ludicrous—and it just needs resolving quickly. I do not understand what logic there is for arguing for anything other than reform on that issue. It comes down to the basic level of carer’s allowance, as far as I am concerned. We are inflicting a level of poverty on these people, who do so much work to assist our society overall.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. We have Carers Week, when we celebrate and thank carers, coming up in June. Does he agree that there is no better time to look seriously at raising the carer’s allowance and making sure that we not only recognise carers with words but treat them decently?
I fully agree. There is a sense of urgency about this issue now, because what came out of the discussions that I have had with the carers group that I brought together is the stress that carers are under, and the mental health implications not only for themselves as individuals but for their whole family. We know that there are examples in the past of how such stress has caused a mental health problem that has led to suicide.
There is a need for urgent action now. We have gone beyond intellectual debates about this issue; we just need some action rapidly, given the fact that carers face these massive increases in prices, particularly around energy. And then effectively they face a cut—a 3.1% increase, as against inflation now, which ranges between 7% and 10%. That level of inflation comes in like a whirlwind for these particular families and we need urgent action now. Perhaps that action has not been considered effectively in the past, but it certainly needs to be considered now.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way. Does he also believe that it is incumbent on the state to view this matter through the prism of preventive spending? If we pile so much pressure on these carers, who are caring for some of the most vulnerable people, and then the carers themselves end up in mental health predicaments or poor health, the costs of that will be borne by the state anyway. So it is a false economy not to support them.
That is exactly the final point that I was going to make, because most of the people who I have talked to are at a tipping point, where they and their whole family can no longer survive on the level of income they have, given the pressure they are under.
What comes across time and again is that carers have to struggle: first of all for recognition; then for assessment of the person they are caring for; then for support services; and then for just a respite every now and again. For some of them, that struggle is becoming insurmountable. Then what happens? The person they are caring for is taken into care and the costs escalate beyond anything that we have seen so far. So there is a desperate need to resolve this matter.
I will just throw in one other point as well. The benefit that carers get is not an access benefit to other benefits. With regard to energy costs in particular, a small step would be access to winter fuel allowance and—to be frank—a doubling of that winter fuel allowance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell.
We need our unpaid carers. Carers UK estimates that there were up to 13.6 million unpaid carers during the pandemic, providing care worth £530 million per day. However, carers have been left to fall into poverty by this Government. Carer’s allowance currently equates to £1.93 per hour, assuming a carer only does 35 hours of care, which they need to do in order to receive the allowance. Even with the 3.1% uplift, that figure will increase to only £1.99, which is still less than £2 per hour.
Carers have borne the brunt of the pandemic. In research by Carers UK, 81% of carers said they had to provide more care during the pandemic; 35% were providing more care because services were closed or not available during the pandemic; and 80% of them were caring for someone whose condition worsened during the pandemic.
This Government forgot unpaid carers during the pandemic, which is evidenced by the fact they initially did not include carers in the priority categories for vaccination. I will just point out that, having previously been an unpaid carer himself, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) did a lot of work to ensure that that was rectified.
Unless someone has cared for somebody else, it is hard to know the day-to-day pressure of performing a caring role. It does not matter how much they love the person they are caring for; caring takes its toll. We know that the pandemic has taken its toll on everyone and we know the impact on mental health of lockdowns, uncertainty and constant worrying. For those in caring positions, it can be a million times worse. Caring can also be a very lonely role. All disabled people and all conditions are different. For some, caring means caring for a loved one who does not have the mental capacity, who cannot communicate and who potentially gets confused.
When preparing for the debate, I spoke to my researcher—I am grateful to her for allowing me to share this—who recalled the experience that she and her mother had when caring for her father, who developed early and severe dementia a decade ago. She told me how his constant confusion and distress at not being able to make sense of his thoughts or communicate them worried the whole family. Much like a toddler, he would lash out, shout words that made no sense, and sometimes cause harm to the people and things around him. She said that they saw themselves as lucky—not only because he passed away quickly and was put out of his distressing circumstances, but because it happened long before the pandemic. She said that the confusion of the new rules would have simply been overwhelming for him, and that the isolation of lockdown without any respite would have left lasting damage to both her and her mother. This will not be the experience for all carers, but it will be the experience for many. They need not only our thanks but our support, and it must be tangible.
Lifting restrictions means that more disabled people are being required to continue shielding, because underlying health conditions have not gone away. It means that some people are simply not leaving their homes. It means they avoid seeing others or going to support services in the community. It means avoiding going into care homes for respite, and it means that people rely more heavily on the friends and family who care for them.
My party opposed the Government’s decision to scrap free lateral flow tests from this Friday, and although the Government have announced that some categories will be able to access testing, they do not include unpaid carers, who have been forgotten again. It is true that carers often share homes with the people for whom they care, so there is a risk of infection even if it is known that the carer has covid, but this is not always the case. Many carers provide full-time unpaid care to those outside their home, as reflected by the fact that people can apply for carer’s allowance even if they provide care to a friend outside their home, so I ask the Government to consider ensuring that unpaid carers have access to lateral flow tests.
I think that Members on the opposition side of the Chamber agree that £69.70 is not enough to live on. It is a real-terms cut to the carer’s allowance, and those on carer’s allowance are already living on a knife edge. In Scotland, the carer’s allowance supplement—£237.90 every six months—provides some additional help, but there ought to be an uplift for all unpaid carers everywhere. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) referred to in his opening remarks, it was disgraceful that when the uplift to universal credit was introduced, it was not extended to those on legacy benefits. The Government should have uplifted the remaining benefits at that time. If £69.70 is not enough for people to live on, one would think that the Government would support people who are trying to earn and do something to increase their incomes, but no. Carers are unable to earn more than £128 per week before having their allowance cut, which means that £197.70 per week is all they can hope to earn.
A constituent of mine wrote to me only yesterday. She talked about how she has had to leave her employment because she cannot get any help to support her disabled adult daughter. She would work full time if she could, and she would choose not to seek anything from the state, but it is just not possible. As it is, what little support she receives is not enough. In her own words:
“I cannot stress enough how life and death the question is. We are stuck and there is nothing we can do to change it.”
Hon. Members have referred to the fact that unpaid carers have increased costs, often because the people for whom they care have higher costs. To make ends meet, this means going without in other ways, which was happening even before we faced the cost of living crisis that we now see.
Carers should be able to transition into work or education if they want, but at the moment there is a ban on carers receiving full-time education. This means that young carers who are learning and caring for their family are being left without financial support. With more flexible learning methods now being commonly used, there is no reason why an older person could not be doing full-time training from home while still providing care. The ban does nothing but stop carers reaching their potential in life, and it keeps them reliant on the small levels of benefits provided by the Government, who say they want to make work pay. Working not only puts vital money in the pockets of carers, but gives a source of identity and support outside that caring role.
In conclusion, being a carer is hard. Accessing the support needed to fulfil that role should not make it even harder. Providing a carer’s allowance that actually cares is essential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for securing this very important debate, and for his passionate speech—one that I very much agree with. At the last census in 2011, 24,188 people over the age of 16 were carers in Salford. Nationally, Carers UK estimates that there are now 11.5 million people across the UK who give unpaid support to someone who is elderly, seriously ill or disabled. It estimates that, by doing so, unpaid carers are saving the Government a whopping £193 billion a year.
Last year it was noted that there were only 900,000 full-time unpaid carers nationally who received support of any kind, in the form of carer’s allowance. At only £67.25 per week, it is the lowest benefit of its kind. There are so many more who are excluded from receiving carer’s allowance, including: carers in full-time education or studying for 21 hours or more a week; carers earning more than £128 per week, which is less than 15 hours a week on the national living wage; and carers who spend less than 35 hours per week on their caring responsibilities.
It is clear that even before the cost of living crisis, thousands of carers were facing extreme financial hardship. Indeed, a recent survey by Carers UK found that more than a third of those on carer’s allowance are struggling to make ends meet; many had been struggling for months, often relying on food banks to feed themselves and the people they care for. Now, as energy bills increase by up to 50%, inflation rises and the cost of day-to-day essentials skyrockets, there is a real worry that without urgent support from Government many carers and their families will simply be unable to cope. Those in receipt of the menial carer’s allowance have been awarded a 3.1% increase. However, as we know, inflation is set to reach at least 7.5%, so they face a real-terms benefit cut.
New research from Carers UK reveals that the financial pressures on unpaid carers have become untenable. Just under half—45%—of unpaid carers said that they are currently unable to manage their monthly expenses and that any further increase in energy bills will negatively affect their own physical and mental health, or that of the person they care for. Many also said that they were taking difficult steps to manage their monthly expenses; 58% had cut back on heating while 14% had already fallen into arrears with their energy bills. In the months ahead, more than two in five thought that they would not be able to heat their home to a safe level, while a third were worried that they would have to use a food bank.
It is clear that urgent Government action is required. I join Carers UK in calling on the Minister, first, to increase carer’s allowance and other benefits so that they rise in line with current inflation predictions. Secondly, the Government should immediately extend the warm home discount scheme to ensure that it includes carers on the lowest incomes. Thirdly, the Government should increase the paltry earnings limit for those claiming carer’s allowance, so that it is at least equal to 16 hours of work at the national living wage, and provide a carer’s supplement to all carers with an entitlement in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as carers in Scotland have been receiving since 2018.
Unpaid carers are the backbone of our families; they are our mums, dads, brothers, sisters, partners and friends. They support us in our time of need. It is time we gave them the recognition and thanks that they deserve by supporting them too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for securing this important debate. I begin by declaring an interest. I will be speaking from a place of personal experience, as someone who is a carer. Indeed, there are 13.6 million unpaid carers in the United Kingdom supporting family members and friends. Many of their stories go untold, as do their struggles. I know that some hon. Members have spoken about the struggles of the people they have come across, and how they have tried to cope with this.
I will talk a little bit about my situation. Effectively, over the past 10 years I have been a carer. First I was a carer to my mother, who passed away in 2017—during the course of the general election—and more recently I have been a carer to my brother, who has a number of chronic conditions. Trying to balance life—to balance working, family and caring—is very difficult. However, I am lucky enough to have a decent income. I am lucky because my work is flexible and I can rearrange appointments. If I had a nine-to-five job, I would not be able to look after my family members, and I would have to leave my job, as did the teacher, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), and that is not fair. We are the fourth or fifth richest country in the world. We should not have to be in this position and people should not have to do that.
Even though I am financially stable and have flexibility, even I get tired, as do others. For example, about eight weeks ago my brother telephoned me in the middle of the night, at 3 o’clock in the morning, to say that he had a massive pain in his arm. I called an ambulance and he was taken straight to Salford hospital. He had an MRI, was found to have a clot in his arm, and was operated on immediately. That same night I was with him, but the next morning was a Monday and I had to come down to Parliament. When we stay with family members for nights on end, in the morning we can hardly keep our eyes open and we take loads of paracetamol to try to get rid of the headache that we get from not having slept at night.
I know that social services provide some carers and people do get carers coming in, but that is not enough. Their hours are limited. They are there for half an hour or 45 minutes to give someone tea or lunch, but what about the four or five-hour gap before the next carer visit? More importantly, the night-time visits have now effectively been stopped by local authorities. I remember caring for my elderly mother. Because of her physical, emotional and psychological situation, I could be up three times a night with her. As I have said, I was able to cope, but others cannot.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has said, everyone knows about social care and the lack of financial provision for carers. We have discussed it in Parliament hundreds of times. It has been debated again and again, but no Government have grasped the issue and done anything with it. We need drastic changes in the whole care system. There are 13.6 million carers, some of whom, as other Members have said, have had to leave their jobs or stop their education, because that is the grim reality of caring for a sick member of the family.
For me it is a privilege and an honour to be able to look after my family. I feel pleased that I can be with them, but I feel sorry for all those whose families are not around them—people who are left on their own, often languishing for hours and hours without anyone to look after them. It is those people that we need to be concerned about, as well as the carers who end up looking after them.
This has already been mentioned, but the carer’s allowance is going up by only 3.5%, and inflation is already more than 7%. We know that heating bills are going up. A lot of elderly and ill people often need extra heating, and if they are with their families, that often means the bill will be paid by their families.
Transport costs can be much higher because someone might need to be accompanied or they might need taxis to go to medical appointments. According to Carers UK, 24% of carers in receipt of carer’s allowance are using food banks to make ends meet. It also states that:
“The additional costs of caring can be compounded by carers having to reduce their working hours”,
as I said, or “leave employment” altogether.
What is the Minister and her Government doing to give support to carers at this very difficult time? What are they going to do in real terms to increase the benefits and allowances that carers get? Will they consider extending the warm home discount scheme to unpaid carers, to recognise the particularly high energy costs that carers often face to keep the person they are looking after safe and warm? Believe me, most ill people need extra heating.
We need a comprehensive plan for social care to support our ageing population and to relieve the pressures on the NHS. Many unwell people spend extra time in hospital because there is no social care support package available for them, delaying them there. The average person has a 50:50 chance of caring by the age of 50 —long before they reach retirement age. Most will not be able to do that, and they cannot use private carers. The Government know that, the medical profession know it, social services know it, local authorities know it, and we all know it. There is a big problem and a sad situation. Something needs to be done now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. Other Labour Members have outlined passionately the key issue that care, as a whole, has been insufficiently provided for by this and preceding Governments. Care work, whether paid or unpaid and whether for younger people, older people or disabled people, is undervalued. Having listened to other contributions, every one of us either currently cares for someone or knows someone who has a caring responsibility. Coming to terms with somebody’s illness is difficult in any case, but to have to fight for recognition of the invaluable role that that person fulfils, and to beg for money not to have to suffer poverty, is shameful and must be addressed. After the last election, the Prime Minister stated:
“we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all”.
More than two years later, we have seen no change or improvement in support for caring.
Today in this country, accessing care is too expensive; those who work in care are underpaid, undervalued and overworked. Owners of some care businesses have been accused of being asset strippers. Those who have to conduct visits have too great expectations. The time and effort of those who care for family members is too often forgotten by this Government. As others have said, carer’s allowance at its current rate is completely unacceptable. The pathetic uplift of just over £2 is absolutely shameful. Inflation could hit 10% this year. How can people be expected to survive on that paltry amount? It is beyond me and it should be beyond this Government.
The earnings threshold is very low and blunt, as others have said. It is lower than other income replacement benefits and needs to be reviewed urgently. We need a response from the Government. For more than a decade the Work and Pensions Committee has repeated called for an increased earnings limit and the introduction of a taper. The uprating of carer’s allowance needs to be synchronised with the real living wage. Carers UK stated in response to the spring statement:
“Many carers are already dipping into savings using credit cards, and cutting back on essentials to keep the person they care for warm and to protect their health.”
People currently cannot afford to eat or heat their homes; how are they expected to survive with a real-terms cut in their benefits?
I want to focus the rest of my remarks on my country of Wales. I am proud of our support for carers and am pleased to have the opportunity to pay tribute to a dear family friend who was the MP for Aberavon until 2005, Dr Hywel Francis, who sadly passed away recently. He was responsible for introducing the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, which aimed to ensure that carers were adequately valued and supported. The dismal financial situation in which so many currently find themselves means that that aim will not be fulfilled. It has been impossible to implement all the excellent things in that Act, which is coming up to its 20th anniversary.
I am pleased that the Welsh Government are following Dr Francis’s caring and compassionate example. I want to refer to some positive examples of support for carers, which the UK Government must look to. Last week, Julie Morgan, the Deputy Minister for Social Services in the Welsh Labour Government, highlighted how 60% of carers in Wales had reduced their hours at work to manage their caring responsibilities and 6% had given up work altogether. In recognition of that difficulty, she confirmed that 57,000 registered unpaid carers would be awarded a one-off £500 payment in a commitment worth £29 million.
There have been positive responses from agencies in Wales. Kate Young, the chair of Wales Carers Alliance and director of the All Wales Forum of Parents and Carers, welcomed the news that many unpaid carers across Wales would now be supported by that payment. Claire Morgan, director of Carers Wales, said:
“This £500 payment is an important first step in actively recognising carers’ daily contribution to our society”.
Even though Welsh Labour in government has taken more action than its counterpart in Westminster, we know there is more to do. The Welsh Government, as well as carer support organisations, recognise the need to reform the carer’s allowance across the UK. They are keeping up the pressure on the UK Government to put that right for carers, as it is the UK Government’s responsibility.
Last month, Julie Morgan said she regretted the fact that Wales did not control the carer’s allowance. The Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, published a report less than two weeks ago, saying that there should be an assessment of the potential merits of devolving the administration of social security benefits to Wales, as has happened in Scotland. Scotland has used those powers to establish the carer’s allowance supplement.
I want to remind the House that Welsh Labour in government has also introduced a £1,000 bonus for 53,000 care workers in Wales, starting in April, which will be consolidated to ensure that the living wage is paid to social care workers. That is costing the Welsh Government £43 million. I have just come back from a Citizens UK gathering in Parliament Square with Welsh colleagues that was pushing for health and social care workers in England also to be paid the living wage. I look forward to seeing that change happen.
It is worth mentioning that Salford City Council, which is represented by two of us present, is also paying the national living wage, as are a number of authorities around Greater Manchester. That is important in the debate because carers also depend on quality. Quantity of care is woeful but quality is important too, and quality improves with better pay.
I fully agree, and that is excellent news.
To conclude, this issue is all part of building towards a national care service in Wales, which Welsh Labour’s programme for Government is committed to. In announcing the uplift to care workers’ pay, the Minister in Cardiff referred to the commitment
“to set up an expert group to support a shared ambition to create a National Care Service, free at the point of need”.
That was a commitment that I made when I stood for Parliament in 2019 under our manifesto, and I am pleased that Welsh Labour in government are delivering on that. There is another way forward: a way that recognises and rewards care work for the contribution that people make to society. Labour Members recognise that, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). I hope the Government are listening, because millions throughout the country are tired of waiting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for securing this important debate. Across the country, millions of people make enormous sacrifices to care for the people they love. Looking after somebody in need of full-time care too often means giving up on work, friendships and so many of the ordinary opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.
Our country could not have survived the pandemic without the determination and resilience of unpaid carers. While doctors and nurses battled to save lives and as the virus engulfed care homes, which this Government unforgivably failed to make safe, millions of ordinary people stepped up to assume additional caring responsibilities and to paper over the cracks that have been inflicted on health and social care by successive Tory Governments.
In 2020, the campaign group Carers UK estimated that unpaid carers collectively save the nation £530 million in caring costs every single day of the pandemic. We owe them all a debt of gratitude. Nobody should be forced to resort to credit card debt or payday loans to cover the cost of care, but that is the terrible reality facing so many unpaid carers today. Unpaid carers have found themselves cruelly exposed to the catastrophic impact of soaring food and energy costs, with heating their homes and powering essential medical equipment becoming a daily struggle.
Last year, more than a third of carers reported having to cut back on luxuries, with more than one in 10 taking out additional debt just to make ends meet. Even before the energy cost rise again this week, many unpaid carers found themselves in the position of nothing left to cut. I was recently contacted by a constituent in a state of utter desperation. Having dedicated her entire professional life to caring for strangers in the NHS, she was forced to leave work to care full time for her husband. Now she tells me that, after paying bills, she is left with just under £40 to get by, and does not know how she will keep up with mortgage repayments.
Last week’s spring statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was an opportunity to take meaningful steps to help unpaid carers survive the most dramatic cost of living crisis in recent memory; but instead of increasing the carer’s allowance and other benefits in line with inflation and heeding Labour’s call for ambitious action to cut energy bills, he put his own political ambition before the needs of millions of people and brandished his Thatcherite credentials to win over disaffected Tory Back Benchers, with a commitment to shaving a penny off income tax in two years’ time. How does the Minister think that will help unpaid carers in my constituency who are barely getting by here and now?
We have heard plenty of warm words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box about the invaluable contribution that carers make. We have seen countless photo opportunities of Ministers meeting carers in their constituencies, or standing on the doorstep to applaud them during the darkest days of the pandemic, but that will not put food on the table or coins in the meter. It will not provide the slightest reassurance to unpaid carers in my constituency, who are genuinely petrified about whether they will survive the punishing months ahead.
The virtue signalling must stop; what we need is action. That means dramatically increasing the pitiful rate of carer’s allowance, so that millions of households are not drowned by soaring prices; dramatic action to cut energy bills for the worst off and most in need; and, following the example of the pioneering Labour Government in Wales, introducing a one-off payment for unpaid carers to help see them through this Tory cost of living crisis.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I realise that, being in the Chair, you are constrained in what you can say. You probably want to take part in the debate, and I am sure you would want to put on record your thanks to the carers of West Lothian for the work they do to support your constituents, but I will not seek to bend the rules further.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on bringing the debate. I am acutely aware that the situation with P&O Ferries is also taking up a huge amount of his time. It is testament to the care he has for all his constituents that he is able to spin all those plates. With the indulgence of the Chair, I would also like to recognise Ian Dick, who is down from Glasgow and in the Public Gallery. I know that hon. Members will want to welcome him to Westminster.
Far too often, carers are invisible to those in positions of responsibility and authority. They are overwhelmingly women; 72% of them are women, and often unpaid. They are normal working people, put in the position of taking care of a loved one. The huge pressures that they face in taking on that responsibility for the care of a sick or elderly family member can be monumental. Today is a good reminder of that.
Carers in Glasgow’s east end find themselves performing a precarious balancing act, having to balance work, school and family alongside the intensive act of caring. Not only does caring often dominate people’s lives, as they have to work around meal times, medication and doctor’s appointments, but caring also leaves very little personal time for the carer. As several hon. Members have referenced, the survey by Carers UK found that 72% of carers have not had any breaks from caring and 74% are exhausted and worn out. I think we would all agree that the situation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the associated lockdowns.
The role of a carer is so often underappreciated and I want to take a moment to recognise the hard work and dedication of carers right across these islands. I thank Glasgow North East Carers, led by Jean McInaw, and East End Community Carers, which I ran for in the 2018 London Marathon.
Last week, I met representatives of Carers UK to discuss the pressures that carers are feeling in the cost of living crisis. As a group, carers are particularly vulnerable to rising costs, due to the additional costs that come with caring. It is right that a number of hon. Members have put on the record that the shameful decision by the Government not to extend the £20 uplift to legacy benefits very much impacted on carers as well. Let us not forget that 2.5 million disabled people were literally left out in the cold by a Government who clearly do not care enough about them. For carers, food bills may be higher because of nutritional requirements, transport costs may be higher because of mobility issues, and all these additional expenses will only increase in the cost of living crisis.
I must say that it somewhat sticks in my craw to hear Members of this House talk about a cost of living crisis, because what we are actually talking about is 12 years of Tory austerity that just happen to be exacerbated by recent economic turbulence. Let us not kid ourselves: the cost of living crisis is not a result of what is happening in Ukraine or global energy prices. The pressures that our constituents and the most vulnerable in our society face are a direct consequence of decisions taken by Conservative Ministers in Whitehall, none of whom were elected in Scotland.
Those in receipt of carer’s allowance or the carer element of universal credit will still struggle financially in the cost of living crisis. That is deeply concerning. Carers UK has already reported that a quarter of those claiming those benefits have to use food banks to make ends meet. The UK Government like to talk about a big society, but they do not want to talk about a broken society. The very fact that people who are out there working and caring—saving the state money—are having to be fed by food banks is an absolute abomination.
The increase in costs is not helped by the fact that many carers have been forced to reduce their hours or leave employment entirely in order to care for loved ones. As a result, many carers face a precarious financial situation. Some 1.2 million carers are living in poverty. The rising cost of living will undoubtedly increase the strain on those families who already face financial pressures.
As a number of hon. Members have mentioned, the Scottish Government recognise the invaluable work of carers and their families. The carer’s allowance supplement, which increased carer’s allowance by 13%, was the first payment to be paid by Social Security Scotland. Is that increase enough? No, it is not, but it is a step in the right direction for my constituents in Easterhouse, Barrowfield and Tollcross.
Over the past two years, the Scottish Government have invested a further £40 million to provide two extra payments to support carers through the impacts of the pandemic. Together with the additional coronavirus carer’s allowance supplement, eligible carers received an extra £690.30 last year compared with carers south of the border. In recognition of rising cost of living pressures, the Scottish Government have now decided to further increase the eight Scottish benefits by 6%—a change from the previous plan to uprate by 3.1%. I challenge the Minister to explain why, if the Scottish Government, with a fixed budget and without borrowing powers, can uprate benefits by 6%, the UK Government think it is in any way appropriate to have a real-terms cut of just 3.1%.
I want to say a word about young carers, who are supported so well by Glasgow North East Carers in the Easthall area of my constituency. The SNP’s young carer grant started in October 2019 and supports more than 3,680 young carers in Scotland. We cannot have this debate in a vacuum and lose sight of the fact that young carers are playing a crucial role, saving money for the state, yet many do not even realise that they are in fact carers.
Many people never imagined that they would be put in the position of becoming a carer for a loved one. It is difficult, and often upsetting, to think that one day a loved one would need such intensive care and support. However, that is why we should all increase support for carers, because it truly could happen to anyone whom we represent, and indeed to any one of us in this Chamber—a point that was highlighted by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).
Becoming a carer can be difficult, expensive and a scary labour of love. It can dominate families for years on end, putting untold stress and anxiety on people who were, in many cases, absolutely unprepared to become full-time carers. It is therefore vital that there is proper support for carers and their families, from adequate carer’s allowance to funded short breaks to counselling. Carers across these islands should be appreciated and valued for their hard work and dedication.
I think it was the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) who made the point that warm words are all well and good, but they are not enough. I am sick and fed up of standing up in these debates and paying tribute to people. My constituents who are carers right across the east end of Glasgow do not just need warm words; they need proper uprating. That is something that we are providing in Scotland, but this debate is not an opportunity for whataboutery and for me to come here and talk about how wonderful things are north of the border—they could be better—but I have to say to the Minister that warm words will not cut it. We need proper support for carers and that is the message that we all look to hear from her today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing this extremely important debate. Sadly, carers—especially unpaid carers—seem to have been long forgotten by this Government, so I genuinely commend him for raising their plight, particularly around carer’s allowance. I hope that Ministers will respond positively to the many important points that my hon. Friend made, in particular about his constituents the Spamers and the positive impact of the increase in the national minimum wage. Unfortunately, there has been a negative impact on carer’s allowance, which we had all hoped was an oversight. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case, but this situation can be rectified if Ministers decide to do so.
As many hon. Members have said today, carers make a vital contribution to society. They do fantastic work, but we really do not thank them enough. According to Carers UK, 6.5 million people are carers—a figure that rose to 13.6 million during covid. Those people supported a loved one who is older, disabled or seriously ill. That is one in eight adults who are unpaid carers for family and friends. Every day 6,000 people become carers, and many do not know how or where to get help, which can be frightening and lonely.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for setting up a carers group and for listening to unpaid carers, who are the experts on the subject; that is so important. As he rightly said, carers do not ask for anything, apart from to be able to get by. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) highlighted, unpaid carers are the backbone of our society.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for sharing her personal experience of how tough it is for carers, even if their financial situation is okay, and for saying how much tougher it is when their financial situation is not okay.
We all know heartbreaking stories from our constituencies. In my constituency of Lewisham, Deptford, I have an ongoing case of a single mother who is a full-time carer for her six-year-old disabled son, who uses a wheelchair. She supports him while suffering from depression herself. She is on universal credit and has been sanctioned for missing an appointment because she was caring for her disabled child. Instead of offering compassion and support, this hostile Government decided that it was more appropriate to reduce her benefits. Having heard stories such as this time and again, we must all ask ourselves: are we doing enough to support carers? I am sorry to say that I do not think we are, especially this Government.
All Labour Members who spoke today said that carer’s allowance simply is not enough. The Government’s primary support is a measly £67.60 a week through the carer’s allowance, and that is only if someone provides care for at least 35 hours a week. Carers organisations have long argued that the amount of carer’s allowance payable to carers is insufficient to meet its stated purpose of providing a replacement income for those who give up work to look after another person.
That does not even begin to unpack the injustice of not properly supporting unpaid carers—people who save the state an incredibly huge amount of money, but receive nothing back. As the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and others pointed out, charging them for lateral flow tests to keep their loved ones safe is outrageous. Will the Minister look into scrapping that?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) said, carers should not have to fight for recognition and then beg for money. She highlighted some excellent work that is taking place in Wales but, as she said, there is always more that we can and should be doing.
All Members cited the excellent work of Carers UK. Carers UK and 78 other charities, including Z2K, Carers Trust, Age UK and many disabled people’s organisations, wrote an open letter to the Chancellor ahead of the spring statement last week. The letter references recent research by Carers UK that paints a bleak picture of the coming months as the cost of living crisis deepens. Among other things, the research found that 42% of respondents feared that they will not be able to heat their home to a safe level, and 32% were worried that they will have to use a food bank.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) put it so eloquently, carers are paying many extra costs, including for electrical ventilators, transport and extra heating. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, the Government had the chance to address that in the spring statement, but they did nothing.
Last week, during questions to the Department for Work and Pensions, I raised the issue, pleading with DWP Ministers to lobby the Chancellor for proper support for disabled people. Disabled people, including those who are carers and who have carers, have to make impossible choices between heating their homes and affording to power life-saving medical equipment in order to survive. This is a worrying time for many hundreds of thousands of carers up and down the country.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East for bringing this forgotten-about group back before Ministers. I commend paid and unpaid carers for their selfless work, helping people up and down this country. The Government must act and support carers with a more generous support package—a measly £67.60 a week for carers will not cut it. If the Minister will not listen to me, she should listen to the many paid and unpaid carers, disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, charities and other civil society organisations pleading with this Government to act with compassion and to support carers properly.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Ms Bardell.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for securing this important debate and for forgoing the chance to speak in the main Chamber, as he had competing interests. On behalf of his constituents, he has given us an important opportunity to discuss carer’s allowance and the vital role that unpaid carers play. I will leave him some minutes to speak again at the end of the debate.
We have heard a number of thoughtful contributions, including the deep personal experience of the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi); I thank her for sharing that. I thank the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) for mentioning our former colleague, Hywel Francis, and I am grateful to the two Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), for their contributions.
Let me begin by taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford about a carer who was apparently sanctioned for non-attendance while caring. That sounds like a misunderstanding of some kind. A sanction should not be applied where there is good cause for non-attendance and the Department is notified, so I am happy to take up that case after the debate, unless the hon. Lady can clarify the position now.
I will turn to the other detailed points raised in the debate shortly, but like other hon. Members who have spoken, I also want to pay tribute to the millions of unpaid carers in this country. The Government certainly recognise and value the vital contributions made by carers every single day in providing care and continuity of support to family and friends, including pensioners and those with disabilities. More than six out of 10 of us may become a carer at some point during our lives and as many as 13 million people may be doing some unpaid care. That has never been more important than during the covid-19 pandemic, when unpaid carers played a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable in our society. I will come to some of the points made in respect of that in a moment.
Like other hon. Members, I see so much of the work that carers do through my own constituency post bag, such as the experiences that a Mr W recently shared with me, as well as through disabled people’s networks. Carers are fortunate enough to have some wonderful advocates, including their MPs and organisations such as Carers UK, which has been mentioned a number of times today. When I met Carers UK earlier this month, I was able to talk about some of the help that the Government provide to unpaid carers.
We recognise that people, including carers, are facing pressures with the cost of living, including higher fuel bills. That is why we are providing support with the cost of living worth £22 billion across this financial year and next. We have also promised to legislate so that employees will be entitled to five days of unpaid care leave per year, and, as hon. Members will know, we are reforming health and adult social care. I am working closely with the Minister for Care and Mental Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), on that.
The Minister mentioned the five-day paid care leave, which I presume will come in the form of an employment Bill. Will she give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be an employment Bill in the Gracious Speech that we expect in May, or are we going to have to wait yet more years for an employment Bill? People cannot wait any longer.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me down paths that I am afraid I am unable to go down in this debate, but I look forward very much to working with him and others to make that goal a reality.
We are spending record amounts to support unpaid carers. Real-terms expenditure on carer’s allowance is forecast to be £3.1 billion in 2021-22 and to increase by two fifths by 2026-27, when the Government are expected to spend just under £4.4 billion a year on it.
Patterns of care have changed significantly over the last few decades. People are providing vital unpaid care for relatives and friends in a whole range of circumstances. Nearly 1 million people are now receiving carer’s allowance and the weekly rate will increase to £69.70 in April. Since 2010, it will have increased from £53.90 to £69.70 a week, providing an additional £800 a year in cash for carers through the carer’s allowance. There are additional amounts for carers in universal credit and other benefits.
I am astonished that the Minister can read out those notes with a straight face, given what everybody has said. Most Members here have made the point that a £2 increase is an insult given what we know about what is happening with the cost of living—even just with lateral flow tests. How can she read those figures out and not be ashamed of them?
I am sorry if the hon. Lady thought that that was a useful use of the minutes we have left, when I have plenty more to say. She stops me to insult me rather than letting me talk about carers; that is not particularly helpful.
Like other hon. Members, I want to talk about the rate of carer’s allowance. I will start with whether it is high enough. The Government continue to provide financial support to unpaid carers through carer’s allowance, the carer element in universal credit, and other benefits. We have chosen to focus extra support on carers who need it the most. About 360,000 carer households on universal credit can receive nearly £2,000 year through the carer element, and that amount will increase from April 2022. Universal credit is of course a key benefit—indeed, it is the key benefit—for carers on low incomes, on whom we most need to target the support. Indeed, carers in receipt of universal credit do not face the cliff edge identified by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East in opening the debate.
I am afraid I need to make progress.
The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) argued that we need to increase the rate of carer’s allowance even further to reflect the current rate of inflation, rather than last September’s rate of CPI. Of course, the Secretary of State undertakes an annual review of benefits and pensions; and CPI in the year to September, as published by the Office for National Statistics, is the latest figure that the Secretary of State can use to allow sufficient time for the needed legislative and operational changes before new rates can be introduced at the start of the new financial year.
Let me turn to the carer’s allowance earnings limit. Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the limit throughout the debate and argued that it ought to be increased. Carer’s allowance has an earnings limit, which permits carers to undertake some part-time work if they are able to do so. This recognises the benefits of staying in touch with the workplace, including greater financial independence and social interaction. In many cases, carers are keen to work, so we want to encourage them to combine some paid work with their caring duties, if they wish to do so and wherever possible. That is why we regularly increase the earnings limit.
The limit for those in receipt of carer’s allowance will increase to £132 net earnings a week from this year, which means that the earnings limit will have increased by about a third since 2010. Many of those who are receiving carer’s allowance and doing some work will also be receiving universal credit. In those cases, the 55% taper rate and any applicable work allowance will help to ensure that people are better off in work, which means more generous treatment in universal credit of earnings above the carer’s allowance earnings limit.
Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the increases in fuel bills, which I absolutely recognise. The Government acknowledge that people are facing pressures with the cost of living, including rising fuel and heating costs, and Members will know about the measures announced in the spring statement last week, which build on the existing support that the Government provide and will be worth over £22 billion.
A number of schemes are in place to help with heating costs, depending on carers’ circumstances. They include the winter fuel payment, the cold weather payment and the warm home discount. I recognise the argument made by the hon. Members for Salford and Eccles and for Bolton South East about extending the warm home discount to carers. I think they will know that colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently consulted on the scheme and announced that automatic rebates will be extended from those getting the guarantee credit in pension credit to include other low-income households whose homes are fuel inefficient.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and others made the point that it is important that carers apply for all the support that might be available to them. Many working-age carers receive means-tested benefits as well as carer’s allowance, and I have already mentioned universal credit. Pensioner carers may be able to receive pension credit, which includes an additional amount for carers. Very importantly, receiving a means-tested benefit can act as a passport to other support, so if carers are not already receiving a means-tested benefit, I encourage them to look at gov.uk or to seek other advice, to see whether they might be entitled to that.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that as the September CPI figure. Yes, I can confirm that the figure is 3.1%.
I want to add a point about the personal independence payment. For some households where caring is taking place, it will be highly relevant. It is extremely relevant to the point that several Members have made about the extra costs that disabled people face. That is recognised, and it is exactly what the personal independence payment is for. Again, I encourage carers to ensure that they or their household look at that.
The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull East and for Worsley and Eccles South raised points about the end of life. I want to make sure that hon. Members are aware that the Government are improving the so-called special rules for terminal illness and end of life. Two statutory instruments have already been laid and primary legislation will follow to ensure that, across five benefits, that when they are in those very challenging circumstances people can get the support they need earlier.
Some hon. Members mentioned disabled or unwell children. I want to make sure that colleagues are aware of the special educational needs and disabilities review that was published yesterday. Low-income families with seriously ill or disabled people will be further supported through £27.3 million of funding next year, which could help pay for equipment, goods or services that those families might not otherwise be able to afford.
Let me move on to the position for Scotland and Wales. Hon. Members have asked why the Administrations differ in their approach. The UK Government’s focus is to support those carers most in need through universal credit. In Scotland, as mentioned by the hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for Glasgow East, additional amounts are paid to carers by the Scottish Government through their carer’s allowance supplement, using their powers under devolution and their own resources. That is done regardless of the carer’s means. We think it is a better approach to focus extra support on carers on the lowest incomes, and I have already mentioned how that is done through universal credit.
I acknowledge the desire of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley to expand devolved powers in Wales, as well. I do not have time to engage fully with that point today, but I understand the arguments she makes and I look forward to responding to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report.
The hon. Member for North East Fife mentioned how unpaid carers had been supported during the pandemic and spoke about the policy on lateral flow tests. I want to ensure that she is aware that my Department worked with the NHS and Public Health England to share data so that unpaid carers had priority access to vaccines. It was very important for different parts of Government to work together to do such things for the benefit of those who needed the vaccinations the most at that time. I will ensure that Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care are aware of the points raised by the hon. Lady about lateral flow tests.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion to leave enough time for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East to close his debate. We all agree that society relies on unpaid carers in many ways. They are appreciated and deeply important in their households. We recognise the challenges they face and we are helping carers with the rises in the cost of living, reforming social care and helping carers to stay in work. We are spending record amounts on the carer’s allowance and providing unpaid carers with the help and support that they need and deserve. I am grateful for the range of points that have been made today, all of which will be very helpful in examining how we need to go forward. I hope that the contributions made today will help carers to know that we in this Chamber are thinking of them. Thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Bardell.
I thank you personally, Ms Bardell, for allowing me to leave the Chamber to speak on the P&O statement by the Secretary of State in the main Chamber. I thank all Members for attending and for their incredibly instructive contributions to the debate. We all have constituents who are—if I can put it like this—truly at the sharp end of this anomaly.
I thank the shadow Minister, my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who has been incredibly helpful in helping me to prepare for the debate. Some of this stuff, frankly, is quite complex. I have benefited from her incredible knowledge in this area.
I know the Minister a bit, and I think that she cares. I do not intend to be personal. However, the people who rely on this support are at the sharp end. They truly do not know whether they can afford to live; some of them are worried about using their electricity supply, which they need to operate the apparatus that is keeping their loved ones in the family home. Frankly, I am not convinced that the Government care quite enough. This is not a lifestyle choice. As we have heard, it could happen to any one of us—we could end up being a carer. People do not choose to do it. They do it because they need to, and they provide the most valuable service to society.
I know that the Minister has the power. She can leave here now, go to her Department and make changes that will affect these carers so that they do not have to rely on Treasury civil servants and Ministers and their spreadsheets that say no. Actions can be taken, and I very much hope she will do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered carer’s allowance.
Special Schools Eye Care Service
I will shortly call Siobhain McDonagh to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates. I call Siobhain McDonagh.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS Special Schools Eye Care Service.
I am delighted to lead a debate on a hugely beneficial development for the children who are often the most overlooked and yet most in need of targeted healthcare. The NHS special school eye care service has long been in the offing, originating from the stark statistic that children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a sight problem than other children. Four out of five children with a severe learning disability attend a special school, and decades-worth of studies and reports have all identified a higher level of sight problems in children attending day special schools.
I was first alerted to the issue when I visited my local special school, Perseid in Morden, in 2015. The school has an exceptional record of innovation, with a fantastic headteacher. I was delighted to learn that the Minister also knows the school from her recent visit to see the service in action. In 2013, Perseid began to work with the charity, SeeAbility, to offer sight tests and dispense glasses in the school environment.
A user-friendly report on what the children could see was part of the scheme for parents and teachers. Parents like Alyson told me on the visit that her daughter, Ellie, was getting used to eye care in the familiar environment of school and not having to take time out for hospital eye clinic appointments. That provided one less thing for her to worry about as a parent and had greatly reduced Ellie’s anxiety.
I was so impressed that seven years ago I initiated a debate and the Minister at the time, Alistair Burt, readily gave his time to visit the project and see the benefits for himself. The Department of Health and Social Care then granted innovation funding for the SeeAbility project to expand in other day special schools and report on its findings. As well as finding a huge level of vision problems and a need for glasses in particular, it found that children were not accessing their right to an NHS sight test in the community. Only one in 10 children has ever had an NHS sight test, and over four in 10 have no history of eye care.
NHS England has a responsibility to ensure equitable access to sight tests and primary eyecare, but there was a clear picture of unmet need. Moreover, it was clear that where services were targeted, it was only down to motivated eyecare professionals filling a gap, usually through secondary care. The project found that almost half of the children had accessed or were under the care of a hospital eye clinic, but often for routine eye care such as a sight test.
Fast forward to 2018 and, to its huge credit, NHS England accepted that it lacked a strategic approach to targeting much needed NHS sight tests and to improving primary eye care for people with learning disabilities. It began working collaboratively with eye care professional bodies and learning disability charities, first on a proposal for an NHS special school eye care service with the potential to reach 130,000 children, but also on longer-term plans to improve community optical practice access, too—pathways for the children not at special schools and adults with learning disabilities. They exist in only a few areas of the country.
The new NHS special school eye care service model does not exist anywhere else in the country, because it provides a one-stop shop for multidisciplinary eye care through full NHS sight testing, glasses dispensing, and specialist lenses and testing kits, alongside the report on a child’s vision and liaison with hospital eye clinics and teaching staff. It is important to put on the record that clinical backing for the service has come from all of the eyecare professional bodies and colleges, and from Public Health England.
In 2019, I was pleased to attend an event at Perseid, with NHS England in attendance, to celebrate its commitment, which was signed off at a senior level earlier that year. The service has therefore been promoted as a long-term proposition. Although the pandemic knocked everyone off course, I understand funding proper began in April 2021. We are in the early days as the service is in its proof of concept phase, although it is important to put on the record that the pilot is not about the need for a service. That is beyond doubt. It is a phase that will help evaluate an appropriate fee and glasses dispensing service, and therefore the best way to operationalise nationally. The service is now up and running in 97 special schools, 91 of which are day schools, with a total pupil population of more than 12,000. Clinicians from Bradford to London, Cheshire to Durham, are also under contract to deliver the service.
Some of the new NHS teams have only just begun their work, but the early picture is of much unmet need, with many children not having had a sight test before and with a high need for glasses. So far, so good, but some ambiguity has crept in recently, which is the reason for calling today’s debate. Back in 2019, wording in “The NHS Long Term Plan” specified that dental, hearing and sight checks would be delivered in residential special schools, but that was in addition to a wider pledge in the same plan to improve access to eye care for children with learning disabilities. However, it now appears that NHS England is promoting the need to establish the service in residential special schools, and recruitment has stopped for new day special schools.
Anxieties are building about whether the long-term intention is to limit the service to a few thousand children in residential special schools only, despite all the important work done so far, and about what that ambiguity means for day special schools where there is now a new NHS service—for schools such as Perseid and children such as Ellie. There is talk of evaluation, but does that raise the prospect of a halt in day special school services, which have only just got off the ground, and for how long will we have to wait for evaluation?
As I have outlined, there is no doubt about the need for reform. That much is sure. I am sure that it cannot be the intention to send children who are now being seen by a service, some of whom have already been discharged to it by hospital eye clinics, back into hospital eye clinics, particularly as there is a separate NHS programme that is actively trying to reduce out-patient eye clinic use. I remind the House that one study found that 54% of children with disabilities do not attend their eye clinic appointments because of the difficulties they have—something that a special school service does not experience, as children who miss a visiting clinic one day can be seen quickly at the next and their place taken by another child who has been waiting to be seen.
Tens of thousands more children with severe learning disabilities attend day special schools than attend residential schools, and the residential school population is decreasing, with no residential special schools at all in some areas. How will a focus on residential special schools address the bigger picture of a huge cohort of children, young people and adults with learning disabilities missing out on the NHS eye care they need? Paring back a service to a much smaller number of schools—if that is the plan—misses the bigger picture of unaddressed health inequalities and leaves unreformed the NHS sight testing scheme for patients with a severe learning disability seen in optical practices or day special schools.
It has already been wonderful to read of the Minister’s recognition of the potential for the service and the work of Perseid School. I know that she already recognises the folly of sending children with learning disabilities into out-patient eye clinics for sight tests, as they are some of the busiest places, with the longest waits for appointments. Only yesterday we saw the publication of the Government’s ambitions for the special educational needs system. If anything, this is a programme of work that delivers outcomes for SEND children on so many levels. Let us get the Department for Education on board, too. It already recognises the need for glasses in mainstream schools through its “Glasses in Classes” initiative.
I conclude with a quote from a new school, Kingsley special school, which has just started with the service. Reshma Hirani, assistant head, says:
“This service should be part of the NHS core offer so that it never stops. My pupils have struggled to access eye care in the community and now they have, quite rightly, something that is going to transform their lives. Well done NHS England for thinking about schools like Kingsley and our children. As a Qualified Teacher of Children and Young People with Vision Impairment I can now put in the support that children need, with the confidence that I have all the right information to hand. It really is the gift of sight.”
I finish by asking the Minister to reassure me today that the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England will publicly reaffirm the commitment to the special school eye care service and push on with the job of establishing it. Ongoing evaluation can still happen to understand how to fully operationalise, while ensuring that children get the service. These children deserve an equal right to sight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing this important and timely debate. As she said, I have visited Perseid in her constituency and seen its incredible work at first hand, as well as the work that SeeAbility does on assessing young people’s eyesight and supporting them with glasses and their bespoke needs, which are not always able to be supported on the high street—it can be difficult for parents and children to attend appointments elsewhere.
People with learning disabilities experience a higher prevalence of visual impairment than the general population. The hon. Lady said they are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem. More than 40% require the use of glasses. Very often, children with learning disabilities have specific issues on the fit of glasses. When children are able to get glasses that fit, teachers tell us of the difference in their behaviour, mood, anxiety and ability to learn. That difference makes it even more vital that this group have access to eye testing and services.
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are keen to ensure that eye testing is available for children with learning disabilities. NHS England and NHS Improvement are responsible for the contracting of the testing service to meet local need. All children under the age of 16, or 19 in full-time education, are entitled to free NHS sight tests on the high street, but I recognise that attending a high-street sight test is easier said than done for some children with learning disabilities. High-street services are available for some children with learning disabilities, and these services can meet many children’s needs. However, such children often do not like crowded, busy places and going into a high-street optician whom they do not know and where the environment is different from what they are used to can be quite difficult.
SeeAbility and other charities do a lot of work to support high-street opticians to make them aware of specific needs, including familiarisation visits, extended and split appointments, as well as adapting how the sight test, which can be very difficult for some children, is undertaken. Some children might need three or four visits just to put on a pair of glasses and have the eye test.
The hon. Lady mentioned the anxiety of her young constituent Ellie, and her mum, about going for a test. For many children who do not have a learning disability, going for an eye test is not an issue, but a learning disability or autism can mean additional challenges and I fully understand that.
A hospitalised service is also available. It can provide routine eye-care services and ongoing care but, again, there can be challenges with hospital visits. Departments are busy, often in out-patient settings, with multiple patients and healthcare professionals, and for children with learning disabilities, that is a difficult environment as well.
We therefore have the special schools proof-of-concept pilot. The hon. Lady is right that the long-term plan has made the commitment to ensure that children and young people with a learning disability, autism or both in residential schools have access to eye checks. It is important that that group of young people, too, have the facility to have their eyes tested and to have ongoing support and supervision with glasses or whatever treatment is recommended. That recognises that children and young people in special residential schools are likely to be placed a distance from home, so the option of a high-street optician or local hospitals is almost impossible. Having residential provision is a key part of the service that we want to make progress with.
To progress that long-term plan commitment, the proof-of-concept programme started pilots in residential and day schools in many parts of the country—London, the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. More than 93 special schools are participating in the programme, with more than 3,000 children having received an eye test, of whom more than 1,300 required and received glasses.
Sight testing in special residential schools means that children receive their eye care in a familiar place. I am sure that that the hon. Lady appreciates that the residential setting also needs the services that the day school in her constituency has received. We are able to share a child’s visual ability and needs between parents, children and teachers, and share how that is likely to develop and impact their learning. When children need glasses, they are provided free of charge, including a spare pair, so that children are not left without glasses should they break or lose them.
Fundamentally, it is right that we evaluate the proof-of-concept model, and the hon. Lady is right that that phase is coming to an end. In July, NHS England will review the proof-of-concept model, gathering information and feedback on the experience, looking at the effectiveness of the model in residential and day schools, and listening to the stakeholders, including providers such as SeeAbility, and the teachers and staff involved. The information will be looked at and further decisions about future roll-out considered.
The hon. Lady touched on the work of SeeAbility. I saw at first hand its extensive knowledge, and how that is used in practice with children who have difficult needs in addition to any eye problems, and its full understanding of how that fits together. Given the rapport that the people at SeeAbility have with the children, they can do checks on their eyes. Without that rapport and experience, checks would be difficult. I fully appreciate and thank SeeAbility for all its work in special schools, in particular in London.
SeeAbility is very worried that, by raising this issue, it will be seen as just trying to keep its work. It wishes the Minister to be absolutely clear that its concern is for this invaluable service to remain in the special day schools that it already exists in, and for other children and young people to get the opportunity to have that life-changing service as well.
I absolutely take on board the hon. Lady’s point. There is no impression at all that SeeAbility is touting for work. In fact, I would say the opposite: it demonstrated to me the value of its work and the value that similar organisations could provide if the services were rolled out to residential schools and other day schools.
I reassure the hon. Lady that NHS England will be evaluating the proof-of-concept programme when it comes to an end in July. I very much acknowledge her point that she wants to know how long that evaluation will take and what the process after will be. I am happy to tell her that I will speak to NHS England about that. It is not something that I, the Minister, will be deciding, and nor will I be looking at the evaluation. However, having seen it for myself and having heard the hon. Lady’s words today, I am conscious that there is some uncertainty about the future of the service. I think there is certainty for residential schools, but once July comes and NHS England starts the evaluation, I am happy to keep a close eye on that and to work with the hon. Lady so she has some certainty about what will be happening.
We have local commissioners as well as national commissioners. The Health and Care Bill will provide integrated care boards that will be able to commission local services. I am not sure if the hon. Lady has spoken to any of her local commissioners about what they envisage for eye testing in day schools, but I am happy to meet her to talk through the particular options in her constituency, to see if local commissioners are looking at this and to iron out some of her points about the proof-of-concept pilot coming to an end in July, the evaluation process going forward and potential options after that.
The Minister will be aware that the problem with these services is that they are small and difficult to set up on a local basis. Given the pressure that the NHS is under to do big things and to commission work that large numbers of people need, this sort of specialist service gets left behind, except where an individual is personally committed to it. That does not happen everywhere, not because people are bad but simply because they have so much on. It is important that NHS England takes on this service as a whole and is committed to it as a whole. Will the Minister help me, and any other Members who are interested, to secure the opportunity to speak to NHS England?
I take on board the hon. Lady’s point that NHS England is responsible for the roll-out of this programme and for the evaluation of the proof of concept. I am happy to organise a meeting with her and NHS officials to discuss this, so she has some certainty that she can take back to the parents and teachers at Perseid, who value this service very much. I am happy to do that because I am keen that the hon. Lady’s questions are answered and that she has some confidence.
I reassure the hon. Lady that the service I have seen is second to none, and I have seen the difference it makes. We are committed in the long-term plan to providing that service in residential schools, but I take her point that not all children have access to residential schools and they are not available in all parts of the country. Where day schools are available, the proof of concept model seems to have made a difference.
The Minister is being generous with her time, but I am sure she understands why I am so passionate about this service. It is not just great quality for the children, but it helps the teachers there is an easier way of learning. A parent of a child with severe special needs has a huge number of appointments to attend, as well as the demands of other children and their work. Just getting their child into a high-street or hospital eye clinic is yet another problem that takes time, is difficult to do and causes a bit of mayhem when they get there. This scheme works for everybody: the children, the schools and the hard-pressed parents.
I commend the hon. Lady for her campaign. She makes her points very well. Given that the proof of concept will be re-evaluated in July, a good way forward will be for us to meet with NHS England before then, to iron out some of her questions. I hope the hon. Lady is happy with that suggestion and, with that, I bring my remarks to a close.
Question put and agreed to.
Before I call Holly Lynch to move the motion, I inform Members that we are due to have a vote at 5.10 pm. If you do not want an interruption partway through the debate, you might want to take that into consideration, but we will be very happy to come back if there is still more to be said.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of banning disposable barbecues.
I very much hear what you have said, Ms Bardell, and it is my sincere pleasure to see you in the Chair.
West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has already attended 75 wildfires this year, and those are just the fires that fulfil the criteria set out in the national operational guidance. To meet the criteria, the fires will all have involved a geographical area of at least 1 hectare, had a sustained flame length of more than 1.5 metres, required a committed resource of at least four fire and rescue appliances, and presented a serious threat to life, the environment, property and infrastructure. In addition, hundreds of incidents of smaller fires on our moorland that have fortunately been stopped either by early firefighting actions or by weather conditions. From the very outset, we can see the scale of the challenge that we face in West Yorkshire alone, and I am really pleased that colleagues from other parts of West Yorkshire have joined us for this debate.
There were two moor fires at Marsden moor only last week. Six fire crews had to battle against two enormous raging fires, both of which were a mile long. Several others have also made the headlines in recent weeks, and although the stats are for wildfires more generally, we know that a significant number are caused by careless and reckless use of disposable barbecues on our moorland.
During the space of a single weekend on 26 and 27 February, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service had to respond to a fire caused by a barbecue that had been lit by a group in a campervan next to moorland on Marsden moor, near Huddersfield. The service also attended a fire caused by a barbecue on New Hey Road in Scammonden, and a third barbecue incident at Brun Clough car park. On 3 March, firefighters had to tackle a 538-square-foot blaze at Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate. The National Trust said that “precious moorland heather habitat” had been destroyed and issued a reminder that barbecues should not be used in the area.
We know that this a problem, and there are a number of reasons why our moorland is so precious and cannot continue to sustain this amount of damage. In Calderdale, I am afraid to say that managing flood risk is an ongoing and constant challenge. It was hit by devastating floods on Boxing day 2015 and during the 2020 February floods, with several incidents and near misses in between. Moorland fires substantially undermine the natural flood management that we need as a key part of our defences.
Nearly a quarter of England’s blanket bog habitat is located in Yorkshire, with about 50% of the country’s peatlands in the Pennines, so we feel the responsibility as custodians of the precious moorland and peatbogs, which also provide crucial carbon storage. That is an essential tool in the fight against climate change, but if the peatland is damaged by fire, it not only loses the ability to store carbon but starts to emit it, which why it is so crucial that we look after our moorland and work to restore it when it is damaged. Moorland also provides natural habitats and enhances biodiversity, with the suffering inflicted on wildlife as a consequence of such fires being one of the greatest tragedies of this problem.
The fires also put a tremendous strain on our emergency services. Although working out the cost for responding to such fires is not easy, the burden that falls on councils, the police, the Environment Agency, organisations such as the National Trust and, most of all, the fire service is enormous. After years of austerity, the frontline is already stretched to breaking point, and I was staggered to learn that fire and rescue services, which have to pull in national firefighting resources or support from neighbouring services in order to fight some of these massive moorland fires, can be expected to pick up the bill for having no choice but to call in those additional resources. I hope the Minister will work on that with her colleagues in other Departments; perhaps she could refer to it in her summing up.
I have set out the scale of the problem and it is clear that we could and should do more to prevent moorland fires. I appreciate that banning the sale of disposable barbecues sounds like a big step, and I fully accept that many users of disposable barbecues use them responsibly. However, I have been clear in outlining the scale of the problem and the devastation it causes, which warrants consideration of all the ways in which we can manage the risk, up to and including a ban on the sale of disposable barbecues. Indeed, ultimately those responsible users also have to pick up the cost of the response.
To further make the point, between 2019 and 2020 alone, 240 accidental fires in England were caused by barbecues, and those are just the fires where the source was identified. Therefore, we know that introducing a ban on disposable barbecues would start to bring down the number of moorland fires by hundreds every year.
Currently, the toolkit used by local authorities and the emergency services to prevent moorland fires is not robust enough. Sections 59 to 75 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allow for council officers and the police to implement a public spaces protection order. A PSPO is designed to deal with a particular nuisance or problem in a specific area by imposing conditions on the use of that area.
In Calderdale, people are prohibited from lighting fires, barbecues or Chinese lanterns, and from using any article or object that causes a naked flame and which poses a risk of fire in certain restricted areas. Best practice is encouraged and people are still allowed to enjoy picnics on moorlands, as long as they do not use cooking equipment that requires a naked flame or that presents a risk of fire. Calderdale Council also runs a Be Moor Aware campaign with emergency service partners, which calls on the public to be vigilant and responsible when enjoying our great countryside. The existing available powers are being deployed and agencies are being proactive, but the fires persist. So, what else can be done?
I commend the many large businesses and retailers that are taking steps to end the sale of disposable barbecues. People might think that the lobby against a ban would come from retailers, who stand to lose out on sales, but when those retailers are themselves leading the way, we know that the situation requires the Government to play catch-up.
Last June, the Co-op stopped the sale of instant barbecues from UK stores within a mile radius of a national park. This month, Aldi became the first supermarket to remove disposable barbecues from sale in all stores. In addition to the benefits that I have outlined, Aldi estimates that that will eliminate 35 tonnes of single-use plastic every year. Waitrose has also just committed to ending the sale of all disposable barbecues and to removing them from all of its 331 supermarkets. It estimates that that will prevent the sale of about 70,000 disposable barbecues every year.
It is incredibly welcome that these major national retailers are taking steps to end the sale of disposable barbecues, and I certainly applaud them for doing so. It is unequivocally clear that they are the real trailblazers, with Government proving too slow to respond to the scale of the problem, the damage caused and the cost to communities.
We are only in early spring and, as I have said, this debate follows two significant fires this week alone, in addition to the 75 official wildfires, and hundreds of others, in West Yorkshire this year. I ask the Government to introduce robust measures that will protect our countryside. A ban would have an instant and transformative effect in protecting our moorland and would help to safeguard them and our communities in the years ahead.
Before closing, I pay tribute to all the emergency service workers and partner agencies involved in the response to the recent wildfires in West Yorkshire. In particular, I place on the record my thanks to Calderdale District Commander Laura Boocock and deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton for giving their time and insight on the challenges they face on the frontline of this very serious problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this important debate. We seem to talk in this Chamber about many things on which we have common consensus; if it is not our attempts to tackle the unscrupulous housing developments of Harron Homes in our constituencies, it is matters such as this.
I want to touch on many issues relating to disposable barbecues, not least how they are made. They contain many materials that are not recyclable or easily disposed of. As the hon. Member said, they contain single-use plastics but also different bits of metal that, when left in situ, inevitably cause havoc to livestock, even before any attempt to dispose of them. Many cannot be recycled or composted, meaning they will inevitably end up in a landfill site.
The issue that I want to focus on is their effect on the environment, particularly in causing wildfires. We have experienced that in my constituency, particularly on Ilkley moor, time and again. Ilkley moor, Marsden moor and other moors across West Yorkshire are among the most beautiful places to be found across the UK. Unfortunately, like many other West Yorkshire moors, Ilkley moor has fallen foul of wildfires as a result of disposable barbecues being lit and left in situ by individuals who disappear home.
Only five days ago, West Yorkshire fire brigade had to attend an incident on Ilkley moor as a result of a disposable barbecue being left behind. In May 2021, the fire brigade attended an incident where individuals had left a barbecue alight before disappearing. On the Easter weekend of 2019, there was a much bigger fire on Ilkley moor. The challenge with Ilkley moor is that it butts right up to residential property. Ilkley itself goes right on to the moor, which causes a huge amount of concern and worry to many of my constituents.
The inevitable challenge of moorland fires is having to deal with a lot of dry vegetation. When that vegetation has not been managed, the fire spreads very quickly, especially through dry summer months, causing huge devastation not only to the moor but to flora, fauna and the wild habitat. Fire spreads dramatically, as we have seen on Ilkley moor, Marsden moor and Saddleworth moor; and, of course, people live in close proximity to many of these moors. A fire can take hold and pose a threat to human life as well as to wildlife. It takes a huge effort by local fire brigades to deal with wildfires that catch hold. I pay tribute to West Yorkshire fire brigade, which has done a fantastic job many times in dealing with these blazes.
This is a small product that can be purchased in many supermarkets and outlets, but it causes huge problems for many areas. I pay tribute to the supermarkets that have taken a lead, particularly Waitrose and Aldi, which have introduced a blanket ban on sales of disposable barbecues. I also recognise the work that has been done by West Yorkshire fire brigade, particularly Benjy Bush, the Bradford district commander. Along with local authorities, he has advocated the Be Moor Aware campaign, which the hon. Member for Halifax referred to. It is a great campaign creating great awareness at a local level of the damage that can be caused by small disposable barbecues.
A ban on the use of disposable barbecues on moors was introduced in the Bradford district in 2019. That is set to expire this summer, but the local authority is seeking to extend it. Members of the council’s regulatory and appeals committee have begun a public consultation, which I shall follow closely. I urge them to keep that ban in place.
I still think that we could go further at a national level on the challenges associated with disposable barbecues, because they create far more havoc than benefits. It is not just disposable barbecues; other products cause equal amounts of havoc. For example, I am absolutely behind the proposal to ban sky lanterns. When a sky lantern is set off, who knows where it will eventually land or drop. Sometimes they are still alight when they fall on moorlands and fields, causing huge challenges with regard to farm animals and livestock—they can even kill them. I have heard that if an animal eats lantern debris, it can puncture its internal organs, leading to a potentially life-threatening situation. Animals can also get splinters in their skin and get trapped in the metal, plastic and paper that make up a sky lantern.
At a national level, there is more work that the Government could do to explore the possibility of banning disposable barbecues and, most definitely, sky lanterns. That is something that I am definitely behind. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Halifax, they cause havoc to our moorland areas, to livestock, to ecology and potentially to people’s homes that abut the areas where these fires take place. I am pleased that we are having this debate and thank the hon. Member for Halifax for securing it. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on securing this vital debate—one that affects many of our communities, up and down the country. I know that Members here will share my delight at the fact that, after a long winter, spring has sprung and summer will soon be with us. Like many people around the country, I will be making the most of the good weather by getting outside, joining my family on walks in the local countryside and possibly having the odd pint in a beer garden. More people are enjoying the countryside than ever before, thanks to the support that nature provided to the public’s health and wellbeing during the lockdowns. It was a garden on the edge of our communities. However, that makes it more important that we work together to ensure our natural world is given the respect and protection it deserves.
With temperatures now rising, and as summer comes upon us, moorland fires will increase. We have heard Members raise terrible examples of the real impact that fires, sometimes accidentally caused by barbecues—particularly disposable barbecues—can have on our natural environment. We have heard about the danger they present to people, wildlife, property and the environment. The hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) spoke about the impact on Ilkley moor. It is a place I am very familiar with; I lived for five years partly up Ilkley moor, when I studied at Ilkley College. I share his concern.
I praise Liam Thorp of the Liverpool Echo, who highlighted Sefton park—not in the countryside but an urban park—and the terrible impact that the irresponsible use of disposable barbecues is having in that environment. The hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) is not here today, but he has done significant work on this in his 10-minute rule Bill. He has highlighted the impact of the 2019 Marsden moor fire on the environment; carbon capture from the peatland was destroyed, and that had an effect on the livelihoods of farmers in his constituency. As a Member for a partially rural constituency, which I have in common with Members present, I have seen the impact of that on my community.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax stated, between 2019 and 2020, there were 240 accidental fires caused by disposable barbecues. Although local authorities and the police can put in place public safety protection orders directed at naked flames, barbecues or lanterns, which the hon. Member for Keighley referred to, it is clear that figure of 240 requires more work to be done by hard-pressed local authorities and, indeed, fire services, which have been noted. I am pleased that supermarkets and local retailers have taken steps themselves to prevent such fires, with the Co-op, which has been mentioned, Aldi and Waitrose all moving to remove instant barbecues from being sold either around national parks or nationwide. Some park authorities, such as New Forest national park authority and the Peak District national park authority, have worked with local stores and so forth to ensure instant barbecues are not sold near those parks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax and, indeed, the hon. Member for Keighley, mentioned, not selling or using disposable barbecues also has the added benefit of saving huge amounts of plastic, foil and metal that are used to make each barbecue and which are not always disposed of correctly or respectfully. However, it should not be up to individual retailers to decide what protection to give our natural environment. Given the scale of the current problem and the fact that the climate emergency means that, sadly, we may have more devastating wildfires, we need greater intervention from the Government. Can the Minister tell us what consideration she has given to banning disposable barbecues? I am uncomfortable with banning things—I think we all are—but it would be useful to have an update from the Government.
We have retailers leading the way in the market’s response. I know the Minister will point to the countryside code and I am pleased that the updated version, released last month, contains stronger language around barbecues and other types of fires than in previous versions. However, it could probably go further. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax suggests, is there anything in the future to strengthen that code even further? As we come up to that pinch point of the summer, will there be any campaigns driven by the Government and the relevant Department to warn people of the consequences and dangers, in partnership with local authorities and fire services?
I concur with the idea of banning sky lanterns. I have seen their devastating impact up and down the country, so I would love to hear what the Minister has to say about that. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I thank hon. Members for today’s qualitative debate on this vital subject.
It is lovely to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I too wish to thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing the debate. I also want to echo her and others’ thanks for the important work of our fire and rescue services.
In September last year, I visited Ollerbrook farm in the Peak District’s Hope valley with my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan). He was able to show me some of the areas affected by wildfire and told me about the effects that had had on local wildlife and farmers. It is interesting that so many of us here today have a close personal link with Ilkley. In my case, I married it—Owler Park Road, to be precise. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) was right to raise the devastation caused by those dreadful fires on Ilkley moor. It is important to remember the nature of the moorland we are talking about. I know we will come on to discuss moorland management in many forums in future, and it is also important in respect of treating wildfires.
As we know, our natural environment is made up of a mosaic of habitat types, which deserve protection from a variety of threats, both natural and, in this case, often sadly man-made. Protecting our natural environment is a team effort, and that is true of the work of the Government in this respect. I know, from previous conversations with the hon. Member for Halifax, that she appreciates that, while the Home Office is the lead Government body in relation to wildfires—particularly around prevention and data collection—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also has a key role to play in managing our natural landscapes in a way that helps to prevent wildfires. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is also responsible for encouraging partnership working at a local level, especially where there is a heightened risk of wildfire incidents.
Disposable barbecues, if used correctly, do not, in themselves, pose a wildfire risk; it is when they are left unattended, or used recklessly, that the risk occurs. It is clear to me that we do not have enough data on the role that disposable barbecues play in wildfire incidents. However, anecdotal evidence—not least in this debate—suggests that they have been responsible for a number of serious incidents.
The latest data from the Home Office suggests that about 4% of accidental primary fires can be robustly linked to barbecue use. That data does not differentiate between the use of a barbecue in somebody’s home or garden and its use elsewhere. It also does not describe the type of barbecue responsible. Obviously, evidence can be hard to find. By a wildfire’s very nature, there are often no initial witnesses—they would have put the fire out—and the primary source of the fire is often destroyed by it. What is clear is that many hundreds of families and groups of friends use disposable barbecues responsibly, and the National Fire Chiefs Council is not yet asking for an outright ban. However, clearly, an issue remains in the way that barbecues are used in the countryside, which proactive campaigning has not yet managed to resolve.
I would therefore like to announce that we are commissioning research to examine the role that barbecues—and specifically disposable barbecues—play in wildfire incidents. We will also use that research to examine the role of other flammable items, such as sky lanterns and portable stoves, that also have the potential to cause significant damage.
Where there is evidence that disposable barbecues pose a significant local risk that warrants immediate action, I would urge Members to talk to their local authorities, because existing legislation can be used to restrict the use of disposable barbecues under bylaws. I would also draw attention to the fact that Dorset, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils have already taken such action on a local level.
I would also highlight the excellent work done by the New Forest and Peak District national park authorities, which have banned the use of disposable barbecues within their boundaries and have successfully collaborated with several retailers to remove disposable barbecues from sale by nearby stores. Members should discuss with their local authorities the use of a public spaces protection order if there is significant local concern and they feel that it is warranted.
We are also working with landowners to make our landscapes more resilient to wildfire risk, so that if a fire starts, it does not spread quite as quickly as it has done in some of the more devastating incidents. Last April, we were pleased to support the development of a new training programme—which we will support for at least the next three years—which was designed to consolidate knowledge, skills and understanding of vegetation fires. Within the first year of its operation, 125 people in land management have benefited from that training, and the Department is talking to the National Trust about how we can roll out that learning among National Trust managers, who, of course, manage some of those precious landscapes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax on raising this vital issue, and all hon. Members on this very useful debate.
I thank all hon. Members for taking part in today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) is quite right; it is about quality, not quantity, in Westminster Hall this afternoon.
I am grateful to the Minister for engaging with this issue. I very much look forward to understanding more about that research piece. I may follow up in writing, if I may, to get a better understanding of the timelines involved in that. Once we have that evidence base in that data, I will no doubt be coming back, again, to say, “Well, what do we do now with that data?” regarding further measures, and considering a ban if the data confirms what we suspect from anecdotal evidence—that we could be, and should be, doing more.
I also recognise that this is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but there is the point about the cost that fire services have to cover if they have to pull in resources—national or neighbouring resources—in managing a significant fire. I may pick up on one or two of those points in writing, but I am grateful for the spirit in which the Minister has engaged with this problem, and I hope that all hon. Members will join me in campaigning to see what we can do beyond today’s debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of banning disposable barbecues.