House of Commons
Wednesday 30 March 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Independent Review of Maternity Services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled Findings, conclusions and essential actions from the Independent Review of Maternity Services at The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, dated 30 March 2022.—(Amanda Solloway.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Conversion Therapy Ban
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging the enormously personal statement that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) made this morning. I hope I speak for the whole House in sending our support. It is so important that people are free to be safe to be themselves, whoever they are and whoever they love.
We remain wholly committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices. We recently concluded a consultation period on the proposals being analysed, based on which we will be developing legislation to be brought forward later this spring.
My best wishes also go to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Minister will be aware that the Cabinet Office recently tendered a contract for the provision of a conversion therapy victim support service. Does he agree that including a consent loophole in the Government’s proposals to ban conversion therapy will allow some of its worst practitioners off the hook, inevitably creating more victims who will need support?
No, we do not agree. We believe that, in a free and open society, consenting adults—provided that there is appropriate advice and information so that people understand exactly what they are doing—should be able to take informed decisions for themselves.
May I echo the words of the Minister in respect of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)? As the Minister rightly said, it has now been two months since the consultation on banning conversion therapy closed and almost three years since the Government made the pledge to ban this insidious practice. Why is it taking so long?
Actually, I secured the first Westminster Hall debate on the subject in 2015. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, if it were easy, Governments would have done it before. We have taken time to analyse the results, and we have had a significant response. It is important that we get this right; that is why we are analysing the significant response and bringing forward the legislation later this spring.
I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.
I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his incredible bravery. Can the Minister reassure me, and indeed the whole House, that legislation on conversion therapy will be introduced to this place prior to the conference that is scheduled to be hosted by the Government in the summer? Will he let us know how preparations for the conference are going?
I can give my right hon. Friend the commitment that the Government remain committed to bringing forward the legislation. It is a matter for business managers when the exact parliamentary slot will be, but a Bill team has been stood up and we are progressing at pace.
I very much understand the intentions behind the proposed Bill, but can my hon. Friend tell the House what evidence has come to light of unacceptable conversion therapy practices in the UK, by which I mean practices that are not already illegal, but that the Government think should be banned?
My hon. Friend raises a very fair point. Both the national LGBT survey of over 100,000 LGBT people and the in-depth Coventry report demonstrated that violent and harmful talking conversion practices continue to take place. That is why we need to act.
We now come to the SNP spokesperson.
I would like to add my best wishes to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Scottish Government are clear about the need to act to end conversion practices in Scotland. They have established an expert advisory group to inform their approach to banning this abhorrent practice. The group will include people with personal experience of conversion practice, representatives from LGBTI organisations, faith communities, mental health professionals and academics; it will meet for the first time tomorrow and complete its work by the summer, reflecting the Scottish Government’s recognition of the urgency of the issue. Given that the UK Government’s consultation on their proposed ban ended on 4 February, can the Minister confirm that the UK Government’s approach will be taken forward on a similarly inclusive and urgent basis?
I can certainly confirm that we are taking it forward on an urgent basis. Since I took up the role with responsibility for LGBT+ issues, I have engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders, including those who have been victims of conversion therapy. I have engaged with all the stakeholders, listed by the hon. Lady, from whom the Scottish Government took evidence, from an England and Wales point of view.
People with Down Syndrome
The Government are proud to support the Down Syndrome Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). The Bill aims to tackle inequalities and ensure that services and support meet the unique needs of people with Down syndrome.
I welcome the passage of the Down Syndrome Bill through Parliament. Will my hon. Friend commit herself to consulting people living with Down syndrome and other disabilities during the development of the guidance to ensure that their voices are heard?
Absolutely. That is essential. People with Down syndrome and other disabilities, as well as their advocates, will be involved in each phase of the development of the guidance. There will be a national call for evidence, and a formal consultation on the draft guidance on gov.uk will be available to anyone who wants to share their views. We will provide details of the call for evidence shortly.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for posing the question. What steps is the Minister taking, in co-ordination with her counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to promote the appearance on television of our talented Down syndrome actors in order to ensure that programmes such as “Call the Midwife”—one of my favourites—are not one-offs, and that it becomes a normal part of life for children to see someone like themselves on TV and know that they too can fulfil their dreams with hard work and determination?
The passage of the Down Syndrome Bill has given a platform to many people with the condition. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman greatly enjoyed meeting actors, models and many other people with Down syndrome who showed how much they can achieve during the recent parliamentary events, and we look forward to continuing to showcase that.
I call the shadow Minister, Taiwo Owatemi.
I, too, want to associate myself with the comments about the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis).
A constituent recently contacted me about her struggle with the cost of living crisis. She is the sole carer of a young daughter and, after 25 years of misdiagnosis, she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is already struggling to make ends meet and now her energy bills are set to triple. Last week’s spring statement included nothing about mental health and barely mentioned disabilities, whereas Labour has a plan to ease the cost of living and provide mental health services for 1 million more people each year. Where is the Government’s plan to help the millions of people like my constituent?
This issue would normally be covered by questions to a different Department, but, as the mental health Minister, I can tell the hon. Lady that we do have a plan. We are making a great deal of investment in mental health and making further investment in the catch-up programme. We also have a mental health strategy on which we have been working this year, and we will ensure that we address the issue of people with bipolar disorder in that strategy.
The Government believe that the circumstances of a person’s birth should not determine life outcomes. We recently published our levelling up White Paper to address regional disparities across the UK and put more money into the pockets of those who need it most. We are also bolstering the Social Mobility Commission by appointing new commissioners who will help to improve public understanding of how opportunity is created and made accessible to all.
For too long, the focus on social mobility has been about what a person looks like and not what that person can offer. Can the Minister confirm that we will consign that approach to history, and instead focus on what everyday people can offer the country and ensure that they have the opportunity that they deserve?
My hon. Friend is right: social mobility is very much about the individual. He will be pleased to know that the Government are taking a new approach to equality which goes beyond the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 and also takes account of socioeconomic and regional disparities. He will have noticed that we have released our strategy for racial equality, “Inclusive Britain”, which is based on some of the principles to which he has referred.
Social mobility is a laudable aim that everyone in the House agrees with, but this week I was shocked to see Action for Children report that nearly half of children surveyed from low-income backgrounds say that they worry about their families’ finances. That kind of stress will help no child to do well at school and will help no child to succeed. We know that family finances and the ability to work are also constrained by childcare. So can the Minister say what she is doing in her role to work across Government to help on family finances and, in particular, to help parents who need to fund the cost of childcare?
I have another role as Minister for Levelling Up Communities, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities recently invested £300 million in a flagship programme to support the families who need help the most. The hon. Lady will have heard from other Ministers in various Departments what we have been doing about the cost of living, and I refer her to their statements.
Careers in Science, Computing and Engineering
We have seen good progress on increasing the number of girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects at school, but we know that too many women drop out of STEM careers because of caring responsibilities. That is why we recently announced a new scheme to help women into STEM roles after taking time out of work to care for their family. This will help organisations to recruit those who are too often overlooked because of a gap on their CV when providing employment support.
Given the obvious labour shortages in construction, can I encourage Ministers to work with groups such as Women into Construction to encourage women to take on apprenticeships and careers in engineering and construction?
My right hon. Friend can consider Ministers suitably encouraged. I speak as an engineer who also had an apprenticeship, and I know how important organisations such as Women into Construction are. We will do everything we can to work with them and to support women into apprenticeships and engineering.
Equality Act 2010: Implementation by Local Authorities
The Equality Act’s provisions, including the public sector equality duty, apply to local authorities, and they are legally bound to implement them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, an independent public body, is responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010 across the public sector, including in local authorities. The EHRC makes its own decisions on how it exercises its functions.
I thank the Minister for that response. Women from my constituency and across Fife have had their coffee mornings cancelled by Fife Council officers for reasons that have not been adequately explained. Does the Minister agree that preventing women from lawfully organising and discussing matters of importance under the protected characteristic of sex forms part of an emerging culture of women being cancelled, intimidated and silenced and is deeply harmful? Does she further agree that all public bodies, including police services and local authorities, must observe the clear definition set out by the inner house of the Court of Session on the category of sex in the Equality Act, and that an attack on one protected characteristic should be considered an attack on all protected characteristics, and must be robustly challenged and cease?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I do not think it right that women should be prevented from organising on the basis of their sex. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society and no one should be silenced from expressing their legitimately held opinions. Like any public body in this country, the hon. Gentleman’s local council must have regard to its public sector equality duty in all its functions and decision making, including the case he refers to. He may wish to pick the issue up with the Scottish Government, as they are responsible for education policy of the kind we are discussing. I do not know the particular details of this case, but if he writes to me, I might be able to provide more information.
As the Minister has set out, local authorities have a duty to have regard to equality in all their work, and it is local authorities that facilitate our elections, so would the Minister agree that getting more information about who stands for election published might help us to ensure that our electoral system is as fair and open as it can be?
Yes, I would agree with that. Local authorities carry out the work of providing that information to the electorate, but if there is something specific that my right hon. Friend thinks they could be doing more of, I would be happy to look into that in my capacity as local government Minister.
What urgent conversations is the Minister having with British Cycling to ensure that elite female athletes such as Dame Laura Kenny, a six-time Olympic medallist, and her team-mates will not lose their places and have their records broken because of British Cycling’s inability to uphold section 195 of the 2010 Equality Act and implement the agreed guidance from the Sports Council Equality Group on transgender inclusion in sport, which was published in October last year?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have not had any specific discussions with British Cycling, but I am glad she has raised this issue with me. I will pick up the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who look at sports guidance and see what we can do to provide clarity on the subject.
Investment for Businesses: Female and Minority Entrepreneurs
The Government’s flagship start-up loans programme, delivered through the British Business Bank, has been instrumental in reducing access-to-finance barriers faced by all entrepreneurs, including those faced by female and minority entrepreneurs. Since the launch of the programme, around 40% of the loans issued, valued at approximately £320 million, went to female entrepreneurs. Black, Asian and ethnic minority businesses have received around 20% of the loans issued, valued at £160 million.
A record 140,000 women started their own business in the last year, but research shows that only 1% of venture capital funding goes to businesses led by women. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and the #overbeingunderfunded campaign, run by my constituents Sarah King and Claire Dunn, to discuss how we can better use Government schemes such as the seed enterprise investment scheme to address this inequality?
The seed enterprise investment scheme is one of three tax-advantaged venture capital schemes that provide tax incentives to individuals who invest in companies at various stages of growth. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to talk about the world-leading generosity of this scheme. I will find out whether a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Treasury is available to meet her and her constituents on this specific issue.
Energy Costs for Disabled People
The Treasury recently announced £9.1 billion of support for energy customers, including a bill rebate, a council tax reduction and continuing support for the most vulnerable households. Furthermore, a doubling of the household support fund was announced in the spring statement, which is again getting help to where it is needed most.
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his bravery in speaking out. We wish him all the best. I think I speak for everyone in the Chamber when I say that we are here to support him.
Disability charities estimate that the number of disabled people in fuel poverty could double this year. A constituent recently told me, “I stay in bed to keep warm and to keep up with my energy costs. I skip meals to cope with my grocery costs.” Will the Government and the Minister support our call to reinstate the £1,000 universal credit uplift and to keep in line—
Order. I call the Minister. Come on, this is far too long.
I assure the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) that I regularly meet many disabled people and disability organisations. I am aware of this issue and the natural anxiety about rising costs felt by many who live on a fixed income. That is why the Government are already acting in the way I set out.
HM Prison and Probation Service: Equality Assessment for Fitness Testing
The HMPPS staff fitness testing policy was reviewed, updated and published in 2021. An equality impact assessment was undertaken in 2021, and it remains a live document. It will be reviewed and updated regularly as work in this area progresses. HMPPS staff networks, diversity and inclusion experts and trade unions were fully consulted during the policy review, and they contributed to the equality analysis.
The Minister will be aware of concerns, particularly from the Prison Officers Association, that far more female officers than male officers are failing this test. Will he meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss this issue?
The hon. Gentleman takes a consistent interest in this point, and I am happy to mention his question to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). I can confirm that, since prison officer fitness testing resumed last July, 90% of female officers passed on the first attempt, and none failed by the third attempt.
“Inclusive Britain” is the Government’s response to the report by the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and it sets out a groundbreaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. This includes developing a new model history curriculum by 2024; working with a panel of academics and businesspeople to promote fairness in the workplace; and developing a new national framework for how the use of police powers is scrutinised at local level. The measures in the action plan will help to level up the country by tackling the drivers of persistent ethnic disparities in education, employment, health and criminal justice.
The Minister will be aware that a recent survey of 27,000 parents by Pregnant Then Screwed found that about two thirds are paying more for childcare than they are for their rent or mortgage. This is pushing many mothers out of the workforce or into working fewer hours. Does she agree that the Government need to address this as a matter of urgency if we want to keep women in the workforce and in well-paid jobs?
I agree with the hon. Lady that childcare is a very important issue if we want to keep women in the workplace. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlement and we continue to support families with their childcare costs.
Order. I ask Members, please, not to walk in front of other Members while they are asking questions.
The Government are committed to considering the overlaps and linkages of the experiences of people with Down’s syndrome and those of people with other genetic conditions, such as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, in the development of the guidance. The national call for evidence will ensure that the guidance also benefits people with other genetic conditions too.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Anneliese Dodds.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, may I associate myself with the warm and supportive remarks made from all across this House to the hon. Member for Bridgend?
Women are bearing the brunt of the Conservative cost of living crisis. At the sharp end, as the Women’s Budget Group has said, they are the “shock absorbers” of poverty, cutting essentials for themselves so that their kids do not go without. So will the Minister inform the House as to what assessment her Government have made of the financial impact of the Chancellor’s autumn Budget last year and his spring statement last week?
The Treasury looks at all impacts in the round, and the financial statement the Chancellor announced last week would have had an equalities impact assessment, which would have taken into account all the various measures and their impact, based on protected characteristics.
In practice, it is disappointing that it did not include that analysis and the Minister does not appear aware of the impact of her Government’s policies on women. I can enlighten her: put together, the 2021 autumn Budget and the 2022 spring statement take £28 billion from the pockets of women over the next six years. That is £1,000 for every woman in the country. So why is her Government still refusing to impose a windfall tax to reduce bills for everyone and provide up to £600 for the households who need it, many of them run by women?
I simply do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady is putting forward; it is not right to say that we are taking money out of the pockets of women. We have put forward a spring statement and a financial package that is looking after the interests of everyone in this country, because we look after people irrespective of their sex, gender, race; we look at people based on socioeconomic characteristics in particular and those who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged.
I thank my hon. Friend for his continued work on this important issue. As we all know, poor body image can affect lifestyle choices, and physical and mental health, and is associated with lower confidence and low aspirations. So we have been taking steps to ensure that young people have the skills to keep themselves safe, through our work on media literacy and promoting understanding that the online environment is not always reflective of reality.
The Government are committed to safeguarding women and girls, which is why on 18 November 2021 we tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to ban virginity testing, which passed unopposed in the House of Commons.
I would be very supportive of a Margaret Thatcher day, but I think that is more a question for the Prime Minister than for me. My hon. Friend will know that all parties do quite a lot to support women into elected office and across the House we can agree that that is an important thing to continue.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House will have read the statement today from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)—I know that the House stands with you and will give you the support you need to live freely as yourself.
I thank Donna Ockenden and her whole team for the compassionate approach she has taken throughout the distressing review of maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. Every woman who gives birth has the right to a safe birth, and my heart therefore goes out to the families for the distress and suffering they have endured. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will make an oral statement this afternoon to set out the Government’s response.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
While our focus is rightly on Ukraine, the Prime Minister will be aware of the great concern of many people across the Baltic states. Will he outline the role that the joint expeditionary force can play in countering Russian aggression and improving the defensive posture for our allies in the Baltics?
The joint expeditionary force, or the JEF, is an increasingly important grouping of the Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, the Dutch and ourselves, and we are committed to working together in an active way to counter Russian aggression and support our Ukrainian friends. We had a successful meeting a couple of weeks ago and will have further such meetings in the course of the next few weeks.
We now come to the Leader of the Opposition.
May I start by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks in relation to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)?
Does the Prime Minister still think that he and the Chancellor are tax-cutting Conservatives?
Yes, I certainly do, because this Government have just introduced not only the biggest cut in fuel duty ever but the biggest cut in tax for working people in the last 10 years. Seventy per cent. of the population paying national insurance contributions will have a substantial tax cut as a result of what the Chancellor did, and if we take together—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not like it, Mr Speaker, but it is true. They always put up taxes; that is why. We cut taxes. They love putting up taxes. If we take together what we are doing with income tax and national insurance, it is the biggest tax cut for 25 years, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Cut the nonsense and treat the British people with a bit of respect. Let me take the Prime Minister through this slowly: 15 tax rises and the highest tax burden for 70 years. For every £6 the Government are taking in tax rises, they are handing only £1 back. Prime Minister, is that cutting taxes or is that raising taxes?
I do not know where the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been for the past two years, but even by the standards—[Interruption.] Yes, he has. Even by the standards of Captain Hindsight, to obliterate the biggest pandemic for the past century from his memory and to obliterate the £408 billion that we have had to spend to look after people up and down the country is quite extraordinary. This is a Government who are getting on with reducing the tax burden wherever we can. There is one measure that I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should support, and that is the health and care levy to fund our NHS. That is the one that the Opposition oppose. They are all in favour of every other tax rise.
I can only hope that the Prime Minister’s police questionnaire was a bit more convincing than that.
This year, the British people face the worst fall in living standards on record. While they are counting every penny, the Prime Minister is hitting them with higher taxes, but in 2024, when there just so happens to be a general election, the Government will introduce a small tax cut. That is not taking difficult decisions; that is putting the Tory re-election campaign over and above helping people pay their bills. How did he find a Chancellor as utterly cynical as he is?
What we have is a Chancellor who took the tough decisions to look after the UK economy throughout the pandemic, and who protected people up and down the land with £408 billion-worth of support. By the way, if we had listened to Captain Hindsight—and this is the truth—we would not have come out of lockdown in July last year. We would have stayed in lockdown over Christmas and new year, with the result that the UK economy would not be growing in the way that it is, so we would not be able to make the investments that we are now making. Under Labour, we would have to tax more and borrow more. It cannot be trusted with the economy.
The tough decisions—give me a break! We know who those two always ask to pay: income stealth tax—a tax on working people; the tuition fee raid—a tax on working people; the national insurance hike—a tax on working people. All of this while oil and gas companies see unexpected bumper profits. A windfall tax would raise billions and ease the burden on working people. The former chief executive office of BP, Lord John Browne, says a windfall tax is “justifiable”. The current CEO says that BP has, in his words,
“more cash than we know what to do with.”
Why is the Prime Minister more interested in shielding oil and gas profits than supporting working people?
That is a classic example of what Labour got wrong during its period in office. The oil and gas companies are now investing £20 billion in ensuring that we have long-term energy supplies. I remember that the 1997 Labour manifesto actually said that there was “no economic case” for more nuclear power. We are now having to make good the historic mistakes of the Labour party by investing in our long-term energy supply. That is what we are doing. Everything that Labour is proposing would deter investment, meaning higher prices for consumers and households up and down the land being worse off.
There we have it: the Conservatives are the party of excess oil and gas profits; we are the party of working people.
Talking of parties, the Prime Minister told the House that no rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown. The police have now concluded that there was widespread criminality. The “Ministerial Code” says that Ministers who “knowingly” mislead the House should resign. Why is he still here?
Hang on a minute. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just changed his position. We do at least expect some consistency from this human weather vane. It was only a week or so ago when he said that I should not resign. What is his position, Mr Speaker? Of course the investigators must get on with their job, but, in the meantime, we will get on with our job. We are focusing on tackling the cost of living, and helping people through the spike in fuel prices—the £9.1 billion that the Chancellor has set out. I have mentioned nuclear power and I have mentioned tackling our energy supplies, which Labour totally failed to do, but, far more important perhaps even than that, we are tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in our schools. We are investing billions in tutoring. That is what we are focusing on, and that is what the people of this country want us to focus on.
There are only two possible explanations. Either the Prime Minister is trashing the ministerial code, or he is claiming he was repeatedly lied to by his own advisers and did not know what was going on in his own house and his own office. Come off it! He really does think it is one rule for him and another rule for everyone else—that he can pass off criminality in his office and ask others to follow the law, that he can keep raising taxes and call himself a tax cutter, and that he can hike tax during a cost of living crisis and get credit for giving a bit back just before an election. When is he going to stop taking the British public for fools?
This is the Leader of the Opposition who would have kept this country in lockdown and made it absolutely impossible. He has zero consistency on any issue, but one thing we know is that he would like to take us back into the European Union and take us back into lockdown if he possibly could. Thanks to what this Government have done, we have unemployment back down to the levels it was before the pandemic, the economy bigger than it was and record vacancies. The difference between the Opposition and us is that they want to keep people on benefits and we want to help people into work. That is what we are doing, in record numbers. They want to raise taxes; we want to cut taxes, and that is what we are doing. We are tackling illiteracy; they did not give a damn.
We are getting on with making this country the best place to invest. The last time I updated the House on the number of unicorns in this country—that is, tech companies worth more than $1 billion—I said we had 100. I can inform you now, Mr Speaker, that we have 120. The Opposition do not want to hear it, but let me tell you: that is more than France. It is more than Germany. It is more than Israel. It is more than France, Germany and Israel combined. That is what is happening under this Government. That is what is happening because of the tough decisions we have taken. We take the tough decisions. We deliver; they play politics.
Yes. We are spending £69 million already to support the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wales. I wish the Welsh Government had not withdrawn their broadband scheme, but we will do our best to make up the difference as fast as possible.
We now come to SNP leader Ian Blackford.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) in the Chamber, and I commend him for his statement earlier today.
Last night, millions of families will have been desperately trying to figure out how they will possibly afford the £700 energy price hike that will hit them this Friday. At the very same time, Tory MPs were gathering across the street for a champagne bash in the Park Plaza. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown, and now they are—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Fabricant, Easter is upon us. I do not need you to ruin your Easter. Let us hear—[Interruption.] Order, all of you. Let us hear SNP leader Ian Blackford.
They shout and scream when we are raising the Tory cost of living crisis. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown and now they are partying through the cost of living emergency.
Last week the Chancellor got it badly, badly wrong with the spring statement, and ever since the Prime Minister has been busy briefing against him, saying that more needs to be done. For once I agree with the Prime Minister. So if he really believes that more needs to be done, can he tell us exactly what he will order his Chancellor to do to help the millions of families who are facing a £700 price hike this Friday?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is in error in what he says about events last night, but he is, like me, a living testament to the benefits of moderation in all things. To get to his point, this week, for instance, the living wage is going up again by record amounts, and thanks to what the Chancellor has done we are putting £9.1 billion into helping people up and down the country. I might respectfully suggest that the thing the Scottish nationalist Government—with whom, as I say, we work increasingly well—could focus on for the long-term prosperity of Scotland is the educational system, where I am sad to see Scotland’s once-glorious record falling behind.
What a load of absolute baloney. The Prime Minister is dangerously out of touch. Food banks are warning that people are having to choose their food based on whether they can afford the gas to boil it. Families are having to choose what rooms to heat or whether they can turn on the heating at all. Some in the Tory Cabinet clearly believe that better weather means that they can happily sit on their hands and do nothing until next winter. They obviously do not get, or do not care, that in many parts of Scotland the weather will barely reach above freezing over the next week. The Chancellor thinks his £200 loan, which is forcing people into energy debt, is somehow a solution, but it clearly is not. So before the Prime Minister and his Chancellor go off on their Easter holidays, will they, at the very least, turn this loan into a grant and finally put some cash into people’s pockets when they need it, right now?
Of course we are doing everything that we can, with the £9.1 billion and the cold weather payments. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the problem, and we are making huge investments in supporting people right now, with another £1 billion, by the way, through the household support fund to help vulnerable families. But when he talks about the cost of energy in Scotland, how absolutely preposterous it is that the Scottish nationalist party should still be opposed to the use of any of our native hydrocarbons in this country, with the result that the Europeans are importing oil and gas from Putin’s Russia. It is totally absurd.
Just for the record, it is the Scottish national party.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great champion for Bolsover and for his constituents. Free and subsidised travel is provided to Bolsover students travelling, so far, to two of the three excellent colleges that are going to be offering T-levels from 2023, but I will make sure that he gets a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to discuss further what we can do.
During the second world war, my grandmother, like countless other people across our country, opened her home to evacuees, including two German Jewish boys. Over 70 years later, the British people want to shelter desperate refugees again. Two weeks ago, I was speaking to refugee families on the Ukrainian-Polish border at Medyka. Some desperately wanted to come to our country. One elderly couple told me that they had been told that it was just too complicated, and now the Government’s own figures say the same. Paperwork is being put ahead of people. When wealthy businessmen from more than 50 countries can come to the UK visa-free, why does the Prime Minister insist that a traumatised Ukrainian mother and child must first fill out a visa form?
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the generosity of his country, and he is right to draw attention to his family’s own generosity in this matter. Everyone is pulling together. The number of people who have come forward to offer their home is incredible, but I really do not think he should deprecate what the UK is offering. Some 25,000 people have already got visas. We are processing 1,000 a day. There is no upper limit to the number we can take. This is a country that has already been the most generous in taking people from Afghanistan, with 15,000 under Operation Pitting. We have 104,000 applications from the Hong Kong Chinese. This is a country that is overwhelmingly generous to people coming in fear of their lives. [Interruption.] Yes it is, and so are this Government.
I do not think anyone involved in partnering operations over the past 10 or 20 years could fail to be humbled by the extraordinary courage and commitment of the Ukrainian people in defending their country, aided and abetted by the lethal aid from this country. They are all appreciative of this Government and this Prime Minister being first out the door to deliver that. Does the Prime Minister agree that while others may now begin to tire, now is the time to double down on the aid we give to Ukraine? Actually, we might end up breaking a pretty poor Russian army and bringing peace to that part of the world, while consigning the likes of Vladimir Putin to the dustbin of history, where he belongs.
That is absolutely right, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his bravery in going to see for himself only the other day. It is right that we should double down on military defensive support in the way that we are. By the way, can anyone imagine a Labour Government, eight of whose Front Benchers voted to get rid of our nuclear deterrent—[Interruption.] Yes, they did, and recently. Can anyone imagine them doing the same? We will go on with that. What we will also do, and I hope we have the support of the Opposition in this, is ensure there is no backsliding on sanctions by any of our friends and partners around the world. In fact, we need now to ratchet up the economic pressure on Vladimir Putin, and it is certainly inconceivable that any sanctions could be taken off simply because there was a ceasefire. That would be absolutely unthinkable, in my view.
Scotland’s renewables sector is leading the world. I am grateful to the Scottish Government for all the help and support they are giving in developing that incredible resource in the North sea. By the way, I think there is also a role for hydrocarbons as we transition. We need to ensure that we have a grid that enables us to take that electricity onshore and transmit it around the country, and that is what I will be setting out in the British energy security strategy—the long-term investment that this country needs and that the parties opposite completely fail to address.
Last week, following a huge resident and parish council-led campaign, the planning application for a new mega-prison in my constituency was refused. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the proposals for that site being close to where HS2 and East West Rail cross, it is a matter of fairness that communities already suffering at the hands of the construction of big state infrastructure should not be asked to take more? Will he instruct the Ministry of Justice not to appeal that planning decision?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituency. He has made an important point about a planning matter about which I do not think I should really comment, but I am sure that the relevant Ministers will have heard him loud and clear.
If the hon. Lady is really saying that we should not have rolled out the furlough scheme at the speed that we did, I think everybody in this country understands that it was a heroic thing. I remember that, two years ago, the Opposition were yammering and clamouring for us to go faster—and we did; we produced a fantastic scheme. And yes, fraudsters will be hunted down: we have put another £100 million into tracking down fraud in this country. Some £23 billion a year was lost under Labour in fraud.
I was delighted to learn this week that 37 of the 39 state schools in the Bracknell constituency are now graded good or outstanding. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils? Does he agree that the new education White Paper offers a blueprint for our schools that we can all be proud of?
Yes, I do. I think it is a fantastic White Paper.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I think he is referring to the strategy that we have for food waste. As far as I know, we continue to support it, but I would be happy to update him by letter.
I thank the Prime Minister for his earlier remarks concerning the Donna Ockenden report into avoidable maternity deaths and injuries at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. The report makes for devastating reading, the more so because women’s voices were ignored. My constituent Hayley Matthews begged staff for a C-section throughout her 36-hour labour, but was forced into a natural birth. Her son Jack arrived blue and floppy and, within hours of his birth, he tragically died. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering heartfelt sympathies to all the families affected and grateful thanks to the 1,862 women who shared their experiences with the Ockenden review to ensure that maternity care is safer, kinder and more compassionate for the women who come after them?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I think everybody will thank the women concerned for taking up the issue in the way that they have and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to the victims and their families for what they have suffered. It is very important that people get the answers that they deserve and that we have the right approach to the issue in the future. That is why we are investing very substantially in maternity services and also, of course, very substantially in midwives and in our NHS altogether.
I do agree that people are facing a very tough time at the moment, and we have to do everything we can. I do not agree with the hon. Member’s analysis, but I think that the causes are certainly to do with the inflationary impact of the world coming out of covid, and the energy price spike is at the root of it. What we are doing is to help people with universal credit, which we have lifted by £1,000. We have helped people with the living wage, which is going up now by a record amount, and cutting taxes on working people in the way that we are. But of course we cannot do everything right now, and what we will do is ensure that we have a stronger economic performance and we have people in work. The most important thing is that we have people getting into work now in a way that was not possible—certainly would not have been possible—if we had stuck to the policies that were proposed by the Labour Opposition. That is why we have a strong economy, and that is the best recipe. It is better to be off benefits and into work, and that is what we are doing.
One of my earliest campaigns was to reopen Stafford’s Shire Hall, so I am delighted that this iconic building is finally set to reopen this summer. Can I thank the Government for providing £1.6 million in funding to create a hub for small businesses in Shire Hall, but can I also ask my right hon. Friend to help regenerate the rest of Stafford town centre and our high streets to help level up the west midlands and support our local businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for her fantastic work to reopen Shire Hall—she is a passionate campaigner for Stafford—and Stafford was awarded over £14 million lately through the future high streets fund.
No, we are absolutely dedicated to levelling up across our entire country and making sure that we reduce poverty. That is why I am proud that there are now half a million fewer kids actually in workless households, 200,000 fewer kids—200,000 fewer—in poverty and 1.3 million fewer in absolute poverty. The way we have done that is by helping people into work, and we are going to go further—investing in more work coaches, and massively increasing our training budget so that people get the skills that they need. That is our approach—helping people by getting them into work.
Today’s announcement by our serving United Kingdom judges of their withdrawal from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal is now the right decision, and I support it, as does my right hon. Friend. Does he agree with me that, on this sad day for the people of Hong Kong and at a time when the international rule of law is under unprecedented challenge, it is for us here in Britain to stand up for what is right, to be resolute in the face of tyranny and to make sure that the international rules-based order is defended at every opportunity?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I know how passionately he has campaigned on this issue. I also thank the judges in Hong Kong’s court for everything that they have been doing. Evidently, they have concluded that the constraints of the national security law make it impossible for them to continue to serve in the way they would want. I appreciate and understand their decision. It is vital that we all continue to make our points to the Chinese, as I did in my conversation with President Xi the other day, about freedom in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs. We will continue to do that.
I understand the pressure that people are under, but the best thing we can do, rather than endlessly taxing more and borrowing more, is make sure that we support people through this tough time, which we are doing, and ensure that we have a strong and growing economy in which we get people into work. We are cutting the cost of energy, but we are also taking the long-term decisions that the Labour party failed to take to invest in our energy for the future.
Today’s updated Government figures show that of 28,300 applications submitted under the sponsorship scheme by people displaced in Putin’s war, just 2,700 have been processed. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many to date of those people have actually arrived in the United Kingdom? Will he give his support to my noble Friend Lord Harrington to cut through the Home Office red tape, simplify the application process and get people into the country?
We are processing 1,000 a day. Twenty-five thousand visas have already been issued; as I just told the House, almost 200,000 families have opened their homes and their arms to Ukrainians coming in fear of their lives, and there is no limit on the scheme. I think we can be incredibly proud of what the UK is doing.
Actually, what we have done is protected pensioners so that, as a result of the triple lock, their incomes are £720 higher than they would have been had we just relied on inflation. As it is, their incomes continue to increase with inflation, and they have gone up faster and further than those of people in work. We look after elderly people and we always will.
On Monday, the Foreign Secretary agreed that in these uncertain times we need to expand our soft power capabilities, yet the Government are imminently to make a funding decision that may result in the closure of British Council country operations and a reduction in its international footprint. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that that does not happen, given how much I know he understands and appreciates the important work the British Council does?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this issue, which he has campaigned on many times, but I can tell him that the British Council, for which I have huge regard, has received a massive grant and loans to allow it to continue its activities.
Order. You will sit down, please. I hope that we have come to the end of the question.
The Chancellor is so out of touch, he is contactless. The public believe that the—[Interruption.]
Order. Shut up and be quiet—behave yourselves.
I hope that is the end of the question. I think the Prime Minister has got the gist of it, because I certainly have.
Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s style, I think it would be better in a light essay in The Guardian. What we are doing is tackling the cost of living by dealing with the spike in energy prices and making sure that we take the right long-term decisions to take this country forward—decisions that Labour completely shirked.
I welcome what the Government are doing to help, where they can, with the cost of living crisis, but in North Devon and across the south-west we have a housing crisis that needs urgent action. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to better understand the severity and complexity of our housing shortage and steps that the Government may take?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to provide local homes for local people. We totally understand that—by the way, we are building a record number of homes in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced—and that is why we have introduced higher rates of stamp duty on second homes, removed the second home discount and are using £11.5 billion to build 180,000 affordable homes across the country. It is always the Conservatives who build affordable homes—that is true—and Labour who talk about it.
Final question: Sarah Olney.
I know what is behind the hon. Member’s question: a desire to return to the jurisdiction of the European Union. We want to ensure that we use our landmark Environment Act 2021 to continue to improve the quality of our rivers, and that is what we are doing.
Order. We will let the Chamber clear before we start the statement.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Ockenden report. The independent review was set up in 2017 in response to concerns from bereaved families about maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. Its original scope was to cover the cases of 23 families, but since it began, sadly, many more families have reported concerns. Due to this tragically high number of cases and the importance of this work to patient safety, early conclusions were published in an initial report in December 2020. We accepted all the recommendations of the first report, and the NHS is now taking them forward.
Today, the second and final report has been published. This is the one of the largest inquiries relating to a single service in the history of the NHS. It looks at the experiences of almost 1,500 families from 2000 to 2019. I would like to update the House on the findings of the report, and will then turn to the actions that we are taking as a result of it.
The report paints a tragic and harrowing picture of repeated failures in care over two decades, which led to unimaginable trauma for so many people. For these families, their experience of maternity care, rather than being of moments of joy and happiness, was one of tragedy and distress. The effects of these failures were felt across families, communities and generations. The cases in the report are stark and deeply upsetting. In 12 cases where a mother died, the report concludes that in three quarters of them, the care could have been “significantly improved”. It also examined 44 cases of HIE—hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy—a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation. Two thirds of the cases featured “significant and major concerns” about the care provided to the mother. The reports also states that of almost 500 cases of stillbirth, one in four was found to give rise to major concerns about maternity care that, if managed appropriately, “might or would” have resulted in a different outcome.
When I met Donna Ockenden last week, she told me about basic oversights at every level of patient care, including in one case where important clinical information was kept on Post-it notes, which were swept into the bin by cleaners, with tragic consequences for a newborn baby and her family. In addition, there were repeated cases where the trust failed to undertake serious incident investigations; and where investigations did take place, they did not follow the standards that would have been expected.
Those persistent failings continued until as late as 2019, and multiple opportunities to address them were ignored, including by the trust board accountable for these services. Reviews from external bodies failed to identify the substandard care that was taking place, and some of the findings gave false reassurances about maternity services at the trust. The Care Quality Commission rated maternity services inadequate for safety only in 2018, which is unacceptable given the huge deficiencies in care that are outlined in the report.
The report also highlights serious issues with the culture in the trust. For instance, two thirds of staff who were surveyed reported that they had witnessed cases of bullying, and some staff members withdrew their co-operation on the report within weeks of publication. The first report has already concluded that
“there was a culture within the Trust to keep Caesarean rates low because this was perceived as the essence of good maternity care”.
Today’s report adds:
“many women thought any deviation from normality meant a Caesarean section was needed and this was then denied to them by the Trust”.
It is right that both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives have said recently that they regret their campaign for so-called normal births. It is vital, across maternity services, that we focus on safe and personalised care, in which the voice of the mother is heard throughout.
The report shows a systemic failure to listen to the families affected, many of whom had been doggedly and persistently raising issues over several years. One mother said that she felt like a
“lone voice in the wind”.
Bereaved families told the report that they were treated in a way that lacked sensitivity and empathy. Appallingly, in some cases, the trust blamed the mothers for the trauma that they had been through. In the words of Donna Ockenden, the trust
“failed to investigate, failed to learn and failed to improve”.
We entrust the NHS with our care, often when we are at our most vulnerable. In return, we expect the highest standards. I have seen in my family the brilliant care that NHS maternity services can offer, but when those standards are not met, we must act firmly, and the failures of care and compassion set out in the report have absolutely no place in the NHS.
To all the families who have suffered so greatly: I am sorry. The report clearly shows that you were failed by a service that was there to help you and your loved ones to bring life into this world. We will make the changes that the report says are needed, at both a local and national level.
I know that hon. Members and the families who have suffered would want reassurances that the individuals who are responsible for these serious and repeated failures will be held to account. I am sure that the House will understand that it is not appropriate for me to name individuals at this stage. However, I reassure hon. Members that a number of people who were working at the trust at the time of the incidents have been suspended or struck off from their professional register, and members of senior management have been removed from their posts. There is also an active police investigation, Operation Lincoln, which is looking at around 600 cases. Given that this is a live investigation, I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that I am not able to comment further on that.
Today’s report recognises that since the initial report was published in 2020, we have taken important steps to improve maternity care. That includes providing £95 million for maternity services across England to boost the maternity workforce and to fund programmes for training, development and leadership. The second report makes a series of further recommendations. It contains 66 for the local trust, 15 for the wider NHS and three for me as Secretary of State. The local trust, NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care will accept all 84 recommendations.
Earlier today, I spoke to the chief executive of the trust, who was not in post during the period examined in the report. I made it clear how seriously I take this report and the failures that were uncovered, and I reinforced the message that the recommendations must be acted on promptly, but as the report identifies, there are also wider lessons that must be learned, and it sets out a series of actions that should be considered by all trusts that provide maternity services. I have asked NHS England to write to all of those trusts, instructing them to assess themselves against these actions, and NHS England will set out a renewed delivery plan that reflects those recommendations.
I am also taking forward the specific recommendations that Donna Ockenden has asked me to. The first is on the need to further expand the maternity workforce. Just a few days ago, the NHS announced a £127 million funding boost for maternity services across England. That will bolster the maternity workforce even further, and fund programmes to strengthen leadership, retention and capital for neonatal maternity care.
Secondly, we will take forward the recommendation to create a working group, independent of the maternity transformation programme, with joint leadership from the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Finally, Donna Ockenden said that she endorses the proposals that I announced in January to create a special health authority to continue the maternity investigation programme that is run by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. Again, we will take her proposals forward, and the SHA will start its work from April next year.
I thank Donna Ockenden and her whole team for the forensic and compassionate approach that she has taken throughout this distressing inquiry. The report has given a voice at last to those families who were ignored and so grievously wronged, and it provides a valuable blueprint for safe maternity care in this country for years to come.
Finally, I pay tribute to the families whose tireless advocacy was instrumental to the review being set up in the first place. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for them to come forward and tell their stories, and the report is a testament to the courage and fortitude that they have shown in the most harrowing of circumstances.
This report is a devastating account of bedrooms that are empty, families that are bereft and loved ones taken before their time. We will act swiftly, so that no families have to go through the same pain in the future. I commend this statement to the House.
The Secretary of State is quite right that this is a very important statement, so I will offer the shadow Minister, Feryal Clark, six minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I am pleased to respond today, not just as the shadow Minister for patient safety, but as a woman and a new mother. I thank Donna Ockenden and her team for the report. I also thank the families who have come forward; we would not be here today without the persistence and resilience that they have shown for more than 20 years in their fight for justice.
Today marks an important milestone for hundreds of families who have been seeking justice. The Ockenden report lays bare the harrowing truth of what those families had to face and why their fight for justice has been such a fierce one: cries for help going unheard; parents having to try to resuscitate their children because there was no one there to help; and women and babies dying needlessly because they simply were not listened to.
The fact that women were silenced and ignored at their most vulnerable, when they were relying on the NHS to keep them safe, is shameful. No woman should have to face not knowing, when she goes into hospital to give birth, whether she and her baby will come out alive. These were not one-off or isolated incidents of negligence. This was the institutional failure of a system that failed to take up many opportunities to realise that it had a serious problem. We are where we are today because of the persistence and resilience of those families and their refusal to give up the fight to expose those failings. The only comfort we can offer them is that their voices have been heard, and that we are committing today, across this House, to ensuring that those failings are never repeated.
For far too long, patient safety issues and the voices of women have been an afterthought in health; that has led to the kind of crises that we saw in Shrewsbury. This needs to change. Patient safety must be a priority for health professionals and Ministers, so I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has today committed in full to ensuring that the local actions for learning are taken by Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, and to all the immediate and essential actions in the wider system that are recommended. Will the Secretary of State come to the House later this year to update us on the progress of those actions? The report makes it clear that a safe service cannot be run without a culture of transparency and accountability, so will he set out how he intends to ensure an open culture in the health service with a willingness to learn within maternity services and identify future failings far more quickly?
Underpinning issues in maternity care, as is the case across so much of our NHS, is workforce. Only 10 months ago, as a first-time mother, I experienced just how stretched to the limit maternity services are. The NHS is now losing midwives faster than it can recruit them. A recent CQC survey shows that almost a quarter of women were unable to get help when they needed it during labour. Hundreds of pregnant women were turned away from maternity wards last year because staff were not available to care for them. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the NHS recruits the midwives it needs? What is he doing to keep the midwives we have in post?
It is only with the necessary workforce that the NHS will be able to ensure that women receive care that meets their needs and prioritises their safety. That security and respect is all that the families who suffered so much at Shrewsbury want, and it is all that the women who put their own and their babies’ lives in the hands of the NHS want.
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. It is not often that we get to say this in this Chamber, but I agree wholeheartedly with what she has just shared with the House. She is absolutely right to talk about this as a fight for justice and to say that if these brave families had not been so persistent in coming forward with what was done to them and what went wrong, the inquiry might never have happened. She is also right to talk about institutional failure at the trust, which the first report set out in some detail and which we are seeing in much more detail today.
The hon. Lady talked, rightly, about patient safety. She will know that the Government have already set out plans to appoint a patient safety commissioner; that appointment will be made soon, but we need to do much, much more. That is why it was right to accept all the interim report’s recommendations, including seven immediate and essential actions and 27 local actions. I can tell the House that the trust has implemented all the actions set out in the interim report; that was backed at the time by £95 million in extra funding. As I said a moment ago, the final report quite rightly makes many more recommendations, which have all been accepted and which are backed by funding of at least £127 million, much of which will go to workforce.
The hon. Lady is right about the need to increase the size of the workforce, especially with respect to midwives. Last year’s acceptance figures for student nurses and midwives were, I think, the highest that the country had seen in decades, but clearly there is much more to do.
We now come to the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.
Today’s report goes beyond my darkest fears. When I commissioned it as Health Secretary in 2016, I was approached by 23 families; we have heard today that more than 200 babies might have been alive today if better care had been provided. I thank Donna Ockenden and her team for an incredibly thorough investigation. I also thank the Health Secretary for his compassionate and comprehensive response to the House today.
Donna Ockenden does not use the word “recommendation”; she talks about immediate and essential actions. What is the Secretary of State’s deadline for the implementation of those actions? That is something that every expectant mother in the country desperately wants to know.
May I gently say to the Secretary of State that while I warmly welcome more midwives and more doctors, that approach is not consistent with voting down today the Lords amendment to the Health and Care Bill that would make sure that we never have those shortages again?
Finally, I pay tribute to Richard Stanton and Rhiannon Davies and to Kayleigh and Colin Griffiths. Richard and Rhiannon came to talk to me about their daughter Kate, who died in 2009; Colin and Kayleigh’s daughter Pippa died in 2016, when I was Health Secretary. Because of the blame culture and the culture of fear in the NHS, it was left to them and many other families to fight for justice. Can this be the last time that we put that burden on the shoulders of bereaved families? Can we build a culture in the NHS that is open and transparent and that accepts that things go wrong, but is hungry to learn from mistakes so that we never again repeat the tragedies?
I very much agree. I want to acknowledge that the report ultimately took place because of my right hon. Friend’s decision to ask Donna Ockenden to do the independent review, but he is absolutely right that he, in turn, did so because of the bravery of Rhiannon Davies and Richard Stanton, of Kayleigh and Colin Griffiths and of the many other families who came to see him.
My right hon. Friend asked about the immediate and essential actions. The interim report sets out seven such actions; the trust has implemented them all, and across the NHS they are either fully or partially implemented. The final report also recommends such actions; their implementation has already begun. Of course, we have just received the report, but I have asked for a timetable of when it will all be done. I want to see it done as quickly as possible.
My right hon. Friend’s point about workforce is very important. I hope he welcomes the fact that, for the first time, the NHS has been asked to set out a 15-year workforce plan.
I join colleagues across the House in thanking all the families who have bravely come forward to share their experiences, particularly Kayleigh, Colin, Rhiannon and Richard, whose persistence has led to the review. I hope that women and babies in Shropshire, Telford and the Wrekin and across the UK will be safer in future as a result of their bravery.
I thank Donna Ockenden and her team for their thoroughness in reviewing so many tragic cases. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that this can never be allowed to happen again and that the deaths of these 201 babies must not be in vain. This must be a turning point for maternity services in England.
Donna Ockenden has endorsed the findings of the Health and Social Care Committee and recommended that an immediate investment of £200 million to £350 million per annum is required to keep women safe. I welcome the Secretary of State’s guarantees that the immediate and essential actions will be implemented, but may I ask whether he can commit the additional resources recommended by Donna Ockenden today?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I assure her that constituents throughout Shropshire, Telford and the Wrekin, and indeed families across England, will be safer as a result of those brave families coming forward and this report.
On resources, the hon. Lady will have heard me talk about the £95 million given at the time of the interim report, plus the £127 million given for maternity services in the past few days. We will keep that under review.
I thank the Secretary of State for his very welcome statement and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), for her excellent work. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) for everything that he has done for patient safety; he has led the way, and I am so grateful.
Does the Secretary of State believe that what we have seen at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust is indicative of a culture in which senior management were unaccountable, no one felt responsible, failings were minimised, poor care was normalised and women’s voices were not heard? Will he do everything he can to increase the accountability of senior management across the NHS so that that institutional blindness can never again cause such harm to those who put their trust in the NHS?
Let me first thank my hon. Friend for her approach and her role in helping to make the report happen, and for the way in which she has worked with me, and with Ministers in my Department, on this most important of issues. She is right to talk about the importance of culture, especially given that, as the report makes clear, the voices of women were not heard time and again. I want to reassure her that we will implement all the report’s recommendations, but, more broadly, that women’s voices will be at the heart of the upcoming women’s health strategy.
Today is an important day for maternity safety, and we rightly pay tribute to the families directly affected, so many of whom have given evidence to the Ockenden review.
James Titcombe, who lost his baby son Joshua during the Morecambe Bay maternity scandal, has said that one of the most harmful experiences for the Morecambe Bay families was
“seeing influential people in the maternity world diminish… the…findings”
of the investigation report. I join James Titcombe in saying that we must not allow that to happen with this report. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the bereaved families are allowed a process of truth, reconciliation and healing, rather than any denial of the truth of what took place.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and she is right to raise the importance of the Morecambe Bay investigation. That report, which I believe was completed in 2015, contained 44 recommendations. Eighteen recommendations that were specifically for the trust have been implemented, and the 26 for the wider NHS are in the course of being implemented.
I thank my right hon. Friend for both the tone and the substance of his response to this devastating report. Let me also add my voice to the consensus throughout the House that the way in which this is handled is vital, and that we must ensure that the NHS takes Donna Ockenden’s recommendations on board. She and her team of more than 90 experienced clinicians are properly being thanked for the work that they have done. They have painstakingly reviewed these cases going back some 20 years, which must have been harrowing for them, as of course it has been for all the families so tragically affected who have had to relive their tragedy.
In particular, I want to praise the courage and tenacity of Rhiannon Davies and Richard Stanton, who were my constituents when they lost their baby Kate in truly awful, and tragically avoidable, circumstances. It was they who kept pressing for answers from Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. That led me to take them to see the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who agreed to launch this review five years ago. They are no longer my constituents, and I understand that they are now understandably keen to focus their attention on their family, having been living with this trauma since 2009.
I have some questions for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Does he recognise that the Ockenden review has raised fundamental questions for maternity services across the NHS over the culture of so-called normal birth, and that a focus on targets, under successive Governments, rather than on patient outcomes, can distort clinical best practice and, tragically, patient safety? Following his discussion with the trust’s current chief executive, which he has mentioned, is he satisfied that the current management and clinical teams have accepted the “local actions for learning” recommendations in the initial Ockenden report, and are committed to studying and rapidly implementing all further recommendations specific to the trust? Finally, what reassurance can he give the thousands of expectant mothers in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin that the maternity services there are safe, and that patient safety is paramount?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has worked with the Department and with my predecessor in representing his constituents throughout this investigation. He referred to “so-called normal birth” in his question, and he was right to do so: the only normal birth is a safe birth, which is what the NHS should be working towards, but that did not happen in this trust. The report has made that absolutely clear. Just as important are its recommendations, including some for my right hon. Friend’s local NHS trust. I can reassure him—partly as a result of my conversation earlier today with the current chief executive—that all the recommendations in the interim report have been implemented by his local trust, and all those in this report have been accepted.
Let me start by paying tribute to all the families affected, and thanking Donna Ockenden and her team for their recommendations.
More midwives are leaving the profession than are joining it. We cannot run equally safe services in all NHS trusts without appropriate staffing levels. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will be able to give further details of what the Government are doing to ensure that there are safe staffing levels in all trusts to provide care for pregnant women.
The hon. Lady is right to talk about the importance of having the right workforce, and certainly more midwives. I can tell her than last year there were 30,185 acceptances for nursing and midwifery courses, the highest number in a decade. Recruitment is being supported by some of the extra funding that I have talked about today. The Government have established grants enabling students to take courses, and, where appropriate, are also focusing on international recruitment.
This courageous report makes clear that keeping caesarean section rates artificially low contributed to babies dying. I am pleased that, following a recommendation from the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee, NHS trusts are no longer being assessed on performance for their caesarean rates, but will the Secretary of State go further? Will he ensure that we look at where caesarean section rates remain artificially low in trusts, so that this dangerous “normal births” ideology is eradicated from the NHS once and for all?
The answer is yes.
I, too, pay tribute to the families named in what is a truly shocking report.
I am sorry, but I have not read all the recommendations, so may I ask the Secretary of State whether, as well as identifying issues relating to the culture in this particular trust, the report includes recommendations concerning governance for boards? Boards have a key role in holding their executives to account. Will he be writing to them to make them aware of their responsibilities in that regard? May I also ask him what the implications are for the national clinical audit of the confidential inquiries into maternal and infant deaths?
If I may, I will write to the hon. Lady about the national clinical audit. As for her important point about boards, the report refers to their importance and the importance of ensuring that the people on them are vetted, understand their responsibilities, and have the information that they need in order to fulfil those responsibilities. In, I think, 2014 or thereabouts, the Care Quality Commission changed the rules relating to NHS trust board members, requiring them to meet a new “fit and proper” test.
It is impossible to think about these lost babies, lost lives, and damaged families without becoming very upset and then very, very angry. However, I know from the work I have been doing with midwives and families, mums and dads, in the last six months or so that this does not involve just one trust. We have thousands of midwives marching on the streets. During the pandemic, mums were taking to social media, feeling that they were being marginalised and their voices were not being heard. Midwives tell me that they did not want to speak out before because they did not want to frighten the mums and dads in their charge, and that is why they often feel that they are not heard themselves. So we have to help them. How will the NHS and the Government reassure pregnant women and help the midwives to reassure them, given that all this is in the news at the moment, and how can we prevent other maternity services from failing?
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. Hundreds of thousands of births are delivered through the NHS each year, and the vast majority are completely safe, as I myself have found and as many other Members have found, including my hon. Friend. What we have heard about today is what happens when it goes wrong, and goes tragically wrong, but especially when that was avoidable.
My hon. Friend was right to talk about the importance of considering other trusts. This report focuses on one trust, but we know that there was a problem in Morecambe Bay and that an independent investigation is taking place in East Kent. There is action to be taken by all trusts. That is why I think it is so important for the NHS to act on the recommendations for the wider NHS, and for me to act on the recommendations for my Department. We will certainly be taking action and so will the NHS.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Not one person could help but be moved by that account or by his sincerity in dealing with this horrific situation. I also want to commend all those involved in the Ockenden report for their work on this issue. Our hearts break for the little babies, the mums and dads and the family units who have been impacted by these horrendous practices, and today we remember and commend the bravery of the families who had the courage to speak out. Given the findings and the negative cloud that will hang over all those who work in maternity services, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to thank the maternity teams throughout this United Kingdom who, day in and day out, bring new life into this world in a compassionate and professional manner? I am thinking of the wonderful services at Craigavon Area Hospital in my own constituency. I know that those who work there will be saddened today by what they are hearing in the report, so I trust that the Secretary of State can commend them for the work that they do.
I join the hon. Lady in warmly thanking and commending the work of maternity teams throughout the United Kingdom for what they do, day in and day out, especially over the last two years of the pandemic, which has probably made it even harder than normal. I know that they will all welcome this report because they will want to see the very changes that are set out in it.
I would also like to thank the families for shining a spotlight on this. One of my children suffered from oxygen deprivation at birth, through what I now know were failings in my care. I was lucky, though, in my third pregnancy. By sheer fluke, the GP practice I was registered with had a wonderful community midwife. She was with me through my pregnancy and through the birth of my daughter and she took care of me afterwards. I was listened to, I was supported and I felt safe. I thank my right hon. Friend for taking on board these recommendations, but would he agree that every woman deserves that continuity of care? It can make a profound difference in outcomes for families, because they will have somebody by their side who understands them and they will not have to go through their medical history over and over again, often missing out vital pieces. We should have loftier ambitions. Will my right hon. Friend try to make sure that every woman has the opportunity to have their own midwife with them all the way?
Yes, I agree very much with my hon. Friend and I thank her for sharing with the House her own valuable experiences. She is right to talk about the importance of continuity of care, and that is part of our maternity transformation plan.
I thank the Secretary of State for the report, although it is sad that we have to have a report such as this in front of the House. I want to highlight a point and check whether we can do something about it. There are many good people working in our NHS, and the majority of people are probably there for the right reasons, but, unfortunately, due to the culture of institutional blindness that has been mentioned, or to bullying, they cannot whistleblow, and whistleblowers are not being protected. As a consequence, more and more of these types of reports are going to be required, not only on maternity services, because whistleblowers are being targeted and put down. I would ask that whistleblowers be protected and given the opportunity to have their concerns understood and heard.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the reasons we are creating the special health authority that I referred to earlier is to provide that independence, and also more protection for members of staff to come forward. For example, members of staff will be able for the first time to report things they are concerned about directly to the SHA, and it will have the right to investigate.
Many members from across the House have mentioned the incredible bravery of all the parents who fought for their babies, particularly Rhiannon Davies. Rhiannon is originally from mid-Wales, although she now lives in a constituency across the border. There are many women who live in mid-Wales who need to access the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, and I am concerned that they will hear about today’s report and be worried about the care that they will be receiving over the next few days. So, as well as implementing the Ockenden review in full, will the Secretary of State please give his reassurance to those women in Wales who need to travel across the border for maternity services?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I can add that Donna Ockenden, in doing her work, looked at cases from Wales as well. The issue that my hon. Friend has raised has also been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), and I can give them both that assurance.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the obvious compassion that he has for all those involved, and for his support of the Ockenden report. I want to place on record my sympathy with all those parents who still grieve their loss, and for whom no report will never, ever soothe the pain. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the report into this dreadful spate of deaths will be made available to all hospital trusts across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to ensure that lessons are learned and that the 84 recommendations of the Ockenden report and any mechanisms of prevention can be understood and put in place UK-wide?
Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are more than happy to reach out to the Northern Ireland health service and to work proactively with it on improving maternity services in Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and all the many Members present who have contributed to the process that has led to this report. Following the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), I have been working with my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), who sadly cannot be here today as he has important constituent business, to look at the cross-border nature of this inquiry in relation to his constituency, my constituency of Clwyd South, my hon. Friend’s constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire and others on the Welsh borders. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that there will be many concerned residents in Wales, alongside the victims outlined in this report, who need representation on this important issue?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, who cannot be with us today, the reassurance that they seek.
My right hon. Friend said in his statement that the Care Quality Commission rated these maternity services inadequate for safety only in 2018, which is unacceptable. Can he assure the House that the CQC inspections are now rigorous enough that failings are picked up much earlier to prevent this type of thing from happening again?
I can assure my hon. Friend that there have already been a number of changes in the CQC’s approach, but I cannot give an assurance that it has changed enough, because this report has only just been published and it is important to me to follow through and ensure that, where relevant, the independent regulators are also making the changes set out in the report. To respond to an earlier question from the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), she was right to suggest that there should be an update from Ministers on progress following this report, and I will ensure that that happens. That picks up on this question about the CQC as well.
This House is united in our heartache over the lives lost and the lives destroyed, and over the women who were silenced and told that birthing had happened for centuries so they should shut up, or that it should happen as though in some sort of movie. I am afraid that, as an MP, I have concluded that NHS bureaucracy has a systemic problem of sexism, and I ask the Secretary of State to keep an eye on this nationally. I remember, after 36 hours of labour, being rushed to the operating theatre and being denied a C-section, then being rushed back an hour later and having a C-section, but only because my husband had noticed that my son’s heart rate had plummeted to almost non-existent. We must also prevent the unforgivable and unscientific locking out of loved ones across all health services. It compromises care and it is still happening in hospitals around the country across different types of care.
I thank my hon. Friend for saying what she has said in the way that she did, and also for talking about her own experience. She is absolutely right to emphasise the point that the NHS is there to care for anyone regardless of their gender, but when it comes to women in particular, I hope she agrees that this is precisely why the Government are right to want to set out—as we will do shortly and for the first time ever—a detailed women’s health strategy.
Parole System: Public Protection
Today I am publishing the root and branch review of the parole system, and copies have been deposited in the Library.
I start by paying tribute to the chief executive officer and the chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales, Martin Jones and Caroline Corby, and to all the staff who work so tirelessly to discharge their important responsibilities. They are dedicated and committed public servants.
Before I address the detail of the statement, and with your forbearance, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will update the House on this morning’s news. In the light of the Parole Board’s direction to release Tracey Connelly, and having carefully read the decision, I have decided to apply to the Parole Board seeking its reconsideration.
More generally, the role of the Parole Board in deciding on the appropriateness of releasing a criminal offender from prison, including many convicted of very serious violent and sexual offences, is clearly of paramount importance to protecting the public and to maintaining and sustaining public confidence in our justice system. It is the first duty of Government to protect the public.
In recent years, a number of decisions to release offenders who committed heinous crimes have led to disquiet, concern and, regrettably, an erosion of public confidence. Take the case of John Worboys, who is serving a discretionary life sentence for rape and other sexual offences. The Parole Board’s decision in January 2018 to release him on licence caused deep concern among his victims and the wider public. It was subject to a successful legal challenge, after which the Crown Prosecution Service successfully prosecuted him for attacking four further women.
I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the case of Colin Pitchfork, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. The Parole Board decided to release Pitchfork in 2021, and it rejected the challenge by the then Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). The understandable public anxiety was further compounded when Pitchfork was recalled to prison just two months after release for approaching women in breach of his licence conditions.
I make a broader point that in these kinds of cases, and in many others that do not attract the same level of media attention or public interest, victims feel their trauma and raw fear are neither recognised nor understood. Likewise, the public inevitably begin to question the reliability of decision making when serious offenders are recalled to prison for breaches of their licence or for committing further offences on release.
To give the House a sense of scale, in 2020-21 the Parole Board’s annual report stated that 27 offenders went on to be charged with a serious further offence following release directed by the Parole Board panel. There were 40 cases of serious further offences being charged in each of the preceding two years. Placed in context, it is fair to say this is only a fraction of all cases, but more than once a fortnight an offender goes on to commit a serious offence while subject to supervision.
At present, victims who wish to challenge a decision by the Parole Board to release a prisoner have the option of asking the Justice Secretary to apply for the decision to be reconsidered, which is an important innovation that I exercised today for a person convicted in the harrowing case of Baby P. There have been 39 interventions since the challenge mechanism was set up two years ago, with four leading to a change in the release decision.
Following the review published today, I believe the case for reform is clear and made out. In arriving at this conclusion, it is worth pausing to acknowledge the shift in the Parole Board’s approach over time. The statutory test was established in 1991 and states
“The Parole Board must not give a direction”—
“unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”
It is clear from this that the overriding test focuses on public protection. However, in the absence of further guidance from Parliament, the way in which the release test has been interpreted and applied over time has shifted, moving away from Parliament’s original intention. In fact, as early as the Bradley judgment in 1991, the High Court concluded:
“The Parole Board have to carry out a balancing exercise between the legitimate conflicting interests of both prisoner and public.”
To summarise, the statutory test has morphed over time from a strict public protection test to a balancing exercise between, on the one hand, the responsibility of the state to protect the public and, on the other hand, the rights of the prisoner. Whatever the rights and wrongs, that was palpably not the original intention of Parliament.
I make it clear that I am not criticising the courts, which have sought to apply a generic statutory test without more prescriptive guidance from Parliament, nor am I criticising members of the Parole Board, as I hope I have made clear. It is worth saying that, contrary to public perception, it is often fiendishly difficult to come to a reliable assessment of an offender’s risk many years after their original crimes. Although psychiatric assessments and social science can offer guidance, risk assessments in such cases are inherently uncertain and imprecise. We need to be more honest and open about that in our public debate.
In any case, I believe the focus in this critical decision making has become adrift from its original moorings. This Government will again anchor Parole Board decision making on the cardinal principle of public protection. When it comes to assessing the risk to victims and public safety, we will introduce a precautionary principle to reinforce public confidence in the system. In cases involving those who have committed the most serious crimes, we will introduce a ministerial check on release decisions, exercised by the Justice Secretary.
The package of reforms published today will strengthen the focus on public protection at every stage. First, we will revise the statutory test for release and replace the current approach that balances the rights of dangerous offenders against public safety with an overriding focus on public protection, by providing in primary legislation further detailed criteria for the application of the statutory test.
Secondly, we will make sure that the Parole Board is better equipped to make credible and realistic assessments of risk. It is striking that, as of last year, only 5% of all Parole Board panel members come from a law enforcement background. Again, I make no criticism of the current panel members, but that is a significant deficit. I believe the deficit is wrong, and our reforms will ensure that the people we charge with making finely balanced assessments of future risk have greater first-hand operational experience of protecting the public from serious offenders. We will change this imbalance by mandating the Parole Board to recruit more members with operational law enforcement experience, and the Ministry of Justice will run a recruitment campaign to bolster its numbers. Critically, in Parole Board cases involving the top-tier cohort of serious violent and sexual offenders, we will require by law that at least one of the three panel members has a law enforcement background.
The third key reform is that, for the top-tier cohort of high-risk offenders who have committed the most serious offences, we will introduce ministerial oversight of Parole Board decisions to release such offenders back into the community, based on our assessment of the dangerousness of the offender, the risk of serious further offending and public confidence. These top-tier offenders will comprise those serving sentences for murder, rape, terrorism and causing or allowing the death of a child. In those cases, we will make two specific changes. The Parole Board will be able to refer a case to the Justice Secretary if it cannot confidently conclude whether, on the evidence, the statutory test for release has been met. In addition, we will introduce ministerial oversight over any decision to release any offender in the top-tier cohort of serious offenders. Under our reforms, in that top tier of cases the Justice Secretary will have the power to refuse release, subject to judicial challenge, on very clearly prescribed grounds, in the upper tribunal. I believe that is warranted as an extra check and safeguard to protect the public. I have not yet ruled out entirely an alternative model that could establish a three-person panel chaired by the Justice Secretary with the same power to refuse release, subject to judicial review in the normal way. We will consider further detail of the mechanism in order to strike the most effective balance.
We are making these reforms because the concept of risk is notoriously difficult to assess in these kinds of cases. We are doing it because the public expect their safety to be the overriding consideration and because, ultimately, it involves a judgment call about public protection, and the public expect Ministers to take responsibility for their safety. Let me be equally clear that there is no such thing as a risk-free society; we cannot guarantee that no one released from prison will go on to commit a serious crime. Let us be very clear about that as we have a more honest debate about the assessment of risk. Nevertheless, I believe that these measures are necessary to reinforce public safety and public confidence, and we will legislate for them as soon as possible. I should also say that we will do so alongside our proposed Bill of Rights, to ensure that the will of Parliament and that focus on public protection is not undermined by the Human Rights Act. Indeed, our reforms to parole yet again highlight the compelling case for a Bill of Rights.
Our fourth reform will increase victim participation in parole hearings, thereby delivering on this Government’s manifesto commitment. I recognise that parole decisions will be immensely and acutely traumatic moments for many victims, as they are forced to remember, go through and revisit the ordeal and suffering that they have already been though. Some will not wish to be involved, whereas others will want their voices to be heard, and I believe they should have that right. So we will give victims the right to attend a parole hearing in full, for the first time, should they wish to do so. In addition, we will require the board to take into account submissions made by victims and allow victims to ask questions through those submissions. The voice of victims will be at the centre of the process, not just some lingering afterthought.
Finally, although separate from parole decision making, similar considerations of risk and public concern have arisen in the context of decisions to transfer prisoners to prisons in open conditions. That is why in December 2021 I changed the process to introduce a ministerial check on such decisions, guided by similar principles to those that I have already set out. That is what led to my decision this month to reject the Parole Board’s recommendation to move Steven Ling, who raped and killed a woman, to an open prison. I declined the move in the interest of public protection and public confidence.
In sum, our reforms will ensure that those offenders who present the highest risk to public safety are reviewed more rigorously, with additional ministerial oversight. Protecting the public is the Government’s top priority. The proposals in this review will reinforce public safety. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement earlier today. It is hugely timely, given the disturbing news about the potential release of Baby P’s killer. I fully support the Secretary of State in seeking a review of that. In broad terms, I welcome his statement too. It is crucial that public protection is paramount and that victims are right at the heart of the criminal justice system. Currently, too many victims feel that their views are not taken sufficiently into account, either in parole decisions or in sentencing, and that leads directly to public safety concerns, which must be taken more seriously. Labour will put public safety at the core of our contract with the British people. Sadly, the same cannot be said of this Government.
It is less than two months since the convicted sex abuser Paul Robson walked out of a low-category open prison in Lincolnshire. After he escaped, the public were warned that Robson was a serious danger to women and children. He clearly should never have been in a low-security prison in the first place. The Parole Board made that recommendation, but it was the Secretary of State who approved it. He or his predecessors already had the necessary powers, they just did not use them. So what will stop him making serious mistakes like that again when he exercises his new check and oversight powers in, potentially, hundreds more cases? Labour wants victims to have the right to make a new personal statement saying how they would feel if the prisoner is released. We would like any assessment of the risk to the public to include the risk of re-traumatising the victim, and to prevent released prisoners from living near their victim if that is against the victim’s wishes. Will the Secretary of State consider those additional proposals?
The appalling decision to release the multiple rapist John Worboys was only stopped after the Centre for Women’s Justice sued the Government, using rights established by the last Labour Government. Sir Peter Gross’s review made sensible proposals to improve these rights, including the UK’s margin of appreciation over interpretations we would all object to. But the Secretary of State will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if he uses that concern as an excuse to take away British rights that protect British people from dangerous criminals, as they did in that case. Too many victims of crime do not get a say over what happens to criminals because those criminals are never prosecuted in the first place. That is because this Conservative Government cut 21,000 police officers and still have not replaced them, despite imposing the highest rates of personal taxation for 70 years —that is 21,000 people with law enforcement experience that his party sacked, whom he might now approach to sit on parole boards, as he suggests.
The Secretary of State spoke about rape cases in this statement, but only 1.5% of reported rape cases ever make it to court. Those that do now take more than 1,000 days, on average, before the trial starts—these are the longest delays in British legal history. What message does he think that sends about public safety and public protection? Under this Government, prosecution rates for crimes including burglary, robbery, car crime and fraud are so low that they have, in effect, been decriminalised. There are so few police left that victims are told to fill in a form online and hardly any of them ever hear anything again. It is no wonder that the Government stand accused of going soft on these crimes. Does he recognise that letting criminals get away with crime damages public safety and erodes confidence in the justice system, which is something he is telling us this afternoon that he wants to strengthen? The Victims’ Commissioner has called on the Government to establish a new victims’ right to review. That would give victims the power to challenge decisions by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute or to drop prosecutions. The Secretary of State did not mention that in his statement, so will he tell us whether he intends to introduce proposals along those lines in future?
Public protection requires victims to be active participants throughout the criminal justice process, including in parole decisions. Their insights strengthen public safety and public confidence in the system. Today’s statement is a step forward and it recognises some of the Government’s mistakes, but it could have been bigger.
Let me start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his support for the decision taken today in the Tracey Connelly case. I think he also gave wholesale backing to the reforms I set out in my statement, which is important. I want to welcome what I therefore hope will be cross-party support when we come to legislate for them; he cannot support the aims and then not will the means, and I hope that that becomes clear as we take the proposals through the House.
The hon. Gentleman asked about absconds, which is an issue of significant concern. I should say to him that between 2009-10 and today, the level of absconds from prisons has fallen to a third of the level it was under the last Labour Government. He might want to think a little about that before he makes unfounded assertions.
In fairness, the hon. Gentleman did ask about the case of Shane Farrington, who absconded on 24 March but was rearrested on 26 March. He is ineligible for a return to open conditions for two years. The hon. Gentleman made a point about our being empowered to do something; actually, that took place in October and I changed the rules in December, as I have made clear to the House.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the role of victims. We are making important changes and I welcome his support for them. I gently point out that, even before the spending review, the level of victims funding was three times the level it was at under the Labour Government. He talks about victims; our record is infinitely better, but we are restless to do far more.
More generally, the history of the reforms we are undertaking took place on Labour’s watch, because in 2008 Labour gave up the power to block the release of prisoners who had been sentenced to more than 15 years and then legislated to make the changes—in fairness, they were forced on that Government by the Human Rights Act—permanent. As a result, the number of those recalled on life licence skyrocketed, going up almost sevenfold. The hon. Gentleman should, then, have a little more humility about where the problem came from.
The hon. Gentleman criticised our approach to the Bill of Rights, but it is clear that we cannot pursue the reforms I have set out and reverse the challenges that were made under the Human Rights Act without our Bill of Rights. Again, the question for the Labour party is going to be whether it just wills the ends or is willing to back the means.
Last month, I picked up my copy of the Daily Mirror, as I do, and read through it. I read that the hon. Gentleman had said that under the previous Labour leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), Labour had appeared to care
“more about criminals than their victims”.
That is a greater measure of humility, but the hon. Gentleman should take a bit of responsibility for his record. He and the shadow Cabinet voted against extra funding for more police officers. They voted against the tougher sentences for dangerous offenders in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—the kind of thing that would protect victims and the public. I am glad that, on this issue at least, the hon. Gentleman is showing that he is willing to support measures that will stand up for victims and protect the public. The proof of the pudding will be in how the Opposition vote when all the measures come before the House.
The statement was excellent. My right hon. Friend is clearly revelling in an area of policy in which he has a great deal of expertise. One aspect of which I did not hear mention was the concept of punishment. Some offences, particularly the sort we are dealing with in this context, are absolutely heinous. It baffles the public as to why, for example, someone who led a home invasion in the New Forest that resulted in the burning alive of an entire family, although not until after the woman had been repeatedly raped, should be considered for release at the end of what is admittedly a long sentence. Most people would feel that people forfeit their right to liberty when they commit offences of that gravity. Where does punishment fit into all this?
I totally understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes. In truth, parole is about risk and, rightly, public protection. Either the tariff or the overall sentence should deal with the element of punishment, rather than parole. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know that whether it was Harper’s law, Tony’s law or the wider reforms to sentencing that we are making in the PCSC Bill, we have strengthened sentencing, in the teeth of opposition from Opposition Members.
In fairness, I do need to draw a distinction in respect of the reforms I have set out: they are really about public protection and the amorphous concept of risk in these cases. That itself also goes to the issue of public confidence in relation to the tariff and the punishment element that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Both are important, but with parole we focus on risk. I say that because I want to be clear that we are not adding another sentence on top of a sentence. The question, from the point at which an offender becomes eligible for parole, is whether they satisfy the statutory criteria. Is it safe to release them, or do they present an ongoing risk to public protection? That is the core focus of the reforms I have announced today, but I heed my right hon. Friend’s wider point.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the broad thrust of his recommendations. I notice that the second reform deals with the assessment of risk. The Secretary of State’s proposal is to employ more people with a law and order background, which I am quite happy to accept. I also notice that the report by the charity Justice published in January this year recommended:
“Enhancing the Parole Board’s programme of training to include”—
among other things—
“critical analyses of offending behaviour programmes and risk management tools”.
Does the Secretary of State have any plans to take that recommendation on board?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and reasonable question. We will look at everything on training. The truth is that the members of the Parole Board come with a vast depth of experience; my question is whether we have the range right. Psychiatrists and psychologists have a critical role to play, and judges and lawyers inform the process, but if we say that our overriding focus is public protection and we have finely balanced questions of risk in relation to people who have committed a so-called index offence many years previously, I would have thought that, particularly for top-tier cases, the public would want to know that the grizzled police officer, for example, who has seen such cases before and knows the pattern of behaviour is also there to provide that dimension of critical thinking.
The hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about critical thinking. We need to make sure that the Parole Board panels, particularly for the serious, top-tier cohort, have a broad diversity of experience so that we can take a precautionary approach and protect the public.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and continue to be impressed by how he and the Ministry of Justice are gripping so many complex justice matters all at once. This is about not only public safety but the perception of public safety. The public rightly care about law and order. I hear strong words from those on the Opposition Front Bench, but we can see from the lack of turnout among Labour MPs that they prefer to politick on this issue rather than to do the hard graft of scrutiny.
On scrutiny, I really welcome that my right hon. Friend is putting victims at the heart of Parole Board decisions and allowing them input. Will he say a little more about how the Parole Board has taken to those proposals? How can we support victims as they go through that process? Some of them will find those steps distressing even if they want to take them.
I thank my hon. Friend for her tenacity on these issues. She makes the same point as the one my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made about public confidence. There is no escaping that, particularly if we think of the history of parole and licence conditions and of how we ended up with life terms after the abolition of the death penalty. The public need to have confidence that sentences match the crime and that their safety is of paramount importance.
My hon. Friend asked about how we will help victims through the process; that is critical, because it must be gruelling and traumatic for them. I know from the consideration that I have given the matter and from the evidence I have seen how difficult it will be. We have already made some improvements in the process for victims: in 2018, we introduced written decision summaries to improve transparency for victims; in 2019, we introduced the reconsideration mechanism, which I exercised today; and in 2021, we announced our intention to enable public hearings and for victims to be able to attend them as observers, and we are now giving them a much fuller role, as I explained in my statement. On top of that, of course, is the statutory release test. When the Parole Board considers that test, it will take clear account of victims’ submissions and victims will be able to ask questions through their submissions.
I thank the Lord Chancellor for the statement; I am encouraged by the steps he has introduced today to address what one victim said to me was a “reprehensible” parole system. That lady contacted me after the murderer of her son was released and she saw him in the local Tesco. She received no warning that he had been released early. Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that the legislation will include a legal obligation to inform victims and their close family? Will he be in touch with the Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the legislation proposed for this place that can also be introduced in Northern Ireland?
The root and branch review will set out all the victims’ rights in the process. The hon. Gentleman will be able to see that. Copies are now available in the House. Of course we respect the devolved settlements on this, but we are always willing to engage with the devolved Administrations around cross-cutting issues and those of common concern.
The public will rightly expect that their protection is the overriding concern when serious offenders are assessed either for release by the Parole Board or, indeed, for transfer to an open prison, a subject on which my right hon. Friend touched. I know from my own time as non-executive director at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service that open prisons can be an extremely important part of an offenders’ rehabilitation, especially at the end of a very long sentence. We have seen recent cases where the current test has clearly not worked effectively. Does my right hon. Friend agree that time in an open prison should always be regarded as a privilege, certainly never an automatic right? Will he confirm that the measures that he has already introduced, and that he is going on to introduce later today, will result in a more cautious approach that will make sure that the public is always safe?
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I do not think that there is a trade-off. In fact the two things go together: we want to protect the public as well as identify those who can be released into open conditions or into society—those who are ready to play the right role, to reintegrate back into society, to work, to look after their families and to stay clean of drugs. All of those things go together. Ultimately, our objective is to protect the public, drive down crime and reduce reoffending.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for engaging with me over my one-punch awareness campaign, something about which I am deeply passionate. Victim support is at the very heart of that campaign, because, as we all know, the victims of crime and their families do not stop suffering the moment the crime stops being committed; they can suffer for months, years and even the lifetime that follow. That is why the victims of crime need to be at the very heart of our criminal justice system to ensure that they receive the support, protection and reassurance they need. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these proposals will improve victim support and public protection, particularly for victims of the most serious crimes?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tenacious campaign and say that I know how difficult that must be for her. None the less, it is very important, and she brings a huge amount of experience, particularly personal experience, to the Chamber and to the changes that we are making. I agree with what she has said. I have set out for the House the changes that we are making for victims in relation to the parole decision-making process, but they are only one element of a much broader strategy, and we will, of course, be introducing a victims’ law. Again, I hope the whole House can rally around that, so that victims feel that they are front and centre of this, that they are listened to, that they are taken into account, and that they are part of the criminal justice system, not an appendix to it.
When Paul Robson escaped from the North Sea Camp open prison in my constituency, the sudden presence of this violent rapist in the community was deeply traumatic not just for his victims, but for all those people who live in and around the area that the prison occupies. By definition, although the Parole Board does immensely difficult work, the fact that he absconded means that he was in the wrong place. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that what he has announced today makes it far less likely for a convict such as Paul Robson to be in those conditions and to place the public at risk in the way that he did when he absconded?
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. The changes that we made in December should give him some reassurance. There is no risk-free approach here. What we do is try to create safeguards to mitigate as best we can while maintaining a free society. I also note that, under successive Conservative Governments, the number of absconds has fallen, from 296 in 2009-10 to 101 in 2020-21—a third of the level. We have the security right, but we will continue to make sure that we reinforce it.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. Does he agree that, in those most serious of cases, the public do not expect politicians to throw up their hands and say, “Well, it was a decision for the Parole Board”? They expect them, as the ones accountable for keeping them safe, to step in and do so because it is their No.1 job.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On that decision making, the frustration is that if we delegate from this place or from accountable Ministers, particularly when we are talking about judgment calls, not things that require a purely technocratic or scientific approach—psychiatry and psychology can only take us so far—the public feel that we have abdicated our responsibility. We are taking back control to provide a safeguard in those high-risk cases, and that is exactly what the public already expect of us.